• Prose and Purpose

    After 25 years on the job, a former provost examines the world on campus and in higher ed.


Kids and Cars

I grew up during the time that Detroit’s Big 3 ruled the automobile industry and grew up with an automobile being an important part of my American dream.

October 28, 2012

I grew up during the time that Detroit’s Big 3 ruled the automobile industry and grew up with an automobile being an important part of my American dream.  Since I grew up in New York City with the benefit of a great mass transit system, I’m not really sure why I was so car focused but there is no doubt that I studied every fin, checked every instrument panel, and knew all horsepower figures and 0-60 miles per hour acceleration data. And very much related to the times I grew up in, cars had no apparent flaws even though the mileage and the quality left much to be desired.

To this day, I still read every car magazine and remain focused on cars, now regardless of where they are produced.  Crain’s Autoweek is now at the top of my list of must readings regarding automobiles (and just for the record, Consumer Reports is at the top of my list for any and every consumer product).  In the September 17th issues of Autoweek, there is an article on “Love of Driving Lost?”  subtitled “Gen Y doesn’t share the same lust for wheels as past generations.”  The article by Jayne O’Donnell quotes Kit Yarrow, a marketing and psychology professor at Golden Gate University, who makes the point that “young people are not burning for freedom from their parents or the independence they can get from a car,” and that “teenagers are happy with the freedom they get from smartphones and computers” (which Professor Yarrow calls “private brain places”).  Yarrow’s final point is that Gen Y is more visually oriented than previous generations and that “brands and products represent who they are,” which “makes driving a clunker just to have wheels less acceptable.’”

The same article discounts the economy as a primary reason why cars are no longer irresistible.  “Some say its debt, college or otherwise keeping Gen Y out of the driver’s seat.  But consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow says that never stopped previous generations…from getting a nice junker until they could afford better.”  I think Kit Yarrow is certainly correct in explaining some Gen Y behavior and noting that the impact of computers, smartphones and the internet cannot be minimized.   Absent her analysis, my initial position would certainly have been that it’s the economy that matters most together with the reality that the automobile, though still very desirable, has substantial costs that are much more visible today.  I would point to the decline in family wealth, and the uncertain economy making it harder for families to cover all the necessary costs of living as well as a car for their driving age kids.  I would also point out that the costs and other requirements associated with automobile ownership are much clearer and more substantial today than for previous generations:  Insurance requirements, credit requirements, gas mileage costs, environmental impact.  I have no doubts that the economics based answer is at least partially correct, but this is a case where economics alone would not provide a sufficient explanation.  Our kids are different and this analysis helps us as educators understand that difference.


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