We asked Millennials and Gen Z to tell us why they aren’t getting their driver’s licenses. Their top reasons tell us it goes beyond Uber and public transit…
In teen movies of a bygone time, getting a driver’s license and a car was every 16-year-olds’ dream come true. For today’s youth, that notion is outdated. The rate at which teens are getting their licenses has been in a steady decline since the days of Sixteen Candles: in 2014, just 24.5% of 16-year-olds had a license compared to 46.2% in 1983—according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. The rate of older would-be drivers has decreased too: 16.4% fewer 20-24-year-olds had licenses in 2014 than in 1983, 11% fewer 25-29-year-olds, 10.3% fewer 30-34-year-olds, and 7.4% fewer 35-39-year-olds.
There have been dozens of theories to explain why young consumers have put off their inaugural trips to the DMV. While some have hypothesized that Millennials and Gen Z don’t need a mode of transportation because they just aren’t as interested in in-person socializing (thanks to their digital friendships), many other cultural changes have contributed to the decline in youthful joyrides. For starters, more people live in urban areas today than in the past—overall, 62.7% of the U.S. population lives in cities, according to Census data. In 2011, the rate of population growth in urban areas outpaced suburban growth for the first time in a century, reversing a trend that held steady since the invention of the car. Young consumers who rely on public transportation and ride-sharing services have less of a need to get behind the wheel themselves.
Speaking of ridesharing, the mega growth of apps like Uber and Lyft has also been blamed for young consumers’ changing transit habits. Lyft’s co-founder even went so far as to tell Mashable that most Millennials won’t own a car in five years (and he made his prediction back in 2015). He went on to say that while cars were once signs of freedom, they are now viewed as an expensive “ball and chain.” While these factors contribute to the younger generations’ distaste for driving, are they the full story? We went straight to the source to find out. In our recent monthly survey, we asked 16-35-year-olds, “Why haven’t you gotten a driver’s license or permit?”* Here are the top ten results:
*This was an open-end response question to allow us to capture the full range of reasons Millennials and Gen Z cite for not getting a license—without our preconceived ideas shaping their responses. As with any qualitative question, the responses include those that are top of mind and those that are most popular. The lists are ordered according to number of responses received, and alphabetically when ties occurred.
Why Aren’t They Getting Their Licenses?
Don’t need to drive
Afraid of driving
In the process
Don’t know why
Don’t care/want to
We should note that of all the 13-35-year-olds surveyed, 72% already have a driver’s license, and another 9% have a learner’s permit. But that leaves 19% of young consumers that are old enough to get their license but haven’t taken the plunge. Their top reason? They just don’t have the time. A full 40% of 16-35-year-olds say they’re too busy to get a license. While we could dive into all the ways that Millennials and Gen Z are losing their free time, another way to read this is: compared to other activities, driving simply isn’t a priority. In other words, they have other ways of getting around that serve them just fine (which is also indicated in their second most popular answer), be it through public transportation, their parents, or Uber. (Not to mention that we could be adding self-driving cars to that list in the not-so-distant future.)
Many respondents also cited “too expensive” as a reason for not getting their license, an explanation we’ve reported in the past. While Millennials have often been accused of killing the auto industry with their lack of interest in automobiles, the reality is that the cash-strapped, under-employed, debt-carrying generation simply can’t afford the luxury of a car (luckily, ridesharing and city-living means they don’t have to). This is beginning to change for them (more on that tomorrow), but now the buck is being passed to Gen Z, with “too expensive” landing in their top three reasons for not getting a license:
Coming in at number three on the list for Millennials—and 16-35-year-old respondents overall—is a more sobering reason for abstaining from driving: fear. While previous generations listed things like spiders, death, and public speaking as their top fears, for Gen Z and Millennials, it’s distracted drivers. The poll from Penn Schoen Berland on behalf of Ford Motor Co. also found that 88% of Millennials and Gen Z are anxious about driving due to the danger of other drivers, 79% are afraid of icy roads, and 74% are afraid of backing out into a busy road.
While we know today’s Millennials & Gen Z are the most stressed and anxious generations to date, there’s likely another reason for their fears: the rise of tech-related car accidents. The National Safety Council reports that 1.6 million car crashes a year are caused by cell phone use, and nearly one in four are caused by texting and driving. This impacts teens at a high rate—21% of teen drivers involved in fatal accidents were distracted by their cell phones—but for 16-17-year-olds, “afraid of driving” didn’t crack the top ten. Instead, it’s Millennials (who may have accumulated more personal or second-hand experience with risky tech use on the road) that are focused on this fear: 13% say this is the reason they don’t have a license.
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