Many analysts have claimed that younger generations are no longer interested in owning a car and will display rather different travel behavior from their predecessors. While some change is already observable today, they travel less and do so by car less frequently, it is not entirely clear whether this is reflective of an underlying shift in mentality or simply the result of (temporary) socio-economic factors. Because of this, it is still unclear whether they will start buying and driving cars as soon as they get older and wealthier, or whether they will remain open to other, more sustainable, flexible or shared modes of transportation.
The notion that young people no longer care about cars as a status symbol has become somewhat of an urban myth. Marketeers and consultants easily point to this “fact”, and even though solid proof is still lacking, the argument is often used to substantiate the claim that new generations will buy fewer cars and be more open to alternative means of transportation (e.g. bicycles, other forms of micro-mobility or public transport).
Interestingly, millennials and Gen Z indeed show different travel behavior from young people in, for instance, the 1990s. They travel less in general, spend more time at home, and travel less by car. Also, they have fewer driver’s licenses and own fewer cars. Yet, as soon as they grow up, find a (well-paying) job and have kids, they are quick to adopt the same kind of travel behavior as their parents and grandparents. Research provides several interlinked explanations for this postponing of “adult travel behavior”. Most of all, it seems, the explanation can be found in young people having less money and less need to travel a lot. They extend their education to when they are well into their twenties, they stay home with their parents longer and more often live in urban areas, where non-car-based travel is more feasible. On the contrary, evidence for a more fundamental shift in attitude towards cars and mobility is still lacking. In Europe as well as the U.S. and Australia, it appears that young people still want to buy a car and still recognize it as an important means of expressing themselves and their social status. Moreover, environmental concerns are (at least in the Netherlands) no reason not to travel by car.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to believe that today’s youth and young adults will bring some change to the mobility landscape when they grow older. They are getting used to different forms of non-car-based travel and even though most of them might end up buying a car, they are also likely to remain open to alternatives and, most of all, not to view their car as the only option available. Also, they are growing up using advanced forms of route planning, including options for cars, bicycles and public transport, and understand that different circumstances (e.g. time of day, weather) favor different modes of transportation. Most of all, these people will grow older in a world where there are many more alternatives available; from car sharing schemes to all sorts of micro-mobility solutions and, eventually, genuine mobility-as-a-service offerings.
Gen Z, and Gen Alpha after them, may also show other characteristics that could “prevent” them from buying cars and solely travelling by car. As we have noted before, Gen Z are the children of the Great Financial Crisis and they have been raised by (overly) protective parents. This has made for a highly sensitive and vulnerable generation that suffers severely from mental health issues and prefers to stay at home (and travel less). Also, they have grown up using digital platforms, make far less of a distinction between the “real” and the “virtual” and find truly meaningful experiences in online environments such as Fortnite or TikTok, possibly using them to professional aims as well (again, allowing them to stay at home). When they do go out, they expect the real world to exhibit the same kind of frictionless experience as their virtual habitats. As-a-service solutions (for bicycles, like Swapfiets, or mobility in general) tap into that desire and could take flight once this generation has the financial means and need to travel more.