Is getting a driver’s license still a rite of passage for teens?

In the 80’s and 90’s, before the Millennial generation hit their teen years in force, we would use “driver’s license status” as a key classification variable in studies. Rather than split focus groups by age or grade in school, we would often place teens who had their license in one group and those who did not have their license yet in another group. Regardless of the topic of the group. We found that teens with licenses were more independent of their parents and more capable of making decisions without parental input. Drivers license obtention was often better predictor of consumer behavior than age.

Young people experience many rites of passages in a short period of time. These are experiences that signify a change in their development. They ride the school bus for the first time, get their first smartphone, enter high school, go to the prom, leave home to go to college, vote for the first time, etc. As marketers, we have always looked at these inflection points as times when consumer behavior shifts. The obtaining of a driver’s license is traditionally seen as a watershed moment as it signifies a new level of independence.

However, this wisdom no longer holds. Millennials, particularly second wave Millennials, are not as focused on obtaining drivers licenses as their Boomer and Xer parents were. Where I grew up, we couldn’t wait until our 16th birthday so we could get our learner’s permit. My classmates and I usually took our road tests at the first opportunity. Failing the road test was a traumatic experience, as it caused us to remain in our parents’ control for a few more months.

This is no longer the case. In 1983, 46% of America’s 16-year-olds had a driver’s license. That is now less than 25% currently. I was very surprised to notice that my children and their friends seemed to be in no particular rush to get their licenses. Many times, it was the parents that pushed the kids to take their road test, as the parents were tiring of chaperoning the kids from place to place.

There are likely things that have caused this change:

  • Today’s parents are highly protective of children. Parents no longer push their children to be as independent as quickly.
  • There are societal pressures. In most states, there are more stringent requirements in terms of driving experience to be able to take a road test and more restrictions on what a younger driver can do with his/her license. The license simply isn’t as valuable as it used to be.
  • Driving has peaked in the US. People are driving less frequently and fewer miles when they do. There has also been a movement of the population to urban areas which have more mass transit.
  • The decline of retail has played a part. Going to the mall was a common weekend activity for Xer teens. Now, staying home and shopping on Amazon is more common. Millennials never went to the mall to socialize.
  • Online entertainment options have proliferated. Movies and shows are readily streamed. Many teens fulfill a need for socialization via gaming, where they interact with their friends and make new ones. This need could only be met in person in the past.
  • Teens are working less so have less of a need to drive to work. Of course, this means they have less of their own money and that tethers them to their parents even longer.

There are likely many other causes. But the result is clear. Teens are getting licenses later and using them less than they did a generation ago.

As a result, researchers have lost a perfectly good measure! Obtaining a driver’s license is not as strong a rite of passage as it used to be.

We’ve been thinking about what might make a good alternative measure. What life event do young people experience that changes them in terms of granting their independence from parents? Leaving home and living independently for the first time would qualify but seems a bit late to be useful. There may be no clear marker signifying independence for Millennials, as they stay dependent on parents across a much wider time period than in the past. Or, perhaps we need to change our definition of independence.

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