Teens Without Wheels, A World Gone Mad

Why do millennials seem less excited about driving?

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Suburban life in the 1980s meant that the city bus did not run to my Tucson neighborhood. The closest store was several miles away. Kids didn’t have smartphones. Or email. Atari was initially bitchin’, but eventually—not immediately!—Pong got boring. Long, hot, infrequent treks on shitty bicycles could get us to a strip mall that had a grocery store and an arcade, but we’d usually lose a few friends to heatstroke along the way. It was a cruel, cruel disconnected world.

So turning 15-and-a-half meant you could get your drivers’ “learning permit,” allowing you to drive with a licensed driver in the car. Turning 16 meant you begged someone to take you to the DMV that morning, at sunrise, to get your license. You didn’t fail your test. You just didn’t.

But I was restless by 13. So I routinely snuck out of my house in the middle of the night, pushed my parents’ Datsun station wagon down the driveway so they wouldn’t hear the engine start, got that sucker running, picked up my friends from various windows and backdoors, and we went rollin’. It was a gear-grinding madhouse of clumsy trips across town or into the tiny city core, just blaring the radio and laughing and seeing stuff. Thankfully, because I have hardworking angels, we always returned safely to our bedrooms before dawn. By the age of 15-and-a–half, nobody had to teach me how to work a stick shift. I got my license on my 16th birthday. At 8:05 a.m.


Cars helped create the category of “teenagers” in the 1950s, when rock ’n’ roll, rebellion and rollin’ down the avenue in your own set of wheels began to shape a last stop before adulthood. Cool cars were central to that teenage identity—think American Graffiti and Grease. (Danny Zuko in Grease: “If we fix up this car, it could be make-out city, you know that.”)

Wheels held their own in youth culture for the next five decades, owing to the spread of suburbia and the rite-of-passage allure of independence.

But for the millennial generation, the landscape has shifted dramatically, and car culture doesn’t dominate the scene as much. They’d rather own a smartphone than a car, which makes sense now both socially and economically. In 1998, more than 60 percent of Americans between 16 and 19 had a driver’s license; by 2008, that number dropped to 46 percent, according to The New York Times.


Plenty goes into this cultural shift—(check out NPR’s recent series about millennials and cars) —and most of it is predictable change. There’s the trend toward urbanity, public transportation, ride-sharing, cyber-hitchhiking (thumbing a quick ride on Twitter), bike-sharing and taking the heel-toe express. Embedded in that is a nod toward environmental concerns and the natural evolution of a generation that’s been sharing everything all of their lives online—music, files, photos, videos, thoughts. To a big degree life has moved online, where connectivity does not require wheels. Carmakers have even theorized that for many millennials, a disincentive for owning and driving a car is the prospect of having to disengage from other technology long enough to pay attention to the road; better to be the face-in-phone passenger.

But there’s also an economic force at work: millennials were some of the hardest hit by the recession. Unemployment nationwide among those between 18 and 31 reached nearly 18 percent in 2008, and was as high as 12 percent in some regions this summer—trending higher than other demographic groups. Cars and insurance aren’t cheap; gas prices are higher; jobs are low-paying and hard to come by. Plus, Nevada’s graduated licensing program slows the roll between 16 and 18 with curfews and passenger limits. So why not just send a text and share a ride?

But most interesting to me is that young identities are increasingly being forged by ideals and commodities other than wild rides and status-announcing makes and models. I love it. Nostalgia is fun, but witnessing tectonic shifts in economic, social and technological paradigms is fascinating.