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From the Field

Young People and Cars: A Case of Frustrated Desire?

By comparing the results over time of a travel survey in western France, Yoann Demoli challenges the notion that young people have fallen out of love with cars. He points to the burdens—particularly financial—that are placed on young people today, and which tend to delay access to a car.

“Young people and the car, it’s not crazy love anymore” (Les Échos, September 2016). “This youth who no longer wants to drive a car” (Le Monde, September 2015). Many press articles report a new disaffection of young people with the automobile, which would have generated, in contrast, a strong enthusiasm among previous generations. This hypothesis of a generation effect in the relationship to the automobile (which can be formulated as follows: “today’s young people would have less enthusiasm for the car than yesterday’s young people”) must nevertheless be discussed, first to attest to this empirically, but also to interpret it theoretically.

Based on the use of four waves of “national transport” surveys, representative of the French population and carried out among approximately 10,000 households in 1974, 1981, 1993 and 2008, as well as the use of the Nantes/Loire-Atlantique Travel Household Survey (2015, approximately 6,000 households), this article proposes to discuss these assertions by studying several aspects of the relationship with the automobile: driver’s license ownership, car ownership, as well as the subjective relationship to driving and car.

It also seeks to clarify the meaning to be given to these developments. Some of the press, along with other academic observers, envisage the slightest enthusiasm of young people for the car in terms of values: the younger generations would have broken with materialism and would be more interested in use than in possession. They would take over the new technologies and abandon the old ones, which would gradually be reassessed to the point of becoming, in some cases, a public problem. In short, the car would be neglected by the younger ones, who grew up in a world where driving has become dangerous, polluting and expensive. A world where the car is no longer the inevitable object of the desire that their elders knew. In accordance with the analyses that highlight the constraints that the context of the graduation race (Duru-Bellat 2006) and the longer and chaotic transition to adulthood (Van de Velde 2008) impose on young people, this article proposes an alternative reading and describes, over time, three aspects of young people’s relationship to the automobile, comparing them to other age groups. The data presented here will show that young people are far from having given up driving, but that the schedule for individual access to the car has changed.

A shift in time frame

Figure 1 shows the driver’s license holding rate for seven age groups on four different dates (1974, 1981, 1993 and 2008). Two salient phenomena stand out: on the one hand, the continuous rise in the detention rate of young people, who come to irrigate, year after year, the age classes into drivers; on the other hand, the morphological change in the age structure of drivers.

The rate of driver’s license ownership has increased very strongly among the youngest: while 18-20 year olds were 19% to hold pink paper in 1973, they were exactly 50% in 2008. During this period, we are therefore not witnessing a disaffection with the driver’s license, but on the contrary its massive diffusion among the youngest. The 1970s, during which the young cohorts of the baby boom massively drive (Demoli 2015a), saw a particularly high rise in the detention rate for this age group, while the other decades show a smaller growth trend.

The entire period also shows a morphological change in the holding of the permit by age: thus, the peak in the holding rate, or its saturation, corresponded quite clearly to the age groups between 26 and 34 years for the first three observation dates. For each period, the highest detention rate was observed for those aged 26-34. But there was a slight change in 2008: the highest rates were also observed for the 35-44 age group. This means that the permit is obtained, for a (admittedly small) part of the age groups, quite late.

Figure 1. Percentage of the French population with a driver’s license by age group, in 1973, 1981, 1993 and 2008

Sources: Enquête sur les transports (French Transportation Survey) 1973–1974, Enquête sur les transports (French Transportation Survey) 1981–1982, Enquête transports et communications (French Transportation and Communications Survey) 1993–1994, Enquête nationale transports et déplacements (French Transportation and Travel Survey) 2007–2008.

Field: individuals aged 18 and over.

Interpretation: in 1973, 19 out of every 100 individuals aged 18 to 20 held a driver’s license.

Figures 2a and 2b contrast the rates of driver’s license ownership by gender and age group. Among men under 30 years of age, detention rates peaked in 1981—except for the 18–20 age group for which this peak occurred in 1993, probably due to the cessation of compulsory conscription between the two dates (Herpin and Mansuy 1995). From 1981 onwards, detention rates were slightly lower for those under 30 years of age in 1993, as well as in 2008. There is a shift in the maximum detention rates to older ages, with the 30-34 age group having the largest number of license holders. In other words, the downward trend in youth detention rates is already longstanding, dating back to the 1980s. This movement remains relatively tenuous and transitory since, in recent years, the 30-year-olds have had very similar detention rates from one date to the next. Analysis of the distribution of the age-specific detention rate among women shows contrasting effects. On the one hand, young women have experienced very strong growth in licensing at younger ages (whereas 16% of young women obtained their licenses before the age of 20 in 1981, they were 47% in this case in 2008). On the other hand, as among young men aged 20 to 29, detention rates have been very similar since 1981 for this age group. In this context, the fact that driver’s licenses have been obtained less appears to be audacious to say the least: for men, the very slight drop conceals a catch-up at the age of thirty, while women continue to have access to driving.

