Y-Job? Generation Y Hates Cars, Experts Say

July 7, 2010

Car Awash?

Well, not quite hate...  In Milton Bradley's Game of Life, you get a car and then drive down Life's highway.  Day of reckoning:  Ford's Sheryl Connelly and author William Draves say Generation Y isn't car crazy.  They argue that data show the automobile no longer symbolizes freedom.   Downward trends: percent of teens with driver's licenses; share of miles driven by Americans 21 to 31.  This suggests America's automotive love affair is over, dead.

Blame it on the digital revolution says Draves.  He claims that telecommuting is displacing both cars and public transportation.  Connelly says there are a "lot more toys" competing for hard-earned dollars.  Others cite the current economic jolt, environmental concerns and a resurgence of urban living--bad omens for the U.S. auto industry.

Their data are convincing.  But are we certain we're becoming more like Driving Miss Daisy and less like Eat My Dust?   This is an interpretive puzzle.  Many study cultural trends through number crunching.  That's useful, but it might lead us to an inaccurate understanding of how people live with cars.

Humans aren't machines.  They fabricate real and imaginary worlds.  The symbolic meaning of "automobility," therefore, might not be found in statistics.  For instance, we might know more about Gen Y by participating in their lives, constructing an accurate map of their language, customs and values.  In a sense, that's what experts say they've done.  What have they discovered?  Well, they say today's cars lack excitement; they're too complex.  For example, one expert wagged that because late-model cars have computers, young people cannot fix them.  So, youth are driven to play with iPhones and social media.

Excuse me?  Last time I checked, my Generation Y coworkers are practically welded to computerized gadgets.  They cannot leave or stay at home without them.  When I showed one car-show going youth my 1972 VW's computer socket...yes, computer diagnostics were available back in the automotive Stone Age, he wanted to know how one plugged in a scanner.  When I explained you hooked up a dwell meter and strobe light, he nearly fainted, as if I had handed him a rotary dial phone.  He said, "how can you fix a car without trouble codes!"

Others speculate that new cars cost too much.  They say there was a time when any youngster could walk into the new car dealer and drive out with V8 muscle.  Excuse me?  Fantasy!  Back in the days when I made $1.25 an hour, a new car was beyond my means.  Even a "cheap" Toyota or VW, two cars that wrestled away a healthy chunk of Detroit's new car sales, were made of "unobtainium."  My friends got their wheels from that great American source of wealth, their parents.  And I'd say that's still how many get theirs.

I'd have to agree that registration fees, insurance and other costs associated with operating cars have curbed automotive enthusiasm.  Economic factors probably drive Gen Y to alter previous car-use patterns.  For instance, my college-age students often borrow the family car.   My late-teen niece drives my former "black beauty" (mid-1990s compact sedan) to school; my nephew commands a similar vehicle.  Each is currently owned and repaired by their dad.

Fast and Furious

Nowhere in these automotive obituaries is it mentioned that cars still rule in popular culture.   An example: car-themed video games such as "Grand Turismo" or "Grand Theft Auto."  Or take the movie Cars.  Then, there's a renewed interest in "Hot Rod Kulture."  And you'll find plenty of Gen Y activity in motor-sports.  Off the racetrack you'll discover lots of  "kids" smoking rubber by showing off their drifting finesse.  Ideas about automotive fashion continue to shape what young people want to drive.  I still field questions from parents who know their brood won't motor in just anything on four wheels-station wagons, minivans and hatchbacks are considered social death sentences.

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