TL;DR*: I could have, but instead I quit the job that would have made car ownership financially feasible and instead used that money to go live in Thailand for a while.
The Long Version:
It’s trite, really, the older generation complaining about the lost values and demise of the generation they’ve spawned. Whether it’s ankle-showing skirts or tattoos, Elvis gyrating or Miley Cyrus on an ice cream cart’s pole, the youth are always shaking up their elders. In fact, you’re probably doing youth wrong if you don’t ruffle any feathers.
I’m 25. Firmly a grown-up in the eyes of society. Yet the confused older generations won’t shut up about my own generation, aka “the millennials,” as we enter adulthood. We keep getting press, whether it be because of our perceived refusal to adopt markers of adulthood (marriage, 2.3 kids, a house in the suburbs), our apparent inability or refusal to move out of Mom and Dad’s house and get a job, or all those damn craft produced pickles we insist on making with our college degrees.
My response to most of this is: 1) the economy blew up during the time we were supposed to start careers; 2) we observe marriage as a tool of oppression in some cases (religion, refusing the right to marry to gays) and as meaningless in others (most of our parents have split up); 3) we reject suburban living, and the cubicle jobs that make them possible, as the ultimate life achievement; 4) some of us reject of the mass-marketed consumer culture of our youths; 5) a lot of us are drowning in student loans; 6) raising kids is damned expensive, almost always requiring two incomes these days, and we have no support outside our own families to make this more manageable. In essence, we’ve had external barriers to achieving adulthood merit badges, and during that time, we’ve started to think about what those achievements really mean.
The most recent article is about cars: why we don’t buy them and what Detroit is doing wrong in courting our dollars. Jordan Weissmann of the Atlantic muses that millennials don’t buy cars because we prefer to live in walkable urban areas where we can use public transportation and save apply our disposable income to electronics and gadgets, which are apparently more important to us.
I don’t think he is entirely wrong. While turning 16 and accessing car keys was just about the most exciting and important thing ever to have happened in the world ever to my peer group in 2002, many of us are changing our tune. We’ve seen alternatives to personal car ownership in cities in the US and abroad and we know the cultural advantages and the inconveniences of living in walkable areas. Here, Weissmann is right in his analysis. While the boomers fled cities, a move very dependent on the personal automobile, their kids have weighed the advantages against the disadvantages, and are moving back in.
He’s also right in noting that the cars available aren’t super appealing to us. Since I laid eyes on a first generation Prius back in high school, I personally vowed that my first new car, purchased with my hard-earned money, would be even better. Finally, we’re getting some consumer electric cars on the market, but they’re out of my price range. The most practical option for me would be to buy one of the standard, reliable models, probably from Japan. Weissman is right: I’m not swooning over a new Honda Accord the way 20-somethings in previous generations lusted over cars 20, 30, or 40 years ago.
In a way, my generation’s obsession with technology may have taken the place over a firm interest in cars and car culture that consumed young people back in the day. I didn’t know anyone in college who adorned their dorm walls with pictures of muscle cars. I’m not sure young, hot supermodels sprawl over hot rods for posters these days at all. [Fun Fact: my 2004 dorm room included a picture of Bob Marley doing something illegal, a Radiohead poster, and a scene from the Godfather featuring Al Pacino standing over Marlon Brando that I thought was, like, symbolic or something.]
The symbols of success and wealth are different to us. I’m more likely to be envious of a friend’s vacation, iPad 2, or backyard chickens than I am to give a hoot about a friend’s new car.
What Weissman fails to understand, along with every other writer trying to characterize my generation, is that we design our lives deliberately to include or avoid parts of our parents’ generations’ modus operandi. There is thought and theory behind our actions, and we believe that the consequences of our actions might actually improve the world just a teeny, tiny bit.
I should tell you that I do have access to a car. My parents no longer drive their 1999 Plymouth Grand Voyager minivan, and I got to command it during college and after. I dubbed it White Lightning and at one point subbed out the backseats for a couch. Every few months, White Lightning is terribly convenient for hauling friends to the lake and subbing in for a moving van. More often, it sat neglected in a parking lot. Its more practical use was that of a portable bike garage. In fact, I had pride in leaving White Lightning unused. Each time my feet, my bike, or the bus got me moving instead of the van, I felt like I’d “won.”
