Millennials Don't Care About Owning Cars, And Car Makers Can't Figure Out Why

Driving numbers are down for younger people and the auto industry hasn't found a way to respond. It's because they don't understand why millennials could possibly not want to drive.

Auto manufacturers today are scratching their heads, trying to figure out why the millennial generation has little-to-no interest in owning a car. What car makers are failing to see is that this generation’s interests and priorities have been redefined in the last two decades, pushing cars to the side while must-have personal technology products take up the fast lane.

It’s no secret the percentage of new vehicles sold to 18- to 34-year-olds has significantly dropped over the past few years. Many argue this is the result of a weak economy, that the idea of making a large car investment and getting into more debt on top of college loans is too daunting for them. But that’s not the "driving" factor, especially considering that owning a smartphone or other mobile device, with its monthly fees of network access, data plan, insurance, and app services, is almost comparable to the monthly payments required when leasing a Honda Civic.

What auto manufacturers, along with much of corporate America are missing here is that the vehicles to freedom and personal identity have changed for this generation. The sooner brands get a grip on this reality the sooner they can make adjustments in how they market to and communicate with this core group, which is essential to their long-term success.

"Porsche, there is no substitute"…Or is there?

It used to be that having your own car provided the ultimate sense of freedom for young adults, allowing them a means to get together with friends, establish independence and separate from their parents. It was a critical right of passage to real adulthood to drive your own car, and it was the one place you could blast music without your parents complaining. Popular movies of the later Baby Boomer’s and Gen X's coming of age, such as Risky Business and Dazed and Confused shaped this generation’s sense of self, portraying images of fancy sports cars as the ultimate young adult possession.

Today however, older teens and young adults don't need cars to achieve a sense of self and freedom. This generation’s coming of age consisted of graduating from the Internet and CD-ROM computer games to hand-held mobile devices where they’re establishing identities, relationships, and individualism online all day long—as much as, if not more than, in the real world.

Car Sales are Down, Technology Rules—The Fuel Behind the Facts

With recent studies showing a huge decline in auto sales among the millennial marketplace, it’s no wonder auto manufacturers are in a mild state of panic, realizing they’re missing out on a generation that wields $200 billion in purchasing power. Numbers don’t lie, and over the last few years statistics have shown a significant drop in young people who own cars, as well as those with driver’s licenses—and that decline continues among the youngest millennials, meaning this is not a trend that’s going away anytime soon. From 2007 to 2011, the number of cars purchased by people aged 18 to 34, fell almost 30%, and according to a study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, only 44% of teens obtain a driver’s license within the first year of becoming eligible and just half, 54% are licensed before turning 18. This is a major break with the past, considering how most teens of the two previous generations would race to the DMV for their license or permit on the day of their 16th birthday.

Unlike the Baby Boomers, who gained their independence and individuality from movies, music, cars, and motorcycles, older teens and young adults today are expressing their freedom through social channels—these are their new wheels and they get the keys now starting at about age 9. Marketing to this group demands a different mindset that involves taking the time to understand the neo-millennials.

Younger Millennials Are Not Who You Think They Are

Exacerbating the issue is the general misperception that millennials are lazy, privileged, and putting off adulthood. This leads many marketers down the wrong road when attempting to connect and engage with this generation. Our latest research shows that these 17-25 year olds are not who most adults think they are. In multiple studies of college millennial consumers (CMCs), our studies reveal a highly motivated, open-minded, passionate, and extremely engaged consumer. They could even be considered more practical than generations before them. For instance, one study of CMCs conducted in May of 2013 showed students using their summer jobs to set them up more securely for early adulthood. Out of more than 1,600 college students surveyed:

  • A full 96% were focused on making money to curtail their tuition and other college expenses.
  • Nearly 30% needed to make $4,000 or more for the summer.
  • Nearly 50% of students were engaging in some form of "paid internship," in an effort to gain both pay and valuable job experience.

While they might appear distracted and lazy gazing at their phones, in reality, they are keenly aware of what’s happening around them, perhaps more so than other generations, and focused on their near and long-term opportunities.

Gadgets over Wheels

Because millennials use technology in every facet of their lives—from mobile phones to tablets and laptops—to connect with friends and family and to get work done, the tech gadget is their most prized possession, and has a much higher value to a CMC than transportation or owning a car. Think about it: while CMCs are likely to share a car and a ride, there’s no way they would ever share their phone.

CMCs game together and hang out virtually, they don't have that same need to physically get together as prior generations. The CMC’s popularity and relationships are defined by their online status, not their "cool ride" and they make all of their connections online. millennials search for jobs online. They prefer to coordinate dating online, and meet people through websites and apps.

