Shifting Priorities on Automobiles

An interesting story I found today states that younger people are increasingly likely to put-off purchasing a personal automobile.  As the story points out, this is likely to have dire long-term consequences for an automobile industry already devastated by the “Great Recession.”

This is not surprising.  The downturn in the economy has been especially rough for younger people.  There’s still a lot of uncertainty about the future out there and purchasing a car is often a long-term financial decision.  People are unlikely to make such a long-term commitment in a car when they are worried about losing their job.

But as the article points out, there is another shift going on that I think is more interesting.  When compared to earlier generations, this generation of 18-35 year old’s seem to be less and less interested in cars.  Younger people these days are more interested in spending their money on socializing with friends or the latest technology.  They are more and more likely to put off buying a car and take public transit.  Some young people are making the decision to forgo driving altogether.

I also think there is a shift going on in terms of what is an acceptable and “cool” car to drive.  People in my parent’s generation wouldn’t be caught dead when they were younger in some of the cars that are perfectly acceptable to younger people now.  Younger people are shifting their priorities, tastes and concerns and this is reflected in the type of car they purchase and drive.

Finally, I would point out one comment toward the end of the article that I found particularly interesting.  David Cole, the chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, said that as younger people age, they will eventually be forced to buy an automobile of some kind.  I don’t argue with that assertion though I do find it interesting that we, as a society, have made the collective decision to design our cities in such a way as to essentially force citizens to make a substantial private purchase in order to function.  Actually I think it’s more accurate to say that several generations ago people made that collective decision and we are now all living with it to this day.


Posted: Thursday, November 4th, 2010 at 4:01 pm
Categories: live, move
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  1. I agree with the assertions made here and posit that another long term effect is that those who prefer not to drive are going to be more likely to choose to live in cities that will allow them to live without purchasing a car. So cities with good transit are going to grow even more. Similarly, a city looking to grow should develop a quality transit system.

    One other thing I’ve been thinking, tangentially related to this article, is that a person is usually settling into his/her long term-behaviors during the college-age years. So to support the shift away from automobiles, cities with large student populations should be given one extra level of priority when designing local and national public transit. What I’m saying is that if Texas ever designs HSR, the route from Houston to the I-35 corridor should absolutely go through Bryan/College Station, TX.

  2. Great article Martin, I agree inasmuch as my own experience backs up what the study says about the 18-35 age cohort.

    Dean, two cheers to rail through BCS :)

  3. My son didn’t take a car to Lawrence University. He left the one he was driving at home. I run it for 3 minutes per week to keep it from freezing up.

  4. With unemployment averaging 9.7%, (much greater in less affluent neighborhoods), I think the opportunity exists to enact a “CCC-like” project for Bike-Ped Pathways, Safe Routes to Schools, etc. The cost of building or replacing sidewalks is much less than roads (perhaps you have data?), less cost to maintain long term, will return a healthier population, (Harris County, 80% uninsured healthcare), initiate community pride, as well as the the obvious decline of carbon emissions.
    Not owning a car, (or does it own you?), may be the critical piece of the monthly family budget to survive the predicted sluggish economy. Food-must have, Shelter-must have, Clothing-must have, Car-MAYBE.

  5. A lot of fluff. The article was heavy on anecdotes and light on data. It would be useful to know the actual auto ownership rates for working youths 21 to 30 today compared to ten or twenty years ago. I imagine there is no change.

    The only stats that were provided were on licensing rates for under age drivers. Parents make decisions about licensing for those under 18 so that says more about the state of mind of parents than youths.

    • Well, given that the auto industry seems to be concerned, it’s obviously not all fluff.

      Thanks for the comment.

  6. Natalie McVeigh, the woman profiled in the article, is not representative of young people. Employment as a research analyst and as an adjunct professor of philosophy indicates that she has a BS (and possibly an MS) in philosophy. Even with the decades long insistence that everyone should attend college, the overwhelming majority of young people do not have a four-year college degree, much less a BS or MS.

    Note also that she says her choice to forego an automobile is unusual. Denver and Boulder are popular cities for young people, so this means she is not indicative of a trend at all. Her short and boyish hair, North Face coat, and minimal makeup indicate to me that she is some sort of environmentalist and potentially a lesbian. These are both stupid fads among the young, but they’re usually minor in comparison to other concerns like actually being able to get around easily. Assuming it’s true she is well paid, then ideological considerations are probably the reason she does not have an automobile. In most places it is very inconvenient not to have an automobile, and Denver certainly isn’t Manhattan or even Chicago.

    The demographic data on car sales reflects a shift in America’s age distribution. The median age is much higher today than it was in 1985, when all baby boomers were still under the age of forty. The lower frequency of licensed sixteen year old drivers is probably explicable by three factors. First, most states have adopted graduated licensing programs making it more difficult to get a license. Second, there are many more broken families now than in 1994 which means fewer parents have the time to provide the supervision and instruction necessary to acquire a driver license. Third, minorities make up 44% of the population under 18 today and are more likely to be concentrated in urban areas and have lower socioeconomic status, both of which would reduce the need and ability to acquire a driver license and have an automobile.

    The article makes an excellent point about economic troubles, however. While auto prices and quality have risen along with economic growth and inflation, wages have not and employment growth has been poor. Gas prices are additionally much higher even adjusting for inflation. Many people simply cannot afford to drive anymore. I myself am a 25 year old, and while I own a car and can afford to drive the same is not true for many of my peers, who if they are lucky enough to have a job at all usually don’t make all that much money.

    The assertion about technology is ridiculous. Many young people do squander money on frivolous technologies like smart phones and gaming consoles, but bear in mind that technology has made other things cheaper. How much did the typical teenager spend on audio tapes and CDs in 1994, for instance? Technology does facilitate communication, but believe me, no one prefers chatting on Facebook or texting to actually meeting up and hanging out. And if you want to see your friends, you need transportation.

    Automakers are right to be concerned. No one will be able to buy the cars they make in the future because no one will be able to afford them.

    • You are right the woman in the article is not typical as she admitted you stated. I think it is unnecessary for you to try and ascribe by very stereotypical descriptors for why the woman does not drive. The article was not about this woman, rather a national pole. She seems to have been one of many interviewed. It also seems very contradictory to me that you in one paragraph write about her extensive education level and then in the next attack her supposed ascribing to ‘stupid fads’.

  7. It was the journalist who chose to include an unrepresentative woman in an article purportedly about national trends, which is why I chose to discuss the woman in question. Since I am not intimately acquainted with this woman, I took the knowledge that was available about her and fit it into the context of general knowledge about various groups, ie, stereotypes. It is unfortunate that the relentless campaign against stereotyping has succeeded to the extent that now many people exclude it from their mental tools of analysis, to the detriment of all.

    Extensive education is in no way contradictory with stupid fads. Stupid fads permeate all social classes, and neither intelligence nor education inure one to them. In fact, the highly educated can be uniquely vulnerable to adopting extremely stupid fads as a mechanism of separating themselves from lower social classes. Christian Lander’s satirical website Stuff White People Like documents this quite well.

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