We’ve seen the signs coming for some time: rumors from Japan, declining car sales at home, advertisments selling cars as “the ultimate mobile device.” And the picture that’s beginning to reveal itself is a challenging one for fans of four-wheeled transport. Young people, once a deep well of enthusiasm and sales growth for the car industry, are no longer as auto-obsessed as they once were. And their vibrant presence in the automotive world does not seem likely to return any time soon, either. How do I know? Because, like an increasing number of people in their twenties, I don’t own a car.
I can hear the comment-section howls as I write these words. The publisher of a car website doesn’t even own his own car? Sacrilege, right? As with so many of the issues we discuss here at TTAC, this one demands that we tame our emotional reactions and look deeper for the underlying causes of this phenomenon.
So how is it that a certified (certifiable?) car nut, someone who discusses automobiles seven days a week, could not own a car of their own? This is not a case of an auto journalist who is so flooded with hot press cars that purchasing one makes no sense. Arthur St. Antoine I am not. Nor, as I’m sure some will impugn, am I a CLINO (Car Lover In Name Only). I drive my live-in girlfriend’s Impreza every chance I get, and bemoan its flabby handling on a near-daily basis. I beg, borrow and rent cars at every available chance, and as soon as I live somewhere with a garage, a used MR2 Spyder is at the top of my list (with a supercharger kit to follow).
But enough of my excuses; none of my peers ever seem in the least bit surprised to find out that I don’t own a car. After all, most of them don’t. I live in a city that is easily navigable by bicycle and public transportation, and I work from home. I’m not kidding when I quip that the future of transportation is telecommuting.
But I’m also hardly representative of America’s young people, for the simple reason that America’s young people are just as fragmented as everyone else. And certain segments of America’s youth are just as car-obsessed as any past generation. The kids who have been working real jobs since high school all have cars. I know people my age who have owned more (and more interesting) cars than most 40-year-olds. But these young enthusiasts are barely replacing the previous generation. More important than pure numbers though, is the fact that automobiles are failing to capture the enthusiasm of young college graduates.
We all know the statistics about college graduates, specifically the ones about how much more money college graduates earn. This single factor alone makes well-educated youngsters the future of the car market. Unfortunately, college also directly exposes young people to the factors that are destroying their desire to buy new cars.
None of these factors are as dangerous to vehicular desire as debt. Rising tuition, increased use of debt to cover tuition, and limitless access to credit cards for all of those “other” college expenses mean most graduates carry a good new car’s worth of debt. And when they leave their collegiate Xanadus, they’re hardly anxious to take on more. The education and consumer-credit industries are profiting off of young people, to the expense of the automakers.
While students pile on the debt, they’re also being exposed to a number of influences which make them less likely to focus on automobiles as an object of desire. Most campuses are decidedly car-unfriendly, and for many students, living on and around college campuses is their first exposure to an alternative to suburban car-dependency. Green ideology may cause a certain amount of anti-car peer pressure among certain groups of college-age Americans, but it’s usually more of an after-the-fact justification than a first principle. Though many recent graduates will talk endlessly about alternative energy, new urbanism and other anti-car values, the underlying reality is that carlessness is a state of blissful irresponsibility. Principle is only the window dressing.
But don’t underestimate the power of irresponsibility. In fact, the association of carlessness with the carefree world of college is the defining shift in the symbolism of the automobile to young people. Historically, America’s youth have flocked to Automobiles as a tool of personal freedom, an escape pod from the world of adult responsibilities and a way to connect with other young people. Today, these crucial marketing values have been stood on their heads.
If a young person does buy a car, it’s almost always because they need it for their job. Though debt, insurance, maintenance and speeding tickets are the real-life downsides of auto ownership, the crucial issue in the uncooling of cars is the image of car ownership as a a complex of obligations all of which add up to less freedom. The automobile has become a tool for connecting people to their responsibilities, a symbol of debt and an icon of that youth anti-icon, the beaten-down, middle-aged commuter. And what’s less cool than that?
The rise of the internet clearly plays a role in this dynamic as well. Thanks to computers, internet and cell phones, kids are more connected to each other and the world around them than ever before. The technology is cheap, readily available, and crucially, not well understood by previous generations. Computer and information technology separates young people from adults, inherently making it cooler. All of these factors make it easier for young people to see cars as “old person’s technology.” Moreover, they strip cars of their socially connective appeal. The girlfriend and I bought her Impreza as a way to escape from omnipresent social connection as much as a way for her to commute to her job. Both of these roles serve to remind us on a daily basis that our lives no longer revolve around socializing and other “cool” pursuits. We’re practically grown-ups, and the Impreza’s dull competence never lets us forget it.
Economic uncertainty surely factors in to the mix as well. If graduates knew there were plenty of opportunity after college, more of their educational years would likely be spent obsessing about the latest, coolest cars. Changing gender roles are a at work too. Cars have largely lost their masculine mystique, making cars which rely on an appeal to manliness seem outdated, desperate and, well, old-fashioned.
None of this is to say that cars are dead to young Americans. As I’ve noted, the younger generations boast gearheads who can go toe-to-toe with any of the last 50 years. But they’re an increasingly marginalized crowd, especially among the well-educated youth who are statistically most likely to make up the future of the new-car market. They’re also more likely to be attracted to the kind of cool, unique used cars that the industry no longer seems to build.
Which leads nicely to the most optimistic conclusion I can muster. America will not stop being the giant, spread-out country in which cars are the major mode of transportation. But the fact that there are nearly as many cars as people in this great land means that the auto industry is ultimately a victim of its own success. Still, if the industry is able to connect with the values that are leading young people away from automobiles, there’s a chance to check this trend.
But it won’t be easy, because young peoples’ expectations of automobiles are actually rising. If automakers are able to offer vehicles which can embody fun, freedom, practicality, efficiency and timeless design, there’s a chance to refocus the youth market’s desire onto automobiles. The problem is that attracting future car buyers from the ranks of capricious youth tends to trade off with sales in the present from practical adults. Recapturing the cool is a major task for the automotive industry, and fighting this perfect storm of cultural changes won’t be easy. This is a marketing, development, design, and technology challenge that makes getting consumers to consider GM look like, well, child’s play.