Older Americans Are Buying All The Cars (And Not Just Because Young People Hate Driving)

August 13, 2015

There's a lot of data to suggest that younger people just aren't that into cars. And yet, U.S. auto sales are booming. How is that possible?

Bloomberg credits older consumers for the uptick -- specifically those 65 and up. There are several reasons that silver-haired set are buying more cars than ever:

They make up more of the population: The U.S. generation born between 1946 and about 1964 is a big one. That's why they're called Baby Boomers. A few years ago, the first wave of Boomers began hitting their mid-60s, but there are many, many more to come -- around 70 million in all. Most grew up driving cars, and they're unlikely to stop just because they've started drawing Social Security. 

They're wealthier: No doubt about it, many Boomers did well for themselves. (Whether they'll outdo Millennials is up for debate, but clearly, they've earned their share.) By some estimates, Boomers now control 70 percent of U.S. disposable income, and they're not afraid to spend it. Some of that money is going toward vehicles to keep them on the go -- and not just economy models, either. Luxury rides are popular with seniors, too.

They're healthier: Medical advances are making a big difference in our quality of life. Today's surgeries are far less invasive, we have a wider range of treatment options for various ailments, and with genetic medicine poised for a boom over the next decade or so, the situation is poised to improve dramatically. As a result, today's seniors are able to stay behind the wheel longer than their parents were, and many of them want to continue driving as long as they can.

Cars make up for the shortcomings of age: Even with huge improvements in the field of medicine and healthcare, not all conditions are treatable. Some decline in driving ability is inevitable as we age. Thankfully, today's cars compensate for that with an increasing variety of autonomous features that tell us when we're drifting out of our travel lane or fail to notice an obstacle in the road. As our vehicles become increasingly autonomous, the number of older Americans with a car in the garage will probably increase.

That's all great news for older Americans, but does it spell doom for the auto industry? What happens when grandma finally puts down the keys? Will her grandson pick up the slack? The odds don't look so great. 

Between 2003 and 2013, the number of U.S. drivers over 65 jumped 8.2 million, or about 29 percent. Among those 84 and older, the surge was even stronger: about 3.5 million, or 43 percent. Over the same period, the number of drivers under 20 actually fell by three percent. (Which, given what we've heard before, isn't entirely surprising.)  

But it's not just the number of drivers that ought to cause alarm. Car sales themselves could plummet. Since 1989, spending among consumers age 65 and older has surged between 15 and 18 percent, while shoppers under 55 have scaled back.

More worrisome for the auto industry is the fact that over the past five years, motorists over 75 have registered six times as many new cars as those 18 to 24. You might think that most of those rides were going to their grandkids, but stats show that's probably not the case.

Whether you're younger, older, or somewhere in-between, we'd love to hear your thoughts about driving and future auto purchases. Share 'em in the comments section below.

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