The Young and Not-So-Restless

Fewer and fewer young people are driving---but why?

This Advertising Age article discussing the massive decline in driving among young Americans is a bit old now.  But it’s both fascinating enough, and aggravating enough, to be worth some attention. 

The basic facts are the fascinating part:  young people simply don’t drive as much as they used to.  Between 1978 and 2008, for example, the share of 17 year olds with a valid driver’s license fell by a third. [Update, 4/2/2012: apparently the drop was only 30.4%, not a full third.]  Likewise, the share of total miles logged by 20-somethings fell from 20.7 percent in 1995, to just 13.7 percent in 2008.  All the evidence points in the same direction:  younger people are putting the brakes on their driving habits.

But while the trends seem real enough, the explanations that people are floating are far more suspect.  On the one hand, Ad Age finds an expert who attributes the decline in driving to the digital revolution.

The automobile, once a rite of passage for American youth, is becoming less relevant to a growing number of people under 30…William Draves blames the internet. Mr. Draves, president of Lern, a consulting firm which focuses mainly on higher education, and co-author of “Nine Shift,” maintains that the digital age is reshaping the U.S. and world early in this century, much like the automobile reshaped American life early in the last century…His theory is that almost everything about digital media and technology makes cars less desirable or useful and public transportation a lot more relevant.

This seems both right and wrong.  The internet really is reshaping our lives. After all, you’re reading this, aren’t you?  And the digital age does make public transit pretty useful—as a matter of fact, I’m writing this on the bus!

Still, I just have a hard time believing that a third of potential 17-year-old drivers are too busy Tweeting and Chatrouletting to take driver’s ed.  Young folks themselves don’t seem to buy it either:

The environment is the reason Gen Y-ers most often give for wanting to drive less.

Hm.  I’m not sure that’s right either.  In fact, I gotta go with the explanation from the guy with the National Automobile Dealers Association—who argues that it’s the economy, first and foremost, that’s driving young people’s declining appetite for car travel. 

teen employment-to-population ratioAnd it’s not just the recent economic downturn that’s contributed to the decline in driving.  Some trends are much longer-standing.  Consider, for example, the fact that teen employment has been falling for most of the last decade. In 1978 (the beginning of the period that Ad Age looks at) about 48 percent of driving-age teens in the US held a job. By 2008, that number had fallen to 33 percent, and it now stands at just 26 percent.  (Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)  And while I couldn’t find reliable stats on the relationship between teen employment and teen driving, it’s easy to believe that falling employment meant that teens had less reason to drive, and also less money to pay for cars and gas.

Likewise, the fall in teen employment coincided with both an increase in college attendance, and a decline in the real earning power of minimum wage work, particularly in the 1980s and the early- to mid-2000s.  Rising college attendance may have contributed to a decline in the need to drive, while falling minimum wage earnings reduced teens’ purchasing power.

And then consider the effect of rising oil prices.  The chart below shows the difference between 1970 and 2008—a different period than Ad Age looked at—but the lesson is pretty clear:  by 2008, it was taking an awful lot of time for a young worker to earn enough money to fill the tank.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that the internet, or environmental awareness, are completely irrelevant to the trends in youth driving.  I’m sure they play some role.  Still, it’s hard to look at numbers without thinking that fairly mundane matters of demographics and economics (yawn!), rather than the Digital Revolution (sexy!), best explain the trends.

I shouldn’t be surprised that Advertising Age, of all outlets, was more interested in sizzle than substance.  But I always hope for better.  After all, mundane matters of economics and prices—i.e., making it costly to pollute, and cheap to live lightly on the planet—may be our very best hope for reducing our impact on the climate.  So it’d be good for every outlet to look for the obvious explanations before they seek out the sexy ones.

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  1. Elaine says:

    I would add that the jobs we had as teenagers in the 70s that enabled us to buy gas/own cars are now mostly taken by (immigrant) adults.

  2. Sean Pender says:

    Don’t forget that policy changes regarding teen drivers licenses are different now than in the past, at least for Washingtonians, and one would assume other states as well. Those are likely a contributing factor as well. When I was 16 (20+ years ago) there were no restrictions on when I could drive, who could be in the car with me or what time of day I could drive. Now you have this:

  3. Matt the Engineer says:

    I have another factor for you: standardized testing. When I was in high school, driver’s education was a standard class that effectively eveyone took. There may have been a moderate fee, but it was offered right on campus during school hours. Now driver’s ed has been dropped along with art, wood shop, and most everything not covered on standardized tests. My niece is 16 and though she thinks it would be nice to have a driver’s license (she’s in the suburbs where it would traditionally would be considered essential, plus her family has an extra car), it’s too large of a burden to come up with the hundreds of dollars for a driving class and have her mother drive her to this class every day.(love that graphic – wonder what it would look like if you added all of the other costs of a car)

  4. Alan Durning says:

    Let’s add to the list of demographic changes: The composition of young people in the United States has changed pretty dramatically since 1978. In 1978, teenagers were mostly people like me—white baby boomers and distributed across the income ladder fairly evenly. Today, young people are much more likely to come from the bottom half of the income ladder and to be nonwhite. I wonder if an income-adjusted or even whites-only teen driving comparison would show MORE driving today than in 1978 in the United States.

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