Millennials Are Not Romantic About Their Wheels

1971 Chrysler Simca = Freedom

I got my driver’s license on my 16th birthday. I promptly purchased a 1971 Chrysler Simca (yes orange although not as dirty as the one in the picture).

That tiny, tinny car was the biggest milestone in my life up to that point. It symbolized adult freedom and adult responsibility.  It wasn’t long before I had a real job and more money than I could make babysitting.

Most of my friends made a similar jump about the same time. In fact, 4 million cars were sold in 1971 and 1972, a record at the time that reflected the demographic bulge of the baby boom.

Today the coming age rite is more likely to be a cell phone than a car. In 1978, over half of all 16 year olds had a driver’s license. By 2008 that figure had dropped to 31%.

Over half of all 12 year-olds had a cell phone in 2009. In fact, one study of 17,000 school children revealed more pupils age 7-16 own a cell phone (85.5%)  than own a book (72.6%)!

It would seem a mobile phone now symbolizes a major adolescent milestone much as a car did for me. The Internet liberates them from being bored, and gives them new vistas. For me, mobility liberated me from hanging out with my family.  I had things to do! Places to go! A car connected me with a wider world, and became the center of my social life.

Tim Stock of scenarioDNA observed in his excellent lecture on how different generations were shaped, that for Boomers, ‘The Road’ was our network, our ‘information superhighway’.  The open road symbolized rebellion, and spawned countless archetypes.  A long, independent car trip was a rite of passage. I shudder now to think that I drove ALONE from Florida to Michigan at age 18.  Times have definitely changed, and Millennials do not have the same relationship with cars that we did. Mobility has a different meaning. They don’t need to ‘get out and go somewhere’.  They can shop online, download a movie, and connect with their friends without ever leaving their room.

As Stock observes, Gen Y is less concerned about where you go and more concerned with ‘how you transform what is there‘. ZipCar and its competitors seem to be perfectly in tune with this refocus on doing things. My Saturday afternoons were spent cleaning and waxing my car, then driving to the beach to see who else was there.  For Gen Y, it’s not about owning and caring for an incredible car, it’s about getting somewhere so you can experience something incredible.

Many Gen Y’ers actively reject the car-centric culture I grew up with.

Cars are seen as wasteful, status-oriented and ecologically unsound. Riding the bus does not have the same stigma it once did. Hummers have become a symbol of what’s wrong with consumer cultureThe money saved by not owning and operating a car frees up money for other things —  like education, technology and travel. These expderiences are higher priorities for Millennials and are perceived as offering greater return for the money.

Millennials don’t hunger for the latest model or edition.  In fact as a nation, we all appear to be satisfied with driving cars longer and longer.  The media age of vehicles in operation was 9.2 years in 2007. This figure is up from 6.5 years in 1990 and from 5.1 years in 1969. Perhaps we’re moving toward a model where we only buy a new one when the old one costs more to fix than it’s worth, as we do with refrigerators and most other ‘appliances’. The thrill of that new car smell is gone.

Paper & Plastic, Compost or EBay/Craiglist

This is a big adjustment for the automobile companies. But it is also an issue for any marketer of  ‘durables,’  ‘real estate’ or other big ticket items. According to Mike Doherty, President Cole Weber United, Millennials can be thought of as ‘generation prototype’.  “For Gen Y, hard goods have soft lifespans.  Durability is relevant but mostly in relation to different products.” Gen Y thinks less about the ‘thing’ and more about the utility of the thing relative to other purchases. He writes in MediaPost last month….

“If you are in the “consumer durables” market, you already know that it’s a label that doesn’t make much sense to Gen Y. For Gen Yers, the consumer durables equation seems to look like this:

Product Lifespan = Adopted + Adapted + Left Behind for the Next Version

To a Gen Yer, durability is often acknowledged as being relevant, but its importance is relative to different products. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that there are really three recycling bins in Gen Y homes: Paper ‘n’ Plastic, Compost, and eBay/Craigslist. If Gen Yers are fortunate enough to get their hands on a v1.0 iPad, they will love being one of the first to have one, but they also know that there are more versions to come in a few months, making their hot item quickly feel outdated.”

This may look like ‘fickleness’ but I think it’s more of an indication of their tendency to not become romantically attached to ‘things’.  Gen Y is first and foremost looking for utility and performance. They will switch for a better alternative, without much hesitation.

This practicality and lack of romanticism poses a challenge to durable goods marketers – the lifestyle approaches of the past most likely won’t work. Young adults are more likely to ask the hard questions: “How does it perform relative to alternatives?” and “Why should I buy it at all?”