Why is car neglect winning? Because the personal automobile promotes all sorts of things I don’t like in my life.
For one, the kind of living that is car-dependent is quite isolating. The days I found myself shuffling off to work in the car, waiting in traffic, and waltzing into the office before reversing the route later were lonely. Factor in nerve-grating traffic and the irony of driving to a gym to work out on a machine, and I fail to see the car as something that promotes personal freedom. I much preferred paying a higher rent and walking back and forth to work, stopping at the grocery store on the way home. I felt as though I was part of a living community. It engaged my civic pride. And sometimes it rained on me and my groceries fell out of their sack.
In addition, on the bus or on other public transportation, you’re letting a professional deal with your navigation. It might take longer, but when commuting is part of your work day, having some time to listen to music or read a book can be a blessing. I think a lot of millennials make this choice deliberately.
I’m also not crazy about fossil fuels. Growing up with a shady war in Iraq and volatile gas prices should be giving us doubt, right? There’s a price for convenience. After working as a mobile emissions reductions consultant, I know perhaps too much about how our driving habits destroy our lungs and contribute to climate change. Around 30% of human activity encouraging climate change comes from personal transportation. That’s a big number. Besides, we need our quickly dwindling supplies of petroleum for purposes that do not involve combustion, like as a lubricant in electronics. I don’t think we should be incinerating this resource because it’s easier to go buy milk without having to stand up and face the elements. So I choose not to, when possible.
But it’s not only fossil fuels that make the personal automobile a silly thing to desire and to design our communities around. As a Geography major, I studied how personal automobiles create a demand for roads, superhighways, and suburban communities. When new roads go in, so do poorly planned developments. It creates a cycle of resource intensive, inappropriate land use that does not suit our growing population. Bad land use and personal automobile ownership are linked. So I choose to live in the central city.
We also keep hearing about how the American lifestyle hurts our health, and cars play an integral role in our culture. Sitting down is killing us. Why spend 45 minutes in traffic and 45 minutes at the gym, when I could spend 45 minutes each way biking between home and work? Yes, it’s sweaty and sometimes inconvenient, but the benefits of using my own energy for transportation aren’t to be ignored. So I choose to ride my bike or walk when I can. I allow myself to feel good about my choices so that I’m motivated to continue walking or biking, though hopefully it doesn’t come across as holier-than-thou.
There’s also the cost of car ownership. The dang things depreciate so quickly and the costs of keeping them running aren’t cheap. A few years ago, I looked into the cost of buying a Mini Cooper or SmartCar, just out of curiosity. In car payments and insurance alone, I would be paying about $400 per month for a crappy model, even with a good down payment. I saw that figure and immediately thought of all the things I would rather do with $400, like choosing what I eat, paying the yoga studio, keeping up my internet connection and maybe buying a new pair of shoes every once in a while. To attain the level of freedom promised by a new car, I would have to sacrifice a lot of other things I value. It’s inevitable that cars break down and that maintenance costs increase as the car depreciates in value. Even a fully paid off, reliable car like White Lightning is prone to bouts of illness costing hundreds of dollars. You can’t plan those breakdowns. Also, having started my working life and financial independence in a recession, I don’t count on employment or a steady paycheck, no matter how good my job performance. I want to work to have a life, not to have a car, and if I lose my job, I don’t want any additional financial obligations.
Anyway, the point of all of this isn’t to tell you how bad cars are, really. It’s to illuminate my lack of enthusiasm for the them, and perhaps offer some insight into a millennial’s thought process for any random Googlers showing up on this website. I’m aware that plenty of my lifestyle choices are not particularly logical, nor healthy for me or my environment. However, if I can in some way compensate for the footprint left by my air travel or my reliance on electricity (even to read books!), I’m going to try. I am not going to ignore the motivation to engage in my world where I find it.
Truly, had I not had the idea to blow all of my savings on the other side of the world, I would have stayed with the environmental consulting company, and probably would have bought a low emissions vehicle sooner than later. However, I valued the opportunity to leave, to see something else for a while, over the chance to pick up another adult merit badge. I think that lots of millennials are making their own value judgements, and those values might not lead to the prioritization of adult achievements like cars, kids, or cubicles.
*TL;DR means “too long; didn’t read,” in case there are any Baby Boomers reading this that need an explanation.
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