Blind Spot: You Meet The Nicest People In A Jobless Recovery

The more things change...

The more things change…

Of all the megatrends bearing down on the auto industry, the tidal wave of apparent youth apathy towards cars is perhaps the most troubling. In any case, it’s one of the most discussed topics among both mainstream automotive reporters and a younger generation of car bloggers. But, as one might expect in any generational discussion, opinions about the roots and direction of the trend towards youthful carlessness are sharply divided along these lines, with the older reporters insisting that young people are “losing interest” in cars and the younger bloggers insisting the trend is entirely the product of a tough economic environment for young people.

I’ve been following this topic since 2009, I’ve watched these battle lines be drawn, and so far the discussion is stagnating into the kind of blame-game trench warfare that seems to take hold of all contemporary public debates. But while the generations battle over whether the coming carlessness can be blamed on the digitized fecklessness of Millenials or the Boomers’ irresponsible economic management, picking ones way through the debate’s no-mans-land and into the wider world grants a more nuanced view the situation.

The basic problem with the debate so far is that everyone engaged in it has a point, which they then get stuck on. Yes, surely the growth of digital social spaces makes the car an increasingly crude social tool. At the same time, crushing student debt and a dismal job market will certainly affect young peoples’ ability to buy some of the most expensive consumer products on the market. Debating the relative merits of these two causes is as worthwhile as trying to blame Democrats or Republicans for political dysfunction: the reality is, it takes a village to screw up anything as big as a political economy or traditional automotive culture.

Meanwhile, both sides refuse to acknowledge the gaping holes in their positions. The “blame the millenials” set seems to believe that changing attitudes and new digital space make the basic realities of American life disappear, as if the need to traverse a nation built around automobiles had simply vanished with the swipe of an iPhone. Meanwhile, the “blame the boomers” set seems to ignore the fact that, while economic opportunity may not be what it once was, the auto industry is a major innovator in the field of cost-hiding. The Greatest Generation may have had better job prospects than my cohort, but they sure didn’t have access to Zero Percent interest offers, subsidized leases or 96-month loan terms.

Thus far the contours of this debate teach us more about human nature than macroeconomics or technological disruption, namely that the human mind is far better at rationalizing than analyzing. And no wonder, considering the debate has been carried out almost exclusively by people who either depend on car sales (the industry and its mainstream “journalist” transcribers) or are invested in traditional automotive culture (the autoblogosphere’s blindered enthusiasts). While autos can be a fascinating prism through which to analyze broader social and economic trends, truly understanding what’s going on in the world of cars requires looking past the world of cars.

But one needn’t look too far: just two wheels away, the world of motorcycles is beginning to cope with the same basic issues. RideApart’s Tim Watson explains that even products which deliver way more fun and efficiency than cars at a much, much lower prices are facing the same challenges as cars when it comes to young people. On the surface this seems to support the notion that there’s more to pure economic forces at play in the world of mobility. After all, even part-time jobs pay enough to put any millenial in a $1k-down, $100/month commuter bike. But rather than trying to find a scapegoat for the trend, Watson does the unthinkable: he blames not the millenials or the boomers, but the industry. You know, the guys for whom this issue is more than an interesting but abstract debate.

And it turns out that, when faced with an existential threat, companies can be far more self-critical than the chattering classes. Watson notes

An American Honda rep told me recently that there was a concerted plan within the company three years ago to do something after being confronted with this problem. “At that time in the U.S., Honda had an entry-level 250cc model with the next step up being a 600cc. That, in hindsight, was perhaps too big of a gap for new riders. In the 1960s Honda built its reputation on offering affordable, fun motorcycles. That’s what we’re aiming to do again now.”

Honda, to my mind has so far delivered on its promise to offer bikes that younger people may find attractive. In the past three years, it has launched 11 new models specifically for those type of riders with the emphasis on reasonable cost and ease of use.

This insight is the key to understanding the decline of the automobile: after decades of loading its bikes with power and technology, Honda had innovated itself out of the very market that built its brand. The truth is, you don’t meet the nicest people in a 600 cc sportbike or even a dedicated dirt/DS bike, you meet them on something that is affordable and efficient enough to lend a peace of mind that nobody will ever feel while worrying how they will make the next lease payment on their C-Class. Honda’s genius in the 1960s, like the Volkswagen Beetle and later Japanese cars, was that it made a virtue of simplicity at a time when automobiles were reaching their baroque apogee.

Which, as it turns out, is where we are finding ourselves again. The problem is not, as has been obtusely argued in recent days, that we are on the brink of some government-mandated automotive malaise. Rather, the sense of loss that auto enthusiasts feel around new metal is a product of overquality, a dissatisfaction with more everything. What we are seeing then, is a redux of the very pre-malaise revolution that defined the baby boomers: at a time when the American car industry was at its peak, young Americans suddenly fell out of love with its chrome- and status-soaked land barges and into love with the simplicity of VW Beetles and Honda motorcycles. But instead of new cars for new priorities, Millenials are left to choose from cars developed for boomers and made affordable only through ruinous debt.

Only in the world of motorcycles has that revolution come full circle, with Honda relaunching a new generation of affordable, useable and just plain fun bikes that start at prices as low as $3,000 for the raved-about Honda Grom. If millenials can’t afford the $500 down and ~$80/month it takes to fall in love with joys of commuting fun at its carefree best, well then the economy must be worse than anyone realizes. And if Honda’s back-to-basics approach to motorcycles faces noneconomic barriers, perhaps it will be time to start worrying about my generation.

On the other hand, if Honda can sell millenials on the idea that true freedom equals mobility minus the stress of paying for high-tech turbo engines,  five-star crash ratings, backup cameras and Bluetooth… well, maybe we’ll see Honda apply this “less is more” philosophy to its cars too. Sure, some bloggers will call it “Malaise 2.0” when cars start becoming simpler, when every interior stops having to boast “upscale touches” and when 0-60 times start dropping. After all, enthusiasts have always been trapped between the twin pulls of “less is more” and “more is more.”

But for people who just need to get around, cars peaked about the same time SuperSport 600 motorcycles reached the point of diminishing returns. And if a move towards simplicity delivers even a little more direct connection to machinery, as logic suggests it should, perhaps even enthusiasts are more ready for “Malaise 2.0” than they think. If nothing else, traffic –no, society as a whole– would be vastly improved simply by replacing the hordes of stressed-out luxury leasers with nice people on Hondas. .