Surprise! Millennials Becoming Their Boomer Parents: Buying Cars And Moving To Sunny Suburbia

Dispatches from the goldfish bowl

Not long ago, big city media commentators were opining on the impending demise of the auto industry. Serious publications discussed the implications; even the New York Times pondered whether the end of car culture was imminent.

This was partly linked, so the thinking went, to a resurgence in walkable downtown living and a rejection of suburban sprawl. Lofts and bistros versus tracts and strip malls.

The chief heroes – or villains, depending on one’s point of view – were the Millennials. Late adoption of drivers licenses, low vehicle purchase rates, increased use of bicycles, trains and buses, and interest in start-up car-sharing services were all cited as omens.

Google BicyclesSome observers were giddy at the thought of a cool new world with fewer cars.

It would be a kind of Google campus/Manhattan blend. If not walking or biking, a variety of transportation options would shuttle people from home to work to happy hour at trendy tapas bars.

Goldfish Bowl LeftAt least, this was the view from inside the goldfish bowl of the northeast corridor cities and San Francisco – places where think tank and media folk really can travel inside the urban bubble without a car. However, out in the vast hinterland between the Hudson and the Golden Gate, we pragmatists were not convinced.

Coming from Boomer-world, where a car was a rite of passage – and one equipped with an FM radio cost extra – our own analysis pointed to other factors; stricter student driver rules, sky-rocketing insurance costs, hefty college loans and high unemployment rates among the young. And with many still living with parents, a family car is usually available.

Sure, the automotive industry will evolve – it always has – and big city congestion is real. But we resisted the temptation to cry Carmageddon, and advised clients to give the newbies time to adjust. Wisely, as it turns out.

Millennials morphing into their Boomer moms and dads: buying cars and moving to sunny suburbia

The latest J. D. Power data on new light vehicle buyers reveals Millennials accounted for 27% of U.S sales in 2014, rising from 23% in 2013.

Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, and a savvy, entertaining observer of American culture, reviewed the Power estimates and confessed he may have misjudged earlier reluctance by the Boomers’ kids to get behind the wheel (Millennials Not So Cheap after All, April 21, 2015).

Population Growth By January TemperatureThis followed an earlier piece (March 26, 2015) in which Thompson lists the five cities with the greatest in-migration since 2010; all are in the west and Sun Belt. He says their surging suburbs drive this growth, and links to a FiveThirtyEight report that Millennials are joining the westward, sun-bound migration at surprising rates.

He also included a fascinating New York Times chart comparing population growth and average January high temperature.

These “surprising” trends make sense to us.

Mission Impossible

Millennials are finally gaining financial traction, marrying, setting up households in places they can afford and having toddlers of their own. Maybe they now see their Boomer moms and dads in a more sympathetic light. We live in hope.

So, why the meme of an urban, car-free Millennial future? Jed Kolko, chief economist at real estate authority Trulia, told the FiveThirtyEight columnist that earlier stereotyping came from … “Your typical young, elite-media-outlet journalist” who was likely to be living “in the city.”  Got it: goldfish bowl.

Americans over 50 buy more cars than Germany plus the UK. Again! 

Reaction to the J. D. Power data was predictable: preoccupation with Millennials and their rising importance to U.S. auto sales. This awakening is impressive, but the big story attracted little attention.

Light duty vehicle sales _50 plus vs Germany_UKAmericans aged 50+ bought half of the 2014 total (49%), 6.9 million new vehicles – far more than in Germany and the UK combined (5.5 million).

It’s not like this is news. The 2013 data also showed buyers aged 50 and over account for around half the new vehicle market.

However, as we wrote back in November, 2014, global auto advertisers tend to ignore American Boomers while spending gazillions of dollars to win fewer sales in Germany and the UK.

The 50+ space is dominated by the Boomer-Plus Generation™, born 1940-1965. At 93 million it is the 15th most populous “nation” on the planet – bigger than any EU country. However, although car companies claim to be super-competitive, when the rubber hits the road, Boomers seldom see themselves in ads.

The official rationale – handed down from the Mad Men era – is that we are no longer willing to adapt or switch brands.

Perhaps now our Millennial children are finally following our footsteps, Boomer trendsetting credentials can re-visited.  Here at the 15th Nation we invite young adland disruptives to escape the fishbowl and engage America’s most adaptable generation.

Opportunity Goldfish

Boomer - neXt SM logo_MMOriginally published as a Boomer-Plus Consulting Group post; in September, 2017, we up-branded as Boomer / neXt to welcome the 4 million Gen Xers who join the Boomers in the 50+ space each year.

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