Did Millennials Kill American Car Culture?

It’s been a rite of passage for generations: the American 16th birthday means getting your own car, allowing you freedom right when you’re starting to ache for it the most. It’s a symbol of independence and a taste of adulthood, the first real signal that childhood is in your rearview mirror and your whole adult life is stretching before you in one long road to explore. It means unchaperoned dates, cruising with friends, exploring parts of your city you never did with your family in tow. It also means having to pick up younger siblings, make runs to the grocery store for mom, and in many cases, work to make your first monthly payment on a car note, insurance, or gas and maintenance. A little taste of the freedom-responsibility paradox of adulthood on four wheels.

The American car culture, especially when applied to this country’s youth, is unique. Through a magic blend of prosperity, technology, and suburban sprawl, car ownership is a part of teen’s lives in America unlike anywhere else in the world. Throughout most of the US, with the exception of dense urban neighborhoods with extensive public transportation infrastructure, having a car is a necessity for navigating everyday life. As fewer parents elect to become full-time caregivers, and as teens today become engaged in more and more extracurriculars, it can be impossible to juggle schedules without young adults having their own transportation.

The Birth of American Car Culture

Across the globe, car culture really took off in the post-war boom of the 1950s. With World War 2 and the Great Depression in the rearview mirror, post-war prosperity paved the way for the newborn love affair with cars. Drive-in movie theaters, NASCAR, the formation of the National Hot Rod Association, production of the Porsche 356, Jaguar XK120, Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, Volkswagen Beetle, Bus and Karmann Ghia were a few notable automotive landmarks in the 1950s. Henry Ford’s vision — any man with a good job should be able to afford an automobile— became a reality in one of the most exciting decades for car enthusiasts.

Soon, the romantic mythos of the American automobile was pervasive in film, television, and music. Take the Leave It to Beaver episode titled “Wally Buys a Car” or the short-lived “Fun, Fun, Fun” of the teenage girl before her daddy took the T-bird away. Smokey and the Bandit, Knight Rider’s K.I.T.T., the Transformers, the Fast and the Furious–for the last 70 years, the automobile has had a top spot in American pop culture.

Leave it to millennials to rain on everyone’s parade. According to older generations, millennials are the ruiners of old-fashioned fun. Stereotypes include, but are not limited to: the flexibility-seeking, 9-to-5-no-more, marriage-averse, never-wear-a-suit-to-work, phone-call-phobic generation. But how many of these assumptions are rooted in reality?

Millennial Mythbusting

As we’ve discussed here before, preconceived notions of millennials are often grounded in a lack of real understanding, particularly when it comes to economics. In 2008, most millennials were graduating from high school or college and preparing to assume their roles as functioning adults. To refresh all of our memories, 2008 was the year that the entire world was pushed to the edge of a global depression. Americans with decades of work experience were unable to find jobs, much less youngsters with blank resumes. To add to their despair, millennials took on crippling student loan debts to enroll in college, only to graduate with student loan payments that take up most of their monthly incomes.

At the same time, the cost of car ownership was skyrocketing. Used cars can’t be picked up at a corner lot for a few hundred bucks anymore. Even if they could, the auto industry long ago realized there was far more money to be made in parts and repairs than in the vehicle itself, so, unless you’re a pro DIY-er, even fixing up a junker isn’t the attainable reality that it used to be. A new smartphone with access to ride-hailing/ride-sharing apps costs a few hundred dollars, whereas a new or used car costs thousands. For a demographic already crippled with debt, car ownership is a dream often out of reach.

A Practical Approach to Car Ownership

In the wake of the Great Recession, Boomers and Gen Xers began looking at cars more practically than they had before; automobiles were just a means of getting from place to place for many Americans, and the cheaper they could do that, the better. Younger generations grew up with that new norm. Add to that that families weren’t buying cars as often, riding out their warranties before trading in instead of passing their car down to their 16-year-old children.

Even that romance surrounding American car culture has drastically dwindled. Movies like Drive, Baby Driver, the Fast and the Furious franchise, and the Transformer movies certainly celebrate cars, but not as the province of the everyday American teen.

The Virtual Reality

If younger generations are living most of their lives digitally (texting, joining online communities, playing video games, posting on social media), why would they even want to leave the house? Some argue that automobiles are now threatened by smartphones as the ultimate symbol of freedom. Escaping the monotony of reality is just a few smartphone or keyboard taps away.

In a sense, the critics blaming millennials’ obsession with their phones for the downfall of car culture have a point, though they’re pointing the finger in the wrong direction. For decades, cars represented the ultimate in American innovation, products designed to capture the imaginations and desires of every age. Today, that’s computer technology, including smartphones, tablets, and fancy laptops. What phone you carry today says as much about your socioeconomic standing as what you drove 30 years ago.

Even if your life is lived via your smartphone, everyone needs to get places somehow. In fact, MIT professor Christopher Knittel  points out that millennials drive 2,234 more miles per year than baby boomers. This is partly attributed to longer commute times as millennials are escaping the exorbitant expenses of urban living.  Throngs of younger generations are now moving to “exurbs” – communities bordering the suburbs and rural America.

“Together, the results suggest that while millennial vehicle ownership and use may be lower early on in life, these differences are only temporary and, in fact, lifetime vehicle use is likely to be greater,” Knittel  states.

So yes, through a variety of factors that cannot be attributed to millennials, they were slower on the uptake to car ownership, and they don’t–and probably never will–hold automotive culture in the reverence that their parents and grandparents did. But they still live in the United States, and this country’s lifeblood is still the sprawling system of interstate highways that remain one of the greatest American achievements in history. They still need a vehicle to get to work, to pick their kids up from school, to drive to church, to run errands, and to take that annual summer road trip.

Popular consensus might be that millennials are killing American automotive culture, but Openbay is here to tell you that just ain’t true. American car culture is just changing, as every culture does with time. We can either blame younger generations for it or embrace the paradigm shift and move on into a new way of buying, selling, and, yes, celebrating the American automobile.

Get even more insights into how Millennials and Gen Zers are shaping auto industry trends here:
Don’t Make Me Wait, Call or Think: Millennials and Auto Care Part I
‘Adulting’: How Millennials Are Shaping Auto Trends Part II
Get Your Business Ready for Gen Z: Millennial Auto Trends Part III

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