Hipsters Really Don't Hate Cars, And Other Millenial Myths Busted
It's not that they don't want a car, it's just they can't afford one
"I was going to look at new cars about two years ago," said Meier, who lives in Patchogue, N.Y.
But then she did the math. "Once you include payments, insurance and all the other expenses, it was just too much," she said. "It's cheaper to keep repairing my '99 car than to buy something that's more reliable."
This is the plight of many Millenials -- a.k.a. Generation Y -- and it has automakers worried. Sociologists, pundits and industry analysts have painted these young people as anti-car treehuggers who not only shun vehicle ownership, but shirk driving altogether.
Brad Potts, 27, has lived in Detroit for seven years, all of them carless. Mopeds, Brad says, are the ultimate solution for avoiding the expense of a car in a city that was not built for pedestrians and has an almost nonexistent public transportation service.
"I'm not anti-driving, I love driving," he said. "But it's also just, so much money. It's a luxury item."
Meier said she relishes driving the Dodge Neon ACR she inherited from her father, who used to race it in the Sports Car Club of America.
"Everyone thinks we're hipsters and not interested in anything other than saving the environment or riding bikes," she said.
The non-driving generation?
Still, it's understandable that young people today -- there are about 82 million Millenials ranging from ages 16 to 34 -- have been pigeon-holed as a nondriving generation.
Far fewer teens are getting driver's licenses now versus 20 years ago, said Sheryl Connelly, a Ford futurist. A study by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute found that the percentage of 16-year-olds with a driver's license dropped from 46 percent in 1983 to 31 percent in 2008.
"Now the cell phone is the gateway purchase into adulthood," Connelly said. For the youngest Millenials, virtual mobility trumps physical mobility.
Baby Boomers -- those bringing up the Millenials -- are partly to blame for their children's ambivalence about cars. So-called helicopter parents who hover over every aspect of their teenagers' lives would rather drive their kids around than worry about them getting behind the wheel of a vehicle, Connelly said.
Jason Dorsey, co-founder and chief strategy officer at The Center for Generational Kinetics in Austin, agreed. He studies Millenials and is one himself.
He said their supposed aversion to the automobile is "hogwash." It's not that his generation doesn't like cars, many just can't afford them.
"A big trend among Millenials is displaced or delayed adulthood," he said. Careers, having kids, and buying that shiny new ride have been pushed back five to eight years, largely because of the Great Recession. Rather than getting a first job right out of college in their early to mid-twenties, it's often happening in their late twenties to early thirties, if at all. Many are moving back home with their parents and working menial jobs out of necessity.
Meier is a good example, though she does have her own place. She has a bachelor's degree in hotel management and couldn't find a job in her field. So she went to work at Whole Foods but got laid off and was unemployed for a year and a half.
She found her current job three months ago, pulling down $12 an hour as a social media strategist for Nexteppe, a marketing firm that works with 55 car dealerships around the country. Meier likes it well enough.
"I actually don't want to work in the field that my degree is in anymore," she says. The cottage industry of microbreweries and craft beers currently has her attention for future job possibilities.
Smaller is better
It's the same story for Meier's boyfriend. His six-figure doctoral degree in sociology has earned him a low-paying job as a caretaker for mentally challenged patients.
He has a Volkswagen GTI that he enjoys driving to work. Meier likes that car, too. "It's something that's not really expensive, that is fun, not monotonous to drive," she says.
The GTI typifies what many Millenials want: small, sporty, good-looking and fuel-efficient.
"Small is definitely in," Dorsey says. "I say that because it's easier to park, and it's really the fuel efficiency. It also feels sportier. And because we're having kids later, we don't need the bigger vehicles."
Being easy to park is important as many Millenials flock to urban centers, if not permanently, at least on the weekends, as Meier does. "It was our parents that just went from the cities to the suburbs. There's nothing for us to do here. All my friends want to move to cities," she says, listing places like Denver and Austin as examples. "They've got jobs down there."
But as much as size, efficiency and practicality are important, there are two other absolute essentials for Millenials when it comes to cars: smartphone connectivity and style.
"It is now the new normal, and if you don't have it, you're off the list," Dorsey says of smartphone connectivity. "That is a massive shift, where it used to be all based on performance and fuel efficiency and prestige," he says.
Perhaps that is one of the things that prompted a dozen automakers-from Acura to Volvo-to start offering Apple iPhone connectivity directly through their vehicles' controls and in-dash touchscreens. The system, called "iOS in the Car," was just announced at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco and will be available in 2014.
It is designed to make listening to music in iTunes, looking up directions on Apple Maps and having Siri read text messages easier and more intuitive by displaying what the iPhone is doing right on the screen in the dashboard. It is sure to be a hit with Millenials, who appreciate easy when it comes to technology.
"One of the myths about Millenials is that they're tech savvy," Dorsey says. "They're not. They're tech dependent. I don't know how my cell phone works, I just use it."
They're also super style-conscious, and this too is prompting action from automakers. Take the recently unveiled 2014 Toyota Corolla. It looks much more expressive and stylish than the bland-mobiles that have preceded it for nearly 50 years. It also comes with standard Bluetooth connectivity. Toyota says the changes are meant to help the Corolla do a better job of attracting younger buyers.
Ford has done a similar makeover to its small cars in recent years, including the current Focus, which is snazzier than the previous version.
"Millenials were raised on the Target aesthetic," Connelly says, "that you can have designer goods at discount prices. So they have a very sophisticated eye, but they also want to know, 'What else is the car going to do for me?' They're really into the multifunction device; they don't wear watches because they think of a single-function device as kind of a waste. So the car has to be more than just transportation: 'What else is it doing for me other than getting me from point A to point B?'"
That's why Ford is offering features like a Hands-Free Liftgate on some vehicles, such as the Ford Escape. This lets you open the rear hatch just by making a kicking motion under the bumper. "That's not something that you would necessarily buy the car for, but once you experience it, you're like, 'Oh, how could I ever live without it?'" Connelly says.
Meier appreciates the latest technology automakers are offering, but for her, driving a sporty car is still a thrill that no amount of gizmos or cushy creature comforts can outshine. "I drove my friend's Honda Civic and I don't get it," she says. "The car was boring, you couldn't feel anything, you only space out while driving because there's nothing to keep your attention. You're not doing anything but driving kind of like a robot."
But in the end, it still all comes down to money-not just for her, but also a friend she is helping to shop for a new car. Fuel economy and the warranty are the top priorities on her friend's list.
The task is proving difficult. "The timing belt went on her old car and destroyed her engine, so she needs a new car asap," Meier says. "But we're finding it hard to find a dealership to work with her because she's so in debt from college."
And so it goes with Millenials.
AOL Autos writer Erin Marquis contributed to this report.
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