Why Millennials Are Ditching Cars And Redefining Ownership

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Part of a series of stories produced in collaboration with NPR on the changing car culture in America.

You might think there’s one place in America you absolutely need a car — Los Angeles. You’d be wrong.

“I have been in L.A. without a car for two years now,” said Alyssa Rosenthal, make-up artist.

Alyssa’s job means lugging a professional make-up kit, think of a small tool box filled with enough supplies to make a supermodel or a zombie. Or a zombie supermodel. Point being: it’s heavy, and it’s her responsibility to get it to the movie set.

“It’s not easy, it’s definitely a big challenge but I make it happen,” said Rosenthal. “Public transit is really blowing up in L.A. right now. The trains go a lot of places and it makes it sometimes easier to get to locations with traffic and everything in L.A..”

What’s ‘blowing up’ are new transit options like the Metro Expo Line which opened last year, and is already surpassing rider projections. Here’s a stranger fact. At 28, Alyssa is part of a trend of Millennials who are either giving up, putting off or just not buying cars.

This has left car companies scratching their heads.

“As we’ve talked to consumers in this age group about how they feel about owning the car, the car companies think about this as ‘Well that’s sort of a silly question’ because of course everybody wants to own a car,” said Jill Hennessy, Clinical Professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She studied the attitudes of Millennials towards the car buying process. The short answer: they’re a lot different from Baby Boomers and Generation X.

“As we’ve talked to Millennials, they actually answer that question quite thoughtfully. While they do still want to own a car — not as much as they want to own a smartphone, by the way, that’s the physical possession they’re most attached to — they are thinking about ‘do I need a  car or not?’ in a way that five years ago or ten years ago we wouldn’t have seen to the same extent.”

It’s not just cars that Millennials question owning. Nearly any possession you can think of stopped being an “of course” and became a “hmmmm” for Millennials.

“‘You know,” Hennessy adopts a Millennial point of view,  “‘maybe it’s not so great to own everything anyway.'”

Hennessy says the economy has been a big part of that shift. Millennials have witnessed the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. They’ve watched their parents struggle with financial insecurity — having trouble keeping their jobs and their homes, no matter what their education level.

For someone born before Ronald Reagan was in office, this sounds like a nightmare. But Hennessy says that Millennials are so gosh-darn optimistic that they put a positive spin on it.

“They’re much more likely to find value in experiences than they are to find value in things.”

This is a paradigm shift–mark your 90’s retro bingo card–that extends beyond cars to things like housing. One of the forces that’s powering that change? It’s all those apps in your pocket.

Zach Brown prefers his skateboard and public transportation to get around L.A.
Zach Brown prefers his skateboard and public transportation to get around L.A.

Zach Brown’s preferred mode of transportation is his skateboard. Zach, 27, is an L.A. artist and actor who doesn’t own a car.

“I don’t feel like I actually buy things for myself,” said Brown. “Like people will go out and buy clothes or buy music or electronics or things like that… Most of my spare time is spent just hanging out with friends and you don’t necessarily have to purchase anything to do that. Art supplies. Art supplies and food. That’s where the majority of my money that I don’t spend on a car goes to.”

Zach is friends with Alyssa Rosenthal, the makeup artist, who finds herself spending her spare cash less on *things* and more on *experiences*.

“I love going to the movies and I like going to concerts a lot,” said Rosenthal, “and I like listening to music. I use Spotify and I listen to Pandora and things like that, but as far as purchasing those things I don’t typically do it.”

That’s why we see all kinds of companies — from movie studios pumping out films in IMAX to Apple adding iTunes Radio to their phones — putting an emphasis on the experiences they can provide as the shift from an industrial to a service economy enters a mature stage.

For these two Millennials, food is a big line item.

“It is a culture that I really do enjoy, going out to eat,” said Rosenthal. “Getting a good drink and being in that atmosphere. It’s a lot of fun.”

The simple pleasures and the bare necessities. Perhaps Millennials are on to something.

Noah Nelson is a reporter for Turnstyle News, a tech and digital culture site produced by Youth Radio.

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