Young Americans Abandoning Cars and Churches
Fewer young adults have a drivers license. What does that mean for commuter churches?

What does the church have in common with the auto industry (besides big-haired salesman)? They're both failing to engage Millennials. Reports show that younger Americans aren't buying cars like they used to, and it may be more than the economy to blame. A closer look at the trends may have something to say to church leaders and not just auto executives.

The American auto industry has made a remarkable comeback in the last few years. After a nearly fatal collapse in 2008, the car markers are seeing record sales. But the boom isn't evident among the young who are failing to buy cars at the same pace as earlier generations.

An article in The Atlantic by Jordan Weissmann reveals that automakers are struggling to connect their products to teens and twenty-somethings. The problem isn't the cars, or even the economy, but driving in general. Fewer young people are getting drivers licenses. In 1998 nearly two-thirds of potential drivers age 19 or younger had a license. In 2008 it was less then half. It's hard to believe, but trends indicate young people in the 21st century no longer view a car as the symbol of adolescent independence. As one Toyota executive noted, "Many young people care more about buying the latest smart phone or gaming console than getting their driver's license."

What's the explanation for the shift away from the car culture most of us remember from our teenage years? Cities. Millennials are much more likely than earlier generations to live in large urban communities where cars are unnecessary or even an expensive liability. Weissman writes:

About 32 percent reside in cities, somewhat higher than the proportion of Generation X'ers or Baby Boomers who did when they were the same age, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center report. But as the Wall Street Journal reports, surveys have found that 88 percent want to live in an urban environment. When they're forced to settle down in a suburb, they prefer communities like Bethesda, Maryland, or Arlington, Virginia, which feature plenty of walking distance restaurants, retail, and public transportation to nearby Washington, DC.

If the Millennials truly become the peripatetic generation, walking to the office, the bus stop, or the corner store, it could mean a longterm dent in car sales. It's doubly problematic if they choose to raise children in the city. Growing up in the 'burbs was part of the reason driving was so central to Baby Boomers' lives. Car keys meant freedom. To city dwellers, they mean struggling to find an empty parking spot.

April 03, 2012