Millennials Don't Care About Car Ownership: Myth or New Reality?

"Here we are now, entertain us.” It was the rallying cry of Generation X, a group that grew up rebelling against the seeming shallowness and materialism of the ‘80s with their own revolution of music and fashion. Now we have Generation Y, better known these days as “Millennials” -- and when it comes to the time-worn tradition of young people longing for their first car, many believe the slogan of this generation might be “Let me Uber that, bro.”

Numbers back up the notion that young people don’t have the “drive to drive” quite like they used to. According to The Atlantic, adults between the ages of 21 to 34 bought just 27 percent of new vehicles in America in 2010 -- this was down from a high of 38 percent for that demographic in 1985. Compounding this trend, less than 70 percent of 16-to-24-year-old Americans had a driver’s licence in 2013, according to Yahoo! Finance. This figure was the lowest since 1963.

So do young people these days simply not care about car ownership like they used to? The answer to this question is complicated and multi-layered, but the short version is, “It depends.”

The most obvious factor contributing to this trend is a challenging job market for young people. As many baby boomers continue to work through traditional retirement age, millennials are competing for fewer well-paying positions than have been available previously for college graduates. You can’t really buy a sweet new ride on a barista’s pay level.

But perhaps more significantly, cars are not what they used to be. Modern, high-tech vehicles could be considered by many young professionals to be too expensive and burdensome to buy and maintain. And that’s before we even consider the typical cost to rent a parking spot in a major urban center these days.

A couple of Toronto-based professionals shared their views on car ownership with us over email. Daniel is a 27-year-old Senior Data Scientist who doesn’t own a car because “I live downtown and have good access to public transportation. If I need to move something heavy, I rent a car or take a taxi.”

Does Daniel see car ownership in his future one day? “I would definitely need a car if I end up in the suburbs. I think owning a house requires getting a car.” So for millennials like Daniel, the question of car ownership appears to be not so much “if” but “when” -- like many frustrating aspects of modern life for millennials, delayed gratification is forced upon them in many forms.

Rochelle is a 29-year-old Digital Marketing Specialist who bought her first car last year -- a 2006 Mazda 3 -- out of necessity for commuting to a new job. In her case, car ownership wasn’t so much a want as a need -- millennials aren’t necessarily averse to the idea of car ownership as much as they might need a more compelling reason than previous generations.

One characteristic that everyone associates with millennials is their embrace of smart phones and emerging technology. Along those lines, both Daniel and Rochelle are interested in the future of in-vehicle technology. Daniel says he’d like to be able to “pair my phone easily with my car, with analytics where I could track mileage and gas consumption and have that sync to my phone or the cloud in some way.”

As for Rochelle, she referred to one of the buzzwords associated with driving in 2015 -- and also the subject of DRVEN’s previous article -- distracted driving. “I’d like distraction-free driving aids,” she says. “Better navigation and voice-controlled actions.”

At DRVEN, we believe that vehicle ownership decisions made by millennials will be guided as much by in-vehicle technology as by horsepower and gas mileage. For this generation, the smartphone will be as integral to the driving experience as the steering wheel.

Scott Carefoot is a digital marketing consultant with 15 years of experience in digital business.