Figure 2a. Percentage of the male French population with a driver’s license by age group, in 1973, 1981, 1993 and 2008

Sources: Enquête sur les transports 1973-1974, Enquête sur les transports 1981-1982, Enquête transports et communications 1993-1994, Enquête nationale transports et déplacements 2007-2008.

Field: men aged 18 and over.

Interpretation: in 1973, 22 out of every 100 men aged 18 to 20 held a driver’s license.

Figure 2b. Percentage of the female French population with a driver’s license by age group, in 1973, 1981, 1993 and 2008

Sources: Enquête sur les transports 1973-1974, Enquête sur les transports 1981-1982, Enquête transports et communications 1993-1994, Enquête nationale transports et déplacements 2007-2008.

Field: women aged 18 and over.

Interpretation: in 1973, 16 out of every 100 women aged 18 to 20 held a driver’s license.

The density of place of residence, a classic determinant of the rate of driver’s license ownership, which decreases with the size of urban areas (Roux 2012), has undergone significant changes, particularly for the youngest age groups. While young people are less and less likely to have a permit in the densest areas, rural youth continue to have high detention rates. In 1973, in rural areas, 31% of 18-20 year olds obtained their permits. This was the case for 65% of them in 2008. At the same time, for 21-25 year olds, this rate was as high as 90%. However, for the densest areas, detention rates are much lower. Thus, while 48% of 21-25 year olds had obtained their license in the Paris region in 1973, this rate reached 63% in 2008. This contrasting trend according to place of residence is explained by the public transport amenities offered by the Paris region, but it is also understood as the result of constraint, in an area where the driver’s license is comparatively more expensive. In addition, a structural effect should be highlighted: more than rural people, Francilians are often students, who, unlike young working people in the countryside, are not forced to drive every day. For some people, this factor delays access to a driver’s license when parental resources have not supported its rapid issuance (Guillot et al. 2012).

Over the past 40 years, there has been a massive increase in the number of people holding a driver’s license, particularly for young women. However, there is a shift in the age of access to the permit for young people living in the densest areas.

The burden of economic constraints

While obtaining a driver’s license seems to be strongly influenced by the family context (Masclet 2002; Guillot et al. 2012), it is possible that young people may be more reluctant to equip themselves with a vehicle once they are autonomous. Changes in the motorization rate by age are shown in Figure 3, which shows the motorization rate by age of the household reference person. The graph clearly shows that for the youngest classes (18 to 35 years old), motorization rates are stagnating, although for those over 25 years old they have reached fairly high levels since the 1980s. The other age groups, in particular the elderly, experienced a sharp increase in motorization. However, another indicator than the motorization rate alone is necessary to better understand these dynamics: indeed, within a motorized household, if two of its members have a permit, but only one has a vehicle, access to the wheel is quite different. Access to the wheel has therefore been defined as being the main driver of a vehicle, in order to better understand access to the individual car (Demoli 2015b). The distribution of this indicator by age group clearly shows a downward trend in access to driving for the youngest age groups. Of all license holders under 20 years of age, 17% had access in 2008 to a car for which they were the main driver. This rate was 41% for 21-25 year olds, compared to more than 61% for those over 35.

Figure 3. Car ownership rate in the French population (by age of household reference person), in 1973, 1981, 1993 and 2008

Sources: Enquête sur les transports 1973-1974, Enquête sur les transports 1981-1982, Enquête transports et communications 1993-1994, Enquête nationale transports et déplacements 2007-2008.

Field: all households.

Interpretation: in 1973, 21 out of every 100 households whose reference person was aged between 18 and 20 had at least one car.

Do we need to remember that young people are strongly constrained in their car equipment and use of the car, both from a life cycle point of view and from a generational point of view? From a life cycle perspective, it is clear that young age groups must first and foremost be trained in licensing, which has a significant cost—even if some are supported by extended family members (Masclet 2002). Young people also need to be trained and equipped when they move into independent housing (Herpin and Michel 2012), while they pay a heavy price for higher housing costs (Bugeja 2010). Since access to the car is often income dependent, increasing the length of the transition to working life delays access to the wheel. Another determining variable is thus hidden behind the causality that links a set of values to car abandonment: access to employment. These strong constraints invite us to qualify the effects of possible “post-materialist” values that would discourage driving. In a similar vein, it is not because young people are less likely to own their homes that their attachment to home ownership is lower, but because they cannot afford it (Chauvel 1998)!

In addition to this (relatively) lower access to car ownership for the youngest age groups, it is also the fact that it is less frequent for them than for their elders to acquire new equipment. In 1981, the average age of a new vehicle buyer was 41.7 years compared to 44.7 years in 1993 and almost 50 years in 2008. The low proportion of new vehicles in the equipment of the youngest is due to the weight of constraints—and not to a disaffection with first-hand purchasing. The price of the best-selling new vehicle in terms of average wages since the 1970s shows a significant increase: 7.5 average wages in 1975 compared to more than 11 in 2005 (Jullien and Pardi 2013). More broadly, the budgetary weight of the automobile is particularly significant (Demoli 2015b), even though entering working life requires heavy investments, particularly in terms of training.

