Generation Why: Finally, Some Hard Data Shows That Young People Do Care About Cars

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler

Something I’ve long maintained (and that has been backed up by many of the B&B) is that young people still like cars and do care about them. The issue of falling car ownership among young people is largely an economic one. The cost of living is going up while wages are stagnating. Gasoline is expensive. Student debt, smartphones and rent are more important obligations than car payments, insurance and fuel. All of that can be quantified with data.

What hasn’t been so easily demonstrable was that young people still like cars, despite the wishful thinking of many who cheer for the end to the automobile era. Now we finally have some good research that backs up my gut feeling.

A new study by Edmunds shows that not only are more Millennials buying new cars, but they aren’t opting for the usual old boring appliances either. Using data from Polk, Edmunds discovered that the number of 18-34 year-old buyers is rebounding – not quite to pre-recession levels, but improving steadily from 2011 to 2012. And it looks to be holding steady this year.

According to the Edmunds study, Millennial buyers tend to buy a greater share of luxury and sporty cars as well – segments that are traditionally the domain of older buyers with disposable income that can be spent on a car. This is another notion that has long suffered from an absence of hard data, but I can tell you that the rationale behind this is simple; if we’re going to shell out for a car, it’s going to be something that we really want, like a Scion tC ( yes, lots of people want those, even if we don’t) or a Hyundai Genesis Coupe, rather than a more utilitarian car.

The study isn’t entirely rosy, and it highlights a number of roadblocks that could continue to derail car ownership for Generation Y

For starters, the job market remains very tough for under-25 crowd. Double digit unemployment rates persist for the youngest segment of the labor force despite that fact that its labor force participation rates have continued to fall and are at their lowest levels since at least 2003.

Meanwhile, the older Millennials — the 25 to 34 year olds — continue to struggle with slow income growth. From 2010 to 2011 (the most recent year available), their median household income grew 1.8 percent but as in the previous three years, failed to keep pace with inflation. This growth rate is particularly concerning since the older Millennials tend to be in the first ten years of their careers, the period during which 70 percent of raises typically occur.

The Millennials’ job and income issues are compounded by the fact that they are entering the workforce with significantly more student loan debt than previous generations. This higher debt burden impedes their ability to qualify for other loans, including car loans.

Not mentioned is the rapid expansion in credit and auto loan terms – are younger consumers with lower incomes taking on 72, 84 or 96 month term loans to help them afford that FR-S or 328i? It’s certainly plausible, but again, without hard data, it’s little more than a theory.

Over at Automotive News, Mark Rechtin wrote an equally insightful rebuttal to the latest study that posits that Generation Y are eager to reject cars and home ownership for an urban lifestyle of renting and Brooklyn Bohemianism. Rechtin delicately puts forward what we all know in the back of our minds; one day, we will turn into our parents and trade in the chic loft in a gentrified neighborhood for new digs that are more suitable for raising a family. These will likely be in the suburbs, and will necessitate a car.

But before that, they will grow up

Young people do care about cars. They just haven’t had to. Either unemployed or underemployed, many Gen Y college grads have moved back home with their helicopter parents who have resumed their role as their childrens’ personal taxi services. Gen Ys can’t afford cars, but they can afford iPhones.

If Edmunds is correct, then this is all set to change. The economy will recovery, good jobs will return for America’s youth and the dream of a middle class life will start to become a more realistic goal for the 70 million young people who constantly uncertain about their future. I certainly hope it happens. The alternative is extremely ugly.

Join the conversation
2 of 59 comments
  • Carlisimo Carlisimo on May 30, 2013

    Passion for cars always exists - the difference is that cost pressures and environmental awareness means that we don't want to NEED a car. Driving to work is like being in an expensive jail. Having a car available for other purposes is freedom. In the end most of us will need a car though, because it's hard to afford a decent home in a good city. But you don't need a decent home until you start a family, and debt and living with parents is pushing that out into our thirties.

  • Occam Occam on Jul 02, 2013

    I suppose I'm technically Gen Y (31, born in 1981). My fiance is Gen X (34, born in 1978). Together we make well over $100K/year, but we don't spend a lot on cars. I have a paid off Scion tC, she has a paid off Versa. I've traded in too many cars in the past: I made stupid choices and was on my 3rd new car by age 25 (not to mention married before), but at this point, we have zero debt between the two of us. Now? I can have fun in my paid off stick shift tC, or on my bought-outright Triumph Bonneville. She couldn't care less about cars as long as they hold stuff from craft shows and antique malls. We'd both rather spend the money on experiences than depreciating transportation. Every now and then, I see something that looks like fun (BMW 3-series coupe, Challenger, Mustang, for example) but I'd rather not deal with a $500+ monthly payment after busting my tail to pay off my tC in two years. I also ask myself, "Would I rather have a V8 in the driveway but no stamps in my passport?" SOOO many people get strung out on car loans, but never take a vacation; no thank you!

  • IH_Fever Another day, more bloviating between the poor downtrodden union leeches and the corporate thieves. But at least pantsuit guy got a nice new shirt.
  • IH_Fever I can't wait to see an Escalade on 24"s blow the brakes off of the competition!
  • Redapple2 Why does anyone have to get permission to join? Shouldnt the rules to race in a league be straight forward like. Build the car to the specs. Pay the race entry fee. Set the starting grid base on time trials.?Why all the BS?I cant watch F1 any more. No refuel. Must use 2 different types of tires. Rare passing. Same team wins every week. DRS only is you are this close and on and on with more BS. Add in the skysports announcer that sounds he is yelling for the whole 90 minutes at super fast speed. I m done. IMSA only for me.
  • Redapple2 Barra at evil GM is not worth 20 mill/ yr but dozens (hundreds) of sports players are. Got it. OK.
  • Dusterdude @SCE to AUX , agree CEO pay would equate to a nominal amount if split amongst all UAW members . My point was optics are bad , both total compensation and % increases . IE for example if Mary Barra was paid $10 million including merit bonuses , is that really underpaid ?