The cold war between Boomers and Millennials is being fought on many fronts, but when it comes to perceived driving habits and interest among the younger generation, there's only one side at fault for the propaganda being put forth.
By early accounts, automakers weren't too worried about approaching the millennial dollar. When it comes to marketing to younger generations, it's an issue that comes up every decade or so. We talked about it in the early 2000s. We talked about it again before the decade even ran out.
So how the hell did the wires get crossed from "young people can't afford cars" to "young people don't like cars"? Here's my theory to add to the pile-on.
Once I was invited to attend a fancy-ass breakfast with a top executive from an automaker I won't name. We were there to discuss growth strategy in the Americas. Since the economy is rebounding, this automaker had big plans to expand. Not build the brown diesel manual shooting brakes and all the other cars you beg for, but more like... how to expand their commercial division to accommodate the rapidly growing housing market. What to do about possibly adding workers to plants as demand for product grows.
There were other journalists there, so I wasn't the only one snacking on the free muffins and San Pellegrino. The way these breakfasts go, the executive talks and then there's a Q&A. Just when we're ready to ask some industry-focused questions, an older, Boomer-aged columnist from one of the Detroit dailies leads the Q&A with this bullshit question:
"So, how do you plan on all this expansion when these younger drivers just aren't interested in cars anymore?"
Nowhere in this entire presentation did this automaker mention driving habits, marketing toward segmented populations or even the mere idea of younger drivers. There was another younger reporter at the roundtable, and both of us looked up at each other with the same "what the fuck?" expression.
And so, Mr. Columnist asked about 17 questions about younger drivers before the rest of us could get in some other questions about logistics behind factory expansion and shit like that. Sure enough, the stories that came out of that meeting all focused on the original intent of the presentation — except that one story from this one guy who's got his face all over his paper leading with another bullshit anecdote about how these kids nowadays don't give a fuck about cars.
It's not the only time this has happened. It happens frequently at press conferences, breakfasts, roundtables, product demos and whenever you get a CEO in the room with a bunch of writers. The younger auto writers — of which there are very few, a discussion for a different day — crowd on one side. The older guys hog the Q&As wondering why kids today aren't driving, regardless of what the subject is. And the the younger writers laugh at all the older guys later and then sigh in disgust because we know we don't have the seniority to change the conversation.
Ever been privy to conversations between older journalists? You'll hear them all the time ranting about the good ol' days when you could buy a beater P.O.S. for like $100 and turn it into a daily driver. And then they'll complain that their kids and grandkids won't do the same. They just don't know why. Or maybe they're choosing to remain ignorant.
As linked to in The Morning Shift, there's a fantastic story from The Detroit News about the clusterfuck of teen unemployment, insurance costs and the fact that you really can't buy a reliable and safe $100 beater anymore because it's not 1965. (Maybe you could, but would you trust your 15-year-old daughter in one?) All of these factors are leading to a decline in younger driving but not a decline in interest in driving.
Consider this as well: The Atlantic had a recent long-read about how teens nowadays are saddled with more homework than ever before, largely due to a need for American schools to better compete with education systems on a worldwide scale. We already know that you have to stick your kid in a ton of after-school shit just to get your foot in the door with college recruiters. This was going on when I was in high school a decade ago.
But did you ever consider that maybe kids just don't have time for a part-time job to save for a car, which they'll have a tough time getting because the economy is still rather fucked and older, laid-off workers are now grabbing the fast-food jobs that a typical 15-year-old would have years ago? Or that they don't have the time and energy for restoring or rebuilding a car from scratch (that they'd have to save up and pay for)?
Simply put, if you see a story about how younger people aren't driving again, don't blame the automakers for not marketing to them enough, the misguided poor souls at Popular Science or even the cellphone makers for turning teens into texting monsters. Just point the finger at the out-of-touch journalist who wrote the story because they found an easy news peg that they know all of their fellow oldies will share on Facebook.
[Photo via Muppet Wiki]