Why you should care

Because with teens less interested in driving, not only will our cities have to adapt, but our cultural icons must as well.

“Mom’s taxi service is going out of business!”

Vivian Hughes, mother of two, was looking forward to her daughter Abby turning 16 so she could retire her full-time chauffeur service. Alas, she’d have better luck convincing actual taxi drivers that Uber is good for them.

“I have no desire to learn how to drive,” says Abby, who lives in Morristown, Arizona. “I feel kinda bad” that her mother has to drive her around, she says. “But not quite bad enough to get my license.”

Time was when the car and the carless were the only two strata on America’s high school social hierarchy. Those with cars had a certain amount of social power; they chose who got to ride along. And more than that, getting your license was a rite of passage. James Dean’s Jim Stark and Ferris Bueller were defined as much by their cars as by the in-your-face rebellion they drove in on.

Two teenagers in the backseat of a car with a parent driving and looking at them in the rear view mirror.

Source Hero Images/Corbis

But in some quarters, the passionate affair between teens and their wheels has turned frosty. Even though car sales have bounced back since the recession, some experts believe the American car has peaked. It’s not just urban youth, with access to public transport, who are ditching the car. Nor is it strictly a matter of money. People ages 16 to 34 drove 23 percent fewer miles between 2001 and 2009, even the financially well off, according to a 2012 U.S. PIRG report. Though it may be too early to sound the death knell of teenage auto romance, a profound shift in teen car culture is taking place.

Credit a generation of helicopter parents who cater to their kids’ every transportation whim, an era when socializing = Snapchat and getting into a good university means being a star quarterback who studies for the SATs on weekends while planning her NGO’s next trip to India to promote women’s rights. And if Mommy can’t come fetch you, Uber, Lyft and Sidecar will happily play cabbie.

It’s a remarkable shift. Since the 1950s, the U.S. has been a drive-in and drive-thru culture, and for generations of teens, the car meant independence, freedom and autonomy. For Hollywood, the car became, for a time, a fetish object: Think of the 1956 DeSoto Firedome Seville in American Graffiti.

Sitting in the car is the only downtime Priya Yerasi’s son Nikhil, 16, has, she says. “If he was driving, how could he text?”

But today’s teens, especially upper-middle class ones, are growing up differently. “[Helicopter parenting] is an epidemic … from utero until their children get a job,” says Kathleen Vinson, professor at Suffolk University Law School. As parental hyper-involvement has become normal, so too has parental hyper-awareness of threats: physical threats to children’s safety are on the decline, but most parents believe their kids are at greater risk than in previous generations.

Another reason for more parental oversight: the ramped-up college admissions game. Studies show that playtime dropped by 25 percent from 1981 to 1997 and homework more than doubled. In a 2004 study, 70 percent of parents said they played outside every day when they were kids, but only 30 percent of their progeny do.

With cross-country, academic decathlon, five APs, youth in government, Eagle Scouts, national honor society, volunteer work and, gasp, a social life, sitting in the car is the only downtime Priya Yerasi’s son Nikhil, 16, has, she says. “If he was driving, how could he text?”

A man walking into a small apartment pushing a bicycle.

Source Arthur Baensch/Corbis

Exactly. With texting, Snapchat and Instagram, time-honored pursuits like, uh, cruising or going to the mall are falling by the wayside. Time spent behind the wheel is time not spent with friends. The dampening of teen car culture has coincided with the mass adoption of cell phones. From 2004 to 2011, teen mobile ownership grew 30 percent, according to a Pew survey.

You know what that means — dating is changing, too. “It never occurred to me that by not having a car, I wouldn’t get girls,” says Ryan Gerson, 22, who got his license and college degree at the same time. “It was perfectly normal to take my dates on the bus,” says Gerson, but no one from the ’60s ever.

Someday, today’s teens will raise families and, probably, need cars to chauffeur their own overly protected kids around. That’s what automakers hope, anyway.

Then there’s the millennial environmental consciousness. From marijuana legalization to environmental advocacy, green is hot right now, and car ownership is not as cool as before. Younger people are not only more likely to acknowledge climate change but also to support environmentally friendly policies. Public transportation in the U.S. reached an all-time high in 2013, and bike-share programs have doubled since 2012.

Whether the car culture downshift will last is another question. It may be another case of late-onset adulthood: Millennials are “growing up” more slowly than generations past, and their desire to drive could eventually bloom. In other words, car fatigue may be just a phase. Someday, today’s teens will buy houses and raise families and, probably, need cars to chauffeur their own overly protected kids around. That’s what automakers hope, anyway.

“I don’t see any evidence that young people are losing interest in cars,” Mustafa Mohatarem, General Motors’ longtime chief economist, told Automotive News. He blamed student loan debt — now at more than a trillion dollars — for the decline in car ownership among young people: “It’s really economics doing what we’re seeing, and not a change in preferences.”

Tell that to Abby, who would respond to Mohatarem the same way she does her mother when asked about getting that license.

“I’ll do it later.”

Comment

OZYFast Forward

New trends and breakthrough thinking in politics, science, technology, business and culture. It’s futurism at its best.