Generational shifts are much feted, and usually overblown. Sentences that begin with the words “kids these days” are likely to spiral quickly into ahistorical curmudgeonliness. Some generational changes, however, are both real and revealing. Among these is the evolution of an old American rite of passage: the purchase of a first car. That ritual has gradually evolved into a new quintessential American experience: the non-purchase of a first car. This change has been characterized by older folks as proof of Millennial immaturity and general disinterest in independence; in reality, it tells us more about how cars fit into today’s world than it does about the priorities of young adults.
It’s a narrative captured in books and movies, songs and stories—the teenager triumphantly pulling into a driveway in a beat-up, rattling deathtrap, which may look like a humble car but is in fact liberty itself; the middle-aged suburbanite lawyer or banker recounting in astonishing detail every feature of their first car, from cup-holders to upholstery, and implying somehow that this decades-gone monstrosity is what shepherded them into instant adulthood.
The first car is so significant an acquisition that even pre-purchase negotiations are a well-worn story. We’re familiar with the image of a savvy teen haggling with their parents (or shaking them down outright), citing the comparative merits of this model over that one, or self-righteously comparing a reluctant mom or dad to the heavy-handed rulers of Soviet-bloc nations. This story has undergone a remarkable shift. The new narrative is something else entirely: Young adults just aren’t buying cars these days as much as they used to.
At UChicago, a self-declared car-owning student can seem something like Bigfoot, more the stuff of myth than reality, and maybe a little unnerving. UChicago may fall on the extreme end of the car-owning continuum, but it’s hardly an exception. Fewer and fewer students seem to own cars. This worries those members of older generations who think that not buying a car is akin to cancelling adulthood. But what sends them into apoplectic fits is the notion that students just don’t want cars anymore. That, more than anything, is the greatest shift, but it tells us more about the status of cars in today’s world than it does about their younger drivers.
This isn’t to suggest that young adults don’t want cars ever, but car ownership increasingly strikes us as a nuisance to be staved off, not rushed at headlong. Who wants to deal with gas, parking, and insurance? When we think of owning a car of our own, the phrases that often spring to mind are ones like: “parking tickets,” and “parallel parking, oh God.” That’s a step down from “autonomy” and “freedom” and all the grand principles the car once evoked. We might accept that car ownership is an inevitability (maybe), but today, the first car is a sizable chore, not a step toward independence.
Some parents don’t seem to know whether they should be appalled or relieved. On the one hand, the car-free student is a boon. All those parents who extorted their own parents for cash (or made off with the family station wagon when they weren’t accommodated) have been spared an intergenerational comeuppance. On the other hand, the denigration of the car is a horror. Recently, my own lovely parents asked me with some trepidation why I hadn’t attempted to claim their minivan. I reminded them that their stance had always been that cars weren’t necessary for student life on an urban campus. They responded with something to the effect of, “Well, of course you can’t actually have the car, but we demand that you demand it anyway.”
This conversation—the baffled parents asking their child why they haven’t been begged for a car, and the baffled student trying to explain why that isn’t such an appealing vision anyway—is becoming its own shared cultural experience for today’s young adults.
Those who bemoan the shift are inclined to see the fading of the car as a sign of youthful degeneracy and speak of it in apocalyptic terms. The young these days don’t care about independence and are liable to live off their parents like leeches; cue the image of the thirty-year-old living in his parents’ basement. And sure, cars have long been stand-ins for lofty ideas (freedom, independence, etc.). Nevertheless, the decline of the car signifies very little. Cars are used less frequently because they aren’t as convenient anymore. An increasingly urbanite population finds itself relying more on public transportation. A car doesn’t exactly mean freedom for someone who’s already been using trains and buses without much difficulty. And when we actually need a car, we can summon an Uber in less time than it would have taken to walk to wherever we would have parked our hypothetical car, dig out the snow, and grumble over the parking tickets. Why bother? Shying away from owning cars is more indicative of a car’s declining status than it is of some mass Millennial phobia of responsibility/adulthood.
Not much has actually been forfeited in the uprooting of the car, besides its symbolic power as a sign of adulthood and independence. If the car no longer signifies a shared cultural step from dependence to self-determination, it’s not quite clear what else might. A CTA bus is hardly compelling. Arguing that trains represent “freedom” is its own kind of lunacy.
But that’s true of a wide range of faded symbols, which once had cachet as markers of adulthood: the first car, high school graduation, college diplomas, first jobs, etc. The car is no longer a ticket to independence. Even high school graduation’s role as a step toward economic independence is less clear in a world where so many pursue college degrees. College graduation is also less informative, when postgraduate work is a necessity for a wide range of professions. And what on earth does a first job “mean” when students are all vying for prestigious internships, research positions, and fellowships?
Perhaps we have so much difficulty forming shared cultural symbols to characterize discrete steps in our personal narratives because those steps are no longer widely shared. The paths people take from school to the workforce are neither as clear nor as common as they used to be. As shifting aspirations breed a more varied set of life trajectories, the symbols that once marked progress toward those aspirations have become less compelling. Maybe, then, the first car’s lost grandeur does mean something (if not what its proponents imagine): We live in a world that no longer lends itself to the simple, easy symbols that past generations took for granted.
Natalie Denby is a third-year in the College.