Not Your Papa's Oldsmobile: The End of the Love Affair Between Teens and Cars

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Man, remember how thrilling it was to get your driver's license? When I was in high school, entering your 16th year was an exciting time because it meant you'd get to drive. You'd savor the sweet feeling of freedom behind the wheel, as you no longer had to be shuttled everywhere by your parents, an older family member or a friend.

This is a feeling that was shared by teens when they became legally able to drive over the past 50 years or so. But lately, something has changed, as I found out via a few news reports last year. Teens and young adults are no longer in love with cars, driving, and auto culture. In fact, they'd rather own a smartphone or a tablet than an automobile. And many aren't even bothering to learn how to drive. In the 1950s, we would have called these kids "squares." But today it's the norm, and understandably, auto makers are a little concerned about it. 

The way I see it, there are a few reasons why today's young adults simply don't dig cars as much as previous generations did...

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1. Buying/Owning a Car is Expensive. 
From this point of view, I can understand why today's kids don't want a car: they're expensive, especially when compared to the bang you could get for your buck in the 1960s and 70s. A VW Beetle, for example, retailed for about $1,700 during the 60s. Today's version starts at around $20,000. Even a four cylinder Kia with just the basic features will run you about $14,000. Not to mention there's the on-going cost of maintaining a car--and paying for gas (which is hovering in my area around $3.65.) The price of everything has gone up--except for the average American family's income, or at least not enough when compared to the jump in inflation. Teens and 20-somethings were hit hard by this recent downturn in the economy, and they simply cannot afford to own an automobile.

2. The Car is No Longer a Means to Freedom 
Where my generation and others viewed the car as a symbol of freedom, the Internet has become the new path of escapism from school, parents and other responsibilities. I find this ironic considering I feel downright confined after being online for too many hours in a row and nothing else feels more refreshing than shutting down the devices and connecting with people in person--or even reading a good book.

3. Things Can Be Done Online Instead of In-Person
Society also doesn't have to rely anymore on having a car to get things done--shopping and so many other tasks can be accomplished by going online instead of physically driving someplace.

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4. Lack of Car-Centric Places Where Kids Can Take Their Wheels
Drive-ins, diners, car-hops, and other cool hang out places were synonymous with car culture in the 50s, 60s and 70s. When's the last time you saw one of these places? This begs the question of where do kids make out these days on dates, if not in the back seat of a Toyota? 

This indifference towards car ownership is hard for me to wrap my head around. How my friends and I loved driving once we were all able to do so--I have many fond memories of trips to the movies, fast food restaurants, the mall, the beach, the prom, (my friend borrowed her father's Lincoln Town Car at the time--we felt like big shots!) each other's houses, and even just back and forth to school. 

During the warmer months, I still love to get in my car and drive someplace--there's nothing like going to the beach with the sunroof and windows open, the wind blowing through my hair and my favorite music playing. I've owned exactly three cars to date since I got my license 25 years ago, and I've loved all of them--my first car was a 1985 Pontiac Firebird; the second, a 1998 VW Beetle and my current mode of transportation is a 2003 Honda Accord coupe. Since my dad was a big car guy, I've saved all of the vintage brochures he collected on various models around the early 70s and while I'm hardly an auto expert, I usually keep up with the latest models and trends. I've gone to auto shows and vintage car shows (I guess it should come as no surprise that the majority of men you see at vintage car shows are older, retired dudes who scrimped and saved their whole lives to buy the classic vintage beauty of their dreams. You don't see too many 20-somethings as the owners at these events.)

The muscle cars of the 60s through the 80s catered to the younger crowd...but this is no more. The auto manufacturers aren't making many muscle cars due to lack of interest. I guess it's not the worse thing in the world, since a new driver in control of a 300 hp machine is enough to make anyone nervous, and America's roads are pretty congested as it is. Add in the fact that a lot of people like to text or use a phone while they're behind the wheel and frankly, I'd rather those folks never learn to drive. 

But as far as I'm concerned, teens and young adults don't know what they're missing...and this constant need to be online and communicate only via text and Facebook isn't doing anyone any favors. I hate to borrow the title of a Rihanna song here, but instead of "shut up and drive" maybe we should be saying "shut it off and drive." 


  1. WHAT? You're kidding!!! I was a girly girl and I loved my first car- even though it was a boxy Chevy Celebrity Eurosport. ( It was 1989!!!)
    These kids need to get off my lawn.

  2. To this list I'd also add the rise of alternative transportation, in particular bicycles. In cities like Portland, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, for example, biking has become much more part of the mainstream, especially for the Gen-Y-ers, and these cities have the infrastructure to support it.

    Coupled with this is also an increasing return to the cities as a viable place to live, as opposed to the suburbs. The 50s 'American Dream' of a house in the suburbs and a car to take you there is dying, if not already dead.

  3. Yup!

    My son was NOT eaten up to get his license or a vehicle, even riding the bus until the start of 12th grade, something UNTHINKABLE in "our day..!"

    I got my license in 1981, BTW...

    Al Bigley


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