Generation Y: Smartphones, not cars?

As fewer young drivers find themselves on the roads, is it due to generational "disinterest"?

Once, getting your first car was considered a sign of joining the adult world. Handed the keys and no longer under the dominion of your parents -- at least, that's what you believed in that moment of triumph – a moving vehicle promised freedom, open roads and hours of delight.

But now, why are the rates of young drivers on the road decreasing?

generation y consumer patterns vehicles smartphones mobile technology

The automotive industry has been pondering this question. The Atlantic reports that Toyota USA President Jim Lentz said:

"We have to face the growing reality that today young people don't seem to be as interested in cars as previous generations. Many young people care more about buying the latest smart phone or gaming console than getting their driver's license."

Over the past decade, there has been a shift in consumer demand -- young people are simply not buying cars the way they used to. Instead, a smartphone or tablet seems to be the luxury item of choice.

According to the NY Times, in 1998, 64.4 percent of potential drivers -- up to 19 years old -- had a driver's license. In 2008, only 46.3 percent possessed the legal ability to drive. This percentage has decreased steadily, and the current economic climate is a likely deterrent to the next generation of consumers.

A smartphone may not be able to cart you around, however it is a less expensive investment. But is it truly due to "disinterest" that we simply aren't purchasing cars these days?

A vehicle is a long-term investment. Coupled with rising living costs, college fees and a less-than-stable job market, it's no wonder we're setting our sights a little lower than the latest Coupe.

Culture, the economy and social expectations adapt and change. Your first car is no longer a ritual event; instead, it is something you get when you can afford to, not before, and is based on finances rather than age.

Unfortunately, in places where city infrastructure has been constructed based on the assumption of owning a vehicle -- including many U.S. cities -- adaption to this change in circumstance can be difficult. In the UK, the high expense associated with owning a car, from insurance to petrol, has seen the same shift in consumer patterns.

It is a luxury to own a car, and it is not due to "disinterest" that so many of the younger generation don't possess one. We can't blame an interest in technology for the shift in consumer demand. High living costs and financial feasibility make finding cheaper alternatives necessary.

The parents who may have bought a car for their teenager twenty years ago now settle for a new model of smartphone, and the recent college grad is more concerned about securing a job and trying to move out than buying that car they've been after.

However, sighing over our empty pockets isn't the only factor that might be responsible for changing this consumer pattern. A recent article by Forbes raised an interesting point; technology enables much of the freedom that once cars symbolized.

Communicating with peers, forming relationships, streaming films, making purchases; all of this is now possible through mobile technology. Experiences are no longer restricted depending on our location -- working from home, reading the news, watching a movie, talking with our friends -- it can all be achieved through a small device.

Perhaps this is a rather sobering thought, but it's still a valid one. Generation Y no longer see vehicles as a necessity -- whereas an instant medium of communication and connection might be.

Image credit: Bowen