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The fact that everyday driving is a universally unpleasant experience, may have something to do with young people not wanting to spend tens of thousands of dollars doing it.

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Panicked. That’s the best adjective to describe automobile manufacturers around the world. They’re panicked because Millennials and Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2015) aren’t interested in driving and, what’s worse, not too keen on buying cars. “Owning and driving a vehicle will no longer be de rigueur,” Sarwant Singh wrote recently in Forbes magazine. “Instead, trends in many developed countries reveal that, compared to two decades or even a decade ago, people under the age of 30 are less likely to have a driving license,”

The people who make and sell cars are scrambling to figure out how to capture this market. I’m not a branding expert but I do have an idea.

Find a way to make driving not suck.

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Again, I’m not an expert, but I think the fact that everyday driving – commuting, shopping, navigating big cities – is a universally unpleasant experience, may have something to do with young people not wanting to spend tens of thousands of dollars doing it. It’s as if people under the age of 35 have not embraced the concept of working hard at a job you don’t like in order to buy things you don’t need.

It’s the opposite of how the automobile was embraced when it first went into mass circulation a little under 100 years ago. In the 1920s, young people were crazy for the automobile. The creation of the “hard top” made them the ideal location for a romantic tryst. “Flappers” were young women known for drinking gin, smoking cigarettes, dancing to jazz and worst of all, going for rides in automobiles. Cars represented freedom, independence and romance, qualities young people since the Pyramids have tended to value.

The automobile was considered so pernicious that, in 1921, policewoman Dr. Rae Muirhead urged Philadelphians to place female detectives “in the dance halls to prevent cheek-to-cheek dancing; and in the public parks with searchlights to prevent disgraceful goings-on on the roads where she can stop the he-vamp from luring the girl pedestrian into his automobile for a joy ride.”

The Vancouver Sun lambasted young automobile-mad flappers for wanting to “play with life, shirk responsibility, spend money recklessly and follow every silly fad which comes along. Miss Flapper shows her dimples, hitches her skirts up an inch or two, straightens her brother’s tie which she wears quite frequently, rolls her stockings down another inch and says with a saucy toss of her bobbed head, ‘Let ‘em rave. I’m having the time of my life right now.’”

Jazz – which terrified mothers and fathers – celebrated automotive romance with songs such as “In Our Little Love Mobile,” “Riding in Love’s Limousine,” “On the Back Seat of the Henry Ford,” “Fifteen Kisses on a Gallon of Gas,” and “When He Wanted to Love Her, He’d Put up the Cover.”

Given press like that, what 19-year-old wouldn’t want a Ford Model T?

Flash forward 100 years and the automobile represents climate change, pollution, congestion and urban blight. One member of “Gen Z” – 17-year-old Catherine Burns from Ottawa – summed up her generation’s disinterest in an e-mail:

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  • " `Cause they’re too busy trying to fix all the problems caused by the generations before them
  • More public transportation
  • Expensive
  • Uni is more expensive and too much student debt (textbooks are insane)
  • Environment is wack rn and we don’t want to mess it up more?”

Rn, of course, meaning ‘right now.’ The only way to get younger people interested in owning a car is to rediscover the romance in driving. Millennials and Gen Z, for instance, are more accepting of ride sharing and autonomous vehicles than their calcified elders. That may be because it’s more romantic to split a bottle of wine and make out in the back of an Uber than it is to spend hours behind the wheel in traffic listening to an episode of In Our Time.

When they do buy cars, Millennials and Gen Z prefer compact vehicles. Recent data from Honda reveals that over half of first-time buyers of new vehicles opt for cars rather than SUVs, minivan, or pickup trucks. Nissan’s research shows that 86 per cent of those aged between 18 and 34 would choose a sedan rather than an SUV or crossover. They want cars that don’t guzzle gas.

Young people. What can you do about them?

In 1926, the Montreal Gazette reported that Dr. Victor H. Lindlahr had a solution. He blamed the “trouble with the youth today” on the thymus gland which, when over-stimulated, created “mannish flappers and effeminate youth.” The stimulation was caused by the “softness and luxury which the march of science” had enabled. Dr. Lindlahr said the only remedy was “harder lives for young people.”

I don’t think his cure is going to work in 2019.

Millennials and Gen Z face climate change, an enormous disparity between rich and poor, student debt, political upheaval and technology that far outpaces society’s ability to control it. I’d say they have it pretty hard already. It’s going to take some big, positive advances to bring the romance back to driving. Automobile manufacturers can look forward to more sleepless nights.

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