If you have read any of the big car blogs in the last year, you’ve doubtless endured at least a few pieces on the “Millennial Question.” The role of youth in the automotive culture has so thoroughly captured the attention of car writers, hardly a day goes by in which at least one blog doesn’t add something to the debate. And no wonder: America’s much-vaunted “love affair with the automobile” has long relied heavily on a strong association between the youthful desire for freedom and the mobility that cars provide. If, as the data clearly shows, kids are less likely to buy cars than they used to be, it’s not just the auto industry that stands to be impacted… the very character of American culture is at stake.
Unfortunately, these high stakes have led to a more emotionalized discourse on the subject but not a better one. As I mentioned in my last Blind Spot on the subject, the conversation seems stuck between Baby Boomers trying to blame/shame Millennials for “giving up on cars,” and Millennials blaming Boomers for bequeathing them an economy with far less opportunity.
Regardless of which side you want to blame, it’s important to understand how complex this issue is. In the spirit of improving the discourse, here are a few issues that every writer should consider before launching into this divisive and far-more-interesting-than-you’d-think-by-reading-most-of-the-stories-on-it topic.
- Rule 1) If you write a piece that seeks to blame rather than understand, it will probably suck. You will oversimplify the subject and leave out the nuances and perspectives that make this topic fascinating. You will fail to educate your audience and you will add to the triumph of trolling over discourse. Nobody needs more of this.
- Rule 2) Remember that impersonal economic trends have personal psychological implications. In other words, if Millennials are entering an economy that offers less opportunity to buy cars they are not likely to justify their decision to not buy a car on the feeling that they are just poor. Humans are more likely to use justifications like environmentalism or neo-urbanist chic to explain choices than admit that their decisions are the product of economic determinism. Though “only” justifications, these thought patterns form the basis of cultural change and so should not be ignored.
- Rule 3) The industry-side corollary to Rule 2 is that it’s easier to change marketing/messaging and product than it is to change major economic or demographic trends. At the end of the day, the industry needs new buyers and it will either figure out how to bring them into the market or it won’t. Any journalist who focuses on the Boomer-Millennial divide is missing the real question, which is “how does the auto industry plan on reversing this undeniable and dangerous market trend?
- Rule 3) There are auto markets outside the US, pay attention to them. Though the US auto market is unique in many ways, the problem of young people seeming to lose interest in cars is not unique to it. In fact, the US is actually the last major developed economy to join the trend, following Europe and Japan where it has been established for years. Both Europe and Japan offer their own unique mix of economic and cultural explanations for the phenomenon, which provide fascinating and revealing points of contrast for Americans grappling with the issue.
- Rule 4) This issue is as much about the past as the present. You’ll learn as much about the issue from Boomers as you will from Millennials… just not if you ask them why Millennials hate cars. Instead, ask them about the role cars played in their lives as young people. Contrast their experience with modern examples. Try to unpack the various and subtle influences that may have changed how people relate to cars. Examine the various points of historical youth influence on cars and the car business, especially the co-option of youthful rebellion. Remember, the discussion is not about an absolute (“do young people love or hate cars?”) but a relative trend (“are young people becoming less interested in cars than previous generations?”).
- Rule 5) Don’t be blindered by your personal feelings. Are you a Millennial who likes cars? Guess what, almost all car bloggers are. Shouting repeatedly that YOUNG PEOPLE DON’T HATE CARS, I KNOW, I AM ONE is counter-productive: your anecdotal evidence says far less about the situation than your increasingly shrill insistence that YOUNG PEOPLE LOVE CARS, which is basically an admission that you feel somewhat alone in your opinions. Though anecdotes can provide insight, be sure to be sure these insights actually jive with the big-picture trends. After all, if you are a Millennial who loves cars, you should want to do more than just rant about this topic. Discovering the hidden factors, the tipping points and possible solutions are what will actually push the discussion forward and help all the stakeholders in the automotive business find a way forward that works for everyone.