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Why Isn’t Gen Z Driving?

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

While many 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 new trend that sets them apart from their Millennial and Gen X predecessors, finding that more than 40 percent of 19-year-old Gen Z Americans (born after 2000) do not have a driver’s license and 48 percent of 16- to 18-year-olds do not drive at all. 

The figures mark 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 the makeup of 19-year-olds with a license had dropped to 75 percent. 

So what’s keeping Gen Z out of the driver’s seat and how will the trend impact the aftermarket? Jim Lang, aftermarket analyst and president of Lang Marketing, offers his insights.

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

In Gen Z we’re seeing a redefinition of what the vehicle is and really means to them. For Gen Z, the vehicle is just a means of getting from point A to point B, whereas for Baby Boomers at the same age, having a car and getting your driver’s license was a point of personal expression and pride as 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 and they don’t want to contribute to those issues of pollution, climate change, etc. 

Are environmental concerns the only factor?

The social and technological environment is also eliminating the urgency to drive that other generations felt. … If you can visit and interact with other people 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? It comes down to 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 a case of arrested development?

So much depends on household formation, 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 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.  

How could recent events impact this trend?

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 some urgency Gen Z may not have been feeling [pre-pandemic]. 

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

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 and behavior shift that could completely change the nature of the vehicle ownership structure we operate in today. 

How might shop owners see this shift impact day to day operations?

Millennials and Gen Zers were already starting to make an impact with their preferences for shopping online and COVID-19’s only reinforced and accelerated those habits. The Gen Z consumer perspective is one of finding and obtaining most things they’re looking for online with ease, convenience and a way to research price, and that’s sealing their expectations for the buying experience. 

Couple that with the view that the vehicle is just a tool and down the line that could mean fewer customers coming into the shop, and the customers that are coming in will likely expect a different kind of shopping experience. 

That shift might be coming five or 10 years down the road, but the friction shop owners may be starting to feel today with younger customers coming (to the shop with preconceived notions based on what they’ve seen online) is likely just the start of what’s to come.

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