So Is the Era of the Car Over?

Brands looking to target this unique audience need to make adjustments in their communication and engagement, while making sure they appeal to this group’s fundamental interests. Companies like our client ZipCar, for example, are tapping into millennial preferences for practical, accessible, and environmentally friendly modes of transportation that neither attempt to define or detract from these young adults’ online connections and freedom. Through an innovative, successful marketing campaign, Zipcar took their messaging and experiential peer-to-peer program to over 45 college campuses nationwide, resulting in 39% YOY growth in applications, 9.9 million impressions, and 6,200+ new applications.

Although they can’t expect to match millennials’ preference for technology, automotive manufacturers and dealers can promote merchandise and features that meet this generation’s interests, such as tech-enabled cars with voice-activated communications and entertainment system and in-car connectivity as an extension of their phones. The first generation Ford SYNC system features voice-activated calling, music, text messaging, as well as the ability to allow drivers to connect to news, business, and real-time traffic. We’ll be seeing even more versions of the connected car in the upcoming year.

Perhaps it's a sign of maturity that this next generation of consumers doesn’t feel the need to define themselves by their cars, but instead more by what they say, share, capture, and create. But what auto manufacturers and other consumer brand companies need to be thinking is, "How can I help them say, share, capture, and create more?" They can start by gaining a better understanding of the millennial consumer, their interests and behaviors, to fully engage with them in their world. This will help identify and/or create situations and niche opportunities where car use and ownership is an advantage. Then they can extend the dialogue to younger millennials in particular, reaching them to create a new definition of freedom and empowerment for a new generation.

[Image: Young people walking via Shutterstock]

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  • bryan.ramey

    For me, I will never buy a new car ever. Why should you? After the first year, they depreciate almost $8,000. Almost every car built in the past 15 years are exceeding 200,000 miles. You can also purchase extended warranties and make the car practically new again. Only 5 out of my network of 300 friends that I know have moved to urban cities like Sanfran, New York and DC so they can walk or ride bikes to work so that they will never need to buy a car.

  • I'm 35 and have never once owned a car. I'm actually looking at maaaybe getting one right now, but I would never pay more than $1500 for one. Cost to buy-in plus upkeep is just too much. Sales are down not because of Tech, but because of work pay-rates and rent costs being so disproportionate that the costs of a car are just too much to be fit in. Let's see you make $11 an hour and manage $1400 in monthly rent and do anything else other than survive.

  • Darren Ross, you make a few mistakes. Firstly, typical American, you assume the whole wide world reacts the same as your country. Secondly, in my country, as in many other developing economies, kids haven't the public transport choice. You want to get to the beach, the mall, the gig, you've got to have wheels. Thirdly, you lightly mention the fact that the so-called millennials are quite happy to interact through tech and not physically, as though it is a perfectly fine thing. THAT is where I see the biggest problem - the insular, cocooned life millennials live, hooked up to a machine. That is near sociopathic. I cannot believe for the life of me that such insular, small world lives are in any way good for anybody. You can throw stones at anybody, it does not help cursing the baby boomers or laughing at their lifestyles. And I am not one.

  • robbfoerster

    You have to factor in not only whether you can afford a car but also if you'll have enough left over to enjoy it. I did a cheap run down of a Nissan Note...and after all is said and done it would cost $800 a month before gasoline. Well great... I have transportation but that's over $8000 a year out of my budget. Money that would have been spent on home, savings, retirement and/or "real" vacations on planes to lavish locations. ;)

    And personally, the freedom of a car is countered by the very thing you have to do to use it. - hours of driving. Sorry, my idea of a vacation or freedom is not spending hours on roads...emmmm....what a relaxing start to my holiday! ;)

  • Harry John

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  • Mander Twothousandtwo

    I refuse to be gouged by the gas companies and their ever-increasing prices stemming from their endless greed. Until they make non-gasoline cars (eg. fully eletric, solar, biomass...etc.) affordable at price range around $20000, I will stick to my public transits and biking. From a 28 year old early millennial.

  • a577109

    This is so idiotic. Yeah, Facebook and the iPhone killed cars.

    People are broke and cars have become ridiculously expensive. A Mustang during the time of "Dazed and Confused" was probably something you could buy with a summer job flipping burgers.

    Baby boomers send jobs overseas, import millions of H1B workers and illegal aliens to drive wages down, drive up prices with credit inflation, then act surprised when the youth don't want to be raped by credit collectors.


  • gilbateslovesyou

    Because we're pretty broke compared to the stupid baby boomers in the 1960s with their super fun hip new Mustangs.

