Why Millennial Men Aren’t in the Driver’s Seat

Dude, I don't care about cars.

I’ve never really gotten the car-cult thing. So far in my auto-owning life, I’ve had a Nissan, a Jeep, a Subaru, a Mercury, two minivans whose makers I don’t even remember and the current Honda. No brand loyalty whatsoever, as you can see. I don’t wash my wheels, or even vacuum them until they really get grody. To me, a car is just a way to get to work.

By coincidence, I split a twin in my sleepy suburban town with a guy who is serious about his cars. Jim trades his wheels in regularly—his current baby is a big ol’ Dodge Charger with a hemi, whatever that is—and polishes them every weekend without fail. Cars mean something to Jim; you can tell by the careful attention he pays to details, by the array of cleansers and polishes he owns, by the way he lingers for long hours in the driveway, with rock-and-roll on the radio and a chamois in hand.

Jim’s a dying breed.

While for him and his fellow boomers, cars stand for something—freedom, the threshold of adulthood, even sex by the dashboard light—to younger guys today, a set of wheels isn’t so iconic. How else to explain why the rates of dudes with driver’s licenses are falling precipitously? A recent study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute found that the percentage of males ages 25 to 29 who have driver’s licenses has declined by 10.6 percent over the past 15 years. The number of women with licenses has also gone down, but only by half that. It’s all part of what study co-author Michael Sivak says is “the changing gender economics” of who’s behind the wheel.

Why would men no longer race to the nearest driver’s licensing center the minute they’re eligible for a learner’s permit? When I talked to Penn School of Education professor Shaun Harper for this piece on why young men today can’t seem to get in gear, he talked about how, when he was growing up, you could drive through any neighborhood and find a collection of guys crowded together beneath an upraised hood—old men, middle-aged men, and kids along the edges of the group. Such gatherings weren’t just a way to pass the time; they were a way for knowledge and values and work ethic to be passed from one generation to another. You never see that anymore, Harper told me. And he’s right. Cars are now so computerized and complicated that “most people don’t even change their own oil,” travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin says in an AP story on the UMichigan study. “Independence, freedom, being able to customize the car to reflect you—these are not part of young people’s association with vehicles.”

Study author Sivak cited the Internet as another reason guys are traveling less; prior studies have shown that countries with high Internet usage rates have lower licensing rates for young people. And smartphones and laptops make commuting on public trans appealing to the younger set; SEPTA ridership hit a 22-year high in 2011, and is up another one percent this year. But the economy is also a factor; car insurance rates are sky-high for young men, many of whom are under-employed or unemployed and living at home. And then there’s the car itself: The average auto cost about $18,000 in 1995; today, it’s $30,300.

There are some salutary effects of this societal change. Women, for instance, purchase smaller, safer, more economical cars than men do. The less driving, the less environmental pollution. And in the 1950s, only half of all adult women in the U.S. had driver’s licenses. Today, overall, women drivers outnumber men, 105.7 million to 104.3 million. You’ve driven a long way, baby. I sure hope, though, it’s not just because today’s men aren’t going anywhere.