Teens’ Rites of Passage: Technology Trumps Transportation

Technology, not cars with teens.
Technology, not cars, are where it’s at with teens today.

Thirty years ago, the rite of passage going from being a kid to adulthood had to include having your own automobile.

Not so today.

In fact, the percentage of young adults who even have their driver’s license has declined considerably:  In the early 1980s, nearly half of 16-year-olds in America had a driver’s license. By 2010, that percentage had dropped to just ~28%.

What happened between then and now? A number of things, but the biggest may be the rise of consumer electronics and social media.

Recall what an automobile could provide a young adult in the 1980s: access to all of the kid-popular activities of the day: shopping, music, movies, getting together with friends, and so forth.

Today, teens can access pretty much all of that right at their fingertips via the Internet or a smartphone.

You want clothes? Order them online.

Music? Download it to your smartphone.

Communicate with friends? Just Skype or text away.

Meanwhile, between more sophisticated, costly auto maintenance and the high price of gasoline, owning a car has only become more expensive.

Auto insurance premiums for teens? Outta sight.

Plus, it’s just more of a hassle to get a license today. Driver education classes are disappearing from many a public school classroom, the casualty of budget cuts. Stricter state laws make it much more difficult and time-consuming to rack up the necessary behind-the-wheel training hours prior to taking driving tests.

The result is fewer kids getting licensed during their teen years.

In 1983, nearly 70% of 17-year-old Americans had drivers licenses … a figure that dropped to just ~46% by 2010.

Even for 18-year-olds, the percentage holding drivers licenses declined from ~80% in 1983 to only about 60% in 2010.

A recent survey conducted by Zipcar found that millennials (people age 18 to 34) would rather shop online than in stores. No car needed for that.

And when presented the choice between giving up their phone or their tablet computer or their car … two thirds of the Zipcar survey respondents would forego the car.

This is a veritable sea change in attitudes about wheels.

In fact, one could conclude that the very things that cars once represented – the “vehicle” that enabled you to “do what you want, see who you want and be what you want” – is what actually describes the digital and social media world today.

Meanwhile … the car is now just a way to get to your part-time job. Ugh.

College aspirations: Talk versus action.

College participation ratesPollsters like to point out that people will sometimes voice an opinion about an activity, a product or a political candidate — but what they say doesn’t match the reality.

If that’s the case, it makes the recent revelation that ~42% of ~500 Austrians surveyed in a Market Institut poll believe that Adolf Hitler’s rule “wasn’t all bad” even more scary than it sounds at first blush.

Bringing things back closer to home, a report issued in August 2012 by the National Center for Education Statistics states that ~96% of female high school seniors want to go to college … and that among male seniors, it’s only a tad lower at ~90%.

But here’s the actual reality: The U.S. Census Bureau reports that fewer than 60% of 18-24 year olds are actually enrolled in college or have earned their higher education degree.

Enrolling in college doesn’t necessarily mean graduating, either. Only one-third of 25-34 year olds held a college degree as of 2011 (36% of women and 28% of men).

Why aren’t kids going to college even though the vast majority of high school seniors say they want to attend? There are the predictable reasons:

  • Can’t afford college tuition
  • Entered the workplace instead
  • Didn’t graduate from high school (~16% of 18-24 year olds haven’t actually earned their high school diplomas)

But perhaps we’re beginning to see bit of a shift in thinking, too.

Most parents – and many school systems as well – hold up college prep as the primary objective of high school curricula and learning-related activities. But some may be looking at the less-than-lucrative job prospects of graduating college seniors and realizing that the traditional four-year college course of study isn’t the clear ticket to a gainful career that it once was.

Online learning, distance learning, technical training and hands-on mentoring are other post secondary education options that may looking more viable to some — particularly males.

In fact, fewer than 50% of males are enrolling in four-year educational institutions following high school, while for females, it’s closer to 75%. 

It’ll be interesting to see how all of this plays out over the coming decade.  Perhaps then we’ll have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to see if these trends were a potent of bad things society … or not.