The hardest hit by school closures and job losses in the COVID pandemic, Gen Z lacks the earning potential or upward mobility as previous generations.
It seems like cars are falling out of favour. Passenger car registrations in Europe declined by 10.4 per cent during 2022 to 12.8 million units. Compared with 2019 the decline was even more stark and total volume was down by 29 per cent with 4.5 million fewer new vehicle registrations.
There is little doubt the delay with new cars arriving at dealerships due to the shortage of semiconductors, inflation, the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis were all contributing factors to the downturn but is it also the case that our love affair with the car has soured and it is no longer the status symbol it once was?
For decades, each generation has had its own unique relationship with cars. Baby Boomers, born in the post-war boom between 1946 and 1964, were car manufacturers' dream customers. Their substantial spending power and net worth was inextricably linked with the growth in car sales.
The demographic bridge between the Boomers and Millennials is Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980 and the most exclusive of the gens with only around 65 million worldwide, this cohort is outnumbered when compared to 75 million Boomers and 83 million Millennials.
Generation X was characterised by families where men were not the sole earners as was the case in the Boomer household but rather more women than ever were working outside of the home, necessitating the need for two cars in many households.
But it was the arrival of the Millennials or those born between 1981 and 1996, the generation whose entry into the workplace coincided with the 2007–09 recession, that sparked predictions about the end of car ownership and driving. This generation opted to share rather than own cars.
For Millennials, the costs involved with owning and maintaining a car combined with a desire for technology and on-demand services made the new evolving options of ride-hailing services and ride sharing more appealing.
Public transport increasingly favoured
However, studies in the US now indicate that Millennials, despite being more receptive to using alternative modes of transportation to get from point A to point B than prior generations, do drive but just less than previous generations.
According to the journal Transportation Research, Millennials are driving 8 per cent less than Generation X and 9 per cent less than Baby Boomers.
Generation Z, those born after 1996 are the first generation to grow up with the Internet and smartphones and are considered the most critical consumer group making their buying preferences much harder for digital marketers to predict.
Today it's these digitally savvy young people that have carmakers concerned. This generation it seems is shunning driving and opting more for sustainable choices like cycling and public transport.
They are the most diverse generation in the EU and the best educated but they are also the most vulnerable in the housing and labour markets.
In fact, Generation Z is the generation most at risk of poverty and worst affected by the lack of intergenerational earning mobility. In addition, they have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic following school and college closures and also job losses. It is likely therefore that Gen Z will shun driving not just for concerns about health and the environment but also due to costs.
A recent German study on changes in everyday bicycle and car use that occurred between 2002 and 2017 showed that changes in everyday mobility are not driven by generational change.
Fewer private car sales
Instead, the research suggests that whether individuals are more likely to use a car or a bicycle as a transport mode is determined by a number of varied factors, the most significant being where you live, education, income, and commuting distance.
According to The Future of Mobility, a new report from the global management consulting firm McKinsey, mobility is "on the verge of a major transformation” and one major outcome will be “fewer private-car sales".
The next decade will see a reduction of 15 per cent but as more countries and cities enact regulations to encourage sustainability and curb private vehicle use from reduced parking spaces to limiting the number of private cars in cities, the use of cars is expected to fall dramatically, particularly in many European and US cities.
The proliferation of low-paid and less secure jobs and a decrease in home ownership is likely to result in lower car ownership rates among Gen Z but change will not be driven by one age cohort.
The car is expected to maintain its dominant position over the next decade but it will face increasing competition from alternative transportation modes and it's likely, in the future, more than just Gen Z will wonder if they really need to own a car.