Enjoying driving: attitudes regarding motor vehicles

Do young people show less enthusiasm for the automobile than their elders? While national transport surveys provide little information on attitudes and representations related to the various modes of transport (except for a variable on driving assessment), the household travel survey conducted in the Loire-Atlantique in 2015 can provide us with information on the values attached to the car by age group.

It is indeed possible that young people, far from having a taste for driving, may be driven by geographical and temporal constraints. To answer this question, in the 2008 national transport and travel survey, we have the respondents’ answers to the following question: “Do you like driving a car?” The possible options were “Yes,” “No” or “Neither yes nor no.” The age distribution of driving behaviour appears quite surprising and does not support the hypothesis that young people are disaffected in this respect. While in the general population, 76% of general (“B class”) license holders said they liked driving, 91% of them were between 18 and 20 years old and 86% between 21 and 25 years old, compared to 73% and 72% for those aged 45-60 and over 60. In other words, while the decline in license ownership remains very small for the youngest, pink paper holders in the same age groups say they appreciate driving more than their elders.

Figure 4. Percentage of individuals in agreement with different statements, by age group in 2015

Source: Enquête ménages et déplacements Nantes/Loire-Atlantique 2015.

Champ: individuals aged 18 and over.

Interpretation: 57 out of 100 individuals aged 18 to 20 agreed with the statement "We need to keep building parking lots."

For the Nantes/Loire-Atlantique survey, one person was randomly selected from each household to answer questions about attitudes towards transport modes. Figure 4 shows the percentages of individuals who successively agree with the following series of statements: “We must continue to build car parks”; “Cycling is the future”; “Limiting the car hinders economic activity”; “We must continue to develop public transport”; “We must punish prohibited parking more severely.” Significantly, most of these statements are well received, regardless of the age group surveyed. In particular, the need for parking and—paradoxically—the development of public transport (CT) have received a large majority of favourable opinions. While cycling is less popular as age increases, its use remains very popular. Two statements have a distribution of responses according to an opposite age gradient: older people tend to agree with the most repressive statements, and are more likely to see limiting road traffic as an obstacle to economic development. What can we conclude from this? While the majority of the individuals surveyed remain in favour of car use, they are at the same time sensitive to the development of altermobility, regardless of age group.

Figure 5. Frequency of usage of different positive adjectives to describe motor vehicles, by age group

Source: Enquête ménages et déplacements Nantes/Loire-Atlantique 2015.

Field: individuals aged 18 and over.

Interpretation: 33 out of every 100 individuals aged 18 to 20 thought that the motor car was a rapid mode of transportation.

Figure 6. Frequency of usage of different negative adjectives to describe motor vehicles, by age group

Source: Enquête ménages et déplacements Nantes/Loire-Atlantique 2015.

Field: individuals aged 18 and over.

Interpretation: 43 out of every 100 individuals aged 18 to 20 thought that the motor car was a polluting mode of transportation.

These representations can be further explored. Individuals were asked to associate three adjectives to different modes of transportation (car, bicycle and public transit) from a pre-established list. Figures 5 and 6 show respectively the frequency of occurrence of meliorative and depreciative terms for the age groups defined above. Undoubtedly, the car appears, whatever the age group questioned, as a primarily practical and fast mode of transport. Thus, 58% of 21-25 year olds and 57% of those over 60 describe the car as “practical.” Age groups differ in their appreciation of the automobile as “vital”: this is the case for 10% of 18-20 year olds compared to 29% of those over 60. However, the autonomy allowed by the car is cited by all respondents—although older people report it more often. On the other hand, it is surprising to note that few respondents depreciate the use of the car. The qualification of the car as “dangerous,” “constraining” and “stressful” remains very much a minority. Only the polluting dimension of the car is often mentioned, especially since the respondents are young. In other words, the automobile is not depreciated by the youngest; more likely, the external costs of the automobile are well integrated by all age groups (with a greater sensitivity to pollution for the youngest), but coexist with positive representations of the automobile, while a significant and older part of the respondents consider it to be a vital device leading to the road to autonomy.

A generation of young people left by the wayside?

Since the 1970s, the spread of the automobile has continued on a massive scale among women, as well as among the youngest. driver’s licenses remain quite commonplace among young people (more so than the baccalaureate, held by 60% of young people in 2008), despite delays in passing the driving test for a fraction of young students and city dwellers.

If vehicle ownership rates remain low compared to other age groups, it is more a consequence of a delay in full adulthood than of disaffection. If the youngest are over-represented in altermobility, it is less because they are turning away from the automobile than because of the many economic constraints they face. Indeed, driving is still particularly appreciated and valued by the youngest—more so than by their elders. In other words, there seems to be a generational effect in the relationship to the car of the youngest: it is true that today’s young people have different car-related practices than their elders. But the interpretation of this phenomenon in terms of disaffection with the automobile appears, if not abusive, at least rapid. If young people delay access to a license and the purchase of a car, it is not because the need or desire for a car has disappeared, but simply because they are waiting by the side of the road for more favourable conditions.


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To cite this article:

Yoann Demoli & translated by Oliver Waine, “Young People and Cars: A Case of Frustrated Desire?”, Metropolitics, 30 November 2018. URL :

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