Industry Insight: A Shift for the Ages

Jan. 1, 2021

What’s behind the lack of driving among younger generations?

Kids these days just don’t drive like they used to. 

While most may characterize members of Gen Z (born after 2000) for their tech smarts—they have grown up as true digital natives after all—a recent report from Lang Marketing highlighted a whole new identifier to set the generation apart from its Millennial and Gen X predecessors. 

According to the report, more than 40 percent of 19-year-old Gen Z Americans (born after 2000) do not have a driver’s license and over 48 percent of 16 to 18 year olds do not drive at all. 

The decline marks the latest milestone in a larger trend. In 1983 more than 86 percent of 19-year-old Baby Boomers (born from 1946 to 1964) had a driver’s license and by 2010 that sector had dropped sharply to 75 percent. 

So what exactly is keeping Gen Z out of the driver’s seat and what could the trend mean for repair shop owners and the future of the aftermarket? Jim Lang, aftermarket analyst and president of Lang Marketing, offers his insights.

What are the unique factors keeping potential Gen Z from getting behind the wheel?

In Gen Z, we’re seeing a whole redefinition of what the vehicle is, what it really means to them. For Gen Z, the vehicle is just a means of getting from point A to point B, whereas when Baby Boomers were the same age, having a car and getting your driver’s license was a point of personal expression and pride, and more of a social status symbol and a rite of passage. 

Gen Z doesn’t have that same love affair with the automobile. It’s actually quite the opposite. A majority of Gen Zers are concerned about the environmental impacts of operating a vehicle—environmental concerns and climate change are two of the top three concerns of people in their age group—and they don’t want to contribute to those issues of pollution, etc. They don’t have that emotional attachment, they’re seeing a catalyst of a larger problem. 

Are environmental concerns the only factor?

The physical environment is huge for them, but their social and technological environment is also eliminating that urgency to drive that other generations have felt. Social media is the largest driver of social behavior for Gen Z, so if you can visit and interact with other people on a virtual basis without needing to physically get in a car and drive to see them face to face, where’s the urgency to drive and have a car? That need doesn’t look the same as it did for Gen X 20 years ago. It’s not an inherent trait or characteristic difference between generations, it’s all about those larger external factors shaping your day to day. If Baby Boomers had access to things like Uber and TikTok, they probably would have been less interested in owning a vehicle too. 

Will this trend hold true as Gen Z ages or is this more a case of arrested development?

So much depends on household formation (who is living where and with whom and what that dynamic looks like), but overall, younger generations are pushing the milestones that older generations reached at a young age back further and further. If those big changes in your life that might require or make having a vehicle a larger priority, things like getting married and starting a family and buying a house, are happening later, what’s the rush? I don’t think it’s that they’ll never get their licenses, but it is a delayed reaction and a low priority for many of them.  

How could recent events like COVID-19 impact Gen Z driving?

Obviously COVID-19 has disrupted nearly every aspect of our lives and driving habits are being upended, but the need and desire for a personal vehicle is on the rise. People want to feel they can travel safely in their own bubble without risking unnecessary health threats and a lot of people are moving further from the city, so assets like ridesharing and public transit services aren’t a huge help right now and that is starting to create the urgency and need to drive that Gen Z may not have been feeling before last year. It’s likely this could bump up the number Gen Z drivers on the road who might normally have delayed driving for at least a few more years to come.

The big picture of what these changes could mean for the auto industry is muddled for now but I expect we’ll start to see the larger influence of the Gen Z mindset on vehicle use make its mark in starting to the next eight to 10 years. 

What could the long-term impact of the Gen Z mindset look like?

With the perspective that vehicles are a tool to get from A to B, Gen Z is going to approach the vehicle as a service (something to be summoned and hired like you do with services like Uber) rather than something to be owned. They want the benefits of a vehicle—mobility and all of the freedoms that come with that—without the commitment of owning one, which is a mindset shift and behavior that would completely change the entire nature of the vehicle ownership structure we operate in today. 

Ultimately, Gen Z will be much less frequent users of vehicles than previous generations and we’re not likely to see that attachment to the vehicle that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have had in the past and that has kept the car so much a part of our culture ever again. Those days are over and the overarching question becomes, what will mobility look like and mean to them?