Brad Tuttle:

Why are young people less likely to purchase cars, or even have driver’s licenses nowadays? One theory has it that the generation that came of age with the Internet and smartphones thinks cars are pretty lame. Automakers prefer to see the situation differently—that young people today love cars just as much as any other group, but just can’t afford them right now.

The auto industry has been in recovery mode over the past few years. Automakers sold 14.5 million new cars and trucks in 2012, a 13% increase over the prior year, and the highest total since 2007. Projected auto sales totals for 2013 should easily beat last year too, topping 15 million. Even so, the comeback has been called a “subpar recovery,” and a prime reason why sales haven’t truly taken off is that younger consumers today aren’t buying cars like younger consumers traditionally have in the car-crazed U.S.

Gen Y has been dubbed “Gen N”, as in Generation Neutral—which is the way some describe how millennials feel about car ownership. Studies have shown that fewer young adults have driver’s licenses, that this group hates the traditional car-buying process more than other demographics, and that they prefer urban living and socializing online and therefore have less need for cars.

The latest data from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) bolsters the idea that younger Americans are much less interested in car ownership than their older siblings, parents, and grandparents. Bloomberg News highlighted data from the study showing that while consumers in the 35-to-44 age demographic were the most likely to be purchasing new cars four years ago, today it’s the 55-to-65 age Baby Boomers buying new cars with the most frequency. In 2011, boomers were 15 times more likely to purchase new vehicles than young millennials (ages 18 to 24), and even consumers ages 75 and up have been buying cars at higher rates than groups ages 18 to 24 and 25 to 34.