    Here's some actual numbers. A Ford Mustang today costs $22,510. Getting paid minimum wage, you'd have to work 3104 hours to pay this car off, not counting interest. For comparison, take a 1968 Ford Mustang,. $2602 MSRP (though it would be closer to 18K in today's dollars.) Someone working $1.60 an hour min wage in the 1968 would have only had to work 1626 hours to pay it off, basically half the amount of hours. This doesn't take into account the other costs of gasoline, insurance, and very importantly, maintenance, which can kill you if you can't fix your car yourself (often $1000+ bills.)

    Basically, gas isn't 10c a gallon anymore and life isn't like a Beach Boys song. It's not because we're environmentally conscious or like our cellphones and computers too much, it's the same reason Chinese farmers or sweatshop workers don't own cars. They're broke.

  • Robert Bouskill

    I'm a little ahead of the stupid baby boomers and a Mustang for me back then would have cost $2,500. Working for about sixty cents an hour I would have had to work almost four thousand hours to get one. I'm curious why you think we were stupid when you buy a cell phone for $1500 to make one telephone call?

  • Greg Curtin

    also in China cars 10 years old and over are not allowed. People here buy new cars.... which are expensive. My first car in America as a teenager I bought from my dad. It was already 16 years old but gave me a sense of freedom. Today, I ride a bicycle in China and use public transportation. I find freedom in making music, running my business, and traveling. I think cars were the easy way out in the old days... now we have more options.

  • zaydsharif

    The major problem with having a car is insurance. For anyone under 25 years old, the insurance prices are ridiculous. And the same goes when attempting to rent a car. Why own an 8000 euro car when the insurance for it is 15000 euros per year??? For someone over 25 this price comes down considerably to just 500 euros per year. Furthermore, why rent a car for a week at a cost of2000 euros when either of my parents could rent it for 650 euros. Besides, being at university (medical school), where do people think my money comes from? Even with a part time job I can't afford my accommodation, food, energy bills, phone bills etc. Most of my expenses are still paid for by my parents. If car companies wish to sell more cars to young people, then they need to sort out the insurance companies. Not all young drivers are dangerous and they should take other factors into account. from a 22 year old millennial

  • Jake Franklin

    For $1000, I can make a small deposit on a used car with questionable history


    I can purchase a new, very high quality road bike that costs next to nothing to own and operate, gets me in shape and is eco-friendly.

    I can rent a car when I need to drive.

    Source: 25 year old millennial.

  • I think this is a valuable article, but I do think that some of the ethos is wrong. As a 28-year-old millennial, I do own a car. Most of my friends owned cars as well. Even living in Washington, DC with access to a Metro and bus network, we saw a value in owning vehicles.

    I think that some millenials have no interest in owning a car, but no the majority. It may be that people are delaying owning/leasing a car until later in life, post-college, but the desire for the vast majority is probably still there, considering that there are very few American cities with above-average public transit options.

    Also, this struck me as a huge stretch: But that’s not the "driving" factor, especially considering that owning a smartphone or other mobile device, with its monthly fees of network access, data plan, insurance, and app services, is almost comparable to the monthly payments required when leasing a Honda Civic. What Civic leases for less than $200 a month?

  • The first ad I get in google if I type in honda civic lease is for $179/month/3yr/no money down/12k miles + $179 "service" fee at signing. 2014 model.

  • 1: Depends where you live. Most millenials choose to live in compact urban environments where public transport is great and car sharing is freely available. 2: The internal combustion engine is terrible. It's over 100 years old and not worth buying new. If more manufactures built good electric cars and kicked gas to the curb they would have a little more success. People resent big oil and try not contribute where possible (even if it's a little misguided due to where the electricity is generated). 3: Cars are expensive. Personally I would prefer to spend that money on airline tickets and take public transport to move about.

  • Rich Wang

    It's pretty simple: driving is an awful experience filled with the stress of bad drivers, traffic, fines, upkeep costs, danger and liability. The roads and freeways are increasingly filled with aggressive, impatient, and unattentive imbeciles in cars that blind with misaligned headlines or obstruct your vision with body lifts and I go out of my way to avoid dealing with them. I would rather ride a bicycle and take public transit or pay for a Lyft in all situations involving travel under 50 miles. Over 200 miles I would rather fly. This leaves a very limited range of applications for owning a car. As a millennial, I am also part of a generation that has suffered through the hellish inanity of suburban sprawl and will forever appreciate the joy and convenience of living in a compact metropolitan city where cars are completely unnecessary. If automakers want my attention, they should look into building light, compact, cost-efficient, all-electric personal transport devices, not gas cars.