Getting your licence used to be a big deal. The big day involved sweaty palms, a pounding heart and the fear of getting the notorious driving tester who never passes anyone their first time.
To ace that test and gain that precious piece of plastic was a rite of passage for a teenager; a key to freedom. But in today’s world there are an increasing number of young people who don’t feel that way and don’t see having a licence as either a goal worth striving for, or even a necessity.
Ask the modern teenager whether they’d rather have a licence and all the implied costs of running a car, or an iPad and a monthly pass on public transport. The answer might stun you.
Car companies are genuinely worried about this trend. Teens are avoiding buying (or even lusting after) a new car, because they’d rather spend their time connected to social media. It’s this fear of the direction the next generation is heading that’s partly forcing companies to invest in self-driving cars. It’s also inspiring the rollout of technologies including Apple’s CarPlay, which allows you to interact with comfortable, familiar Apple iPhone technology – tech that will even read your text messages to you on the move.
But there’s more than a desire to be constantly connected to the internet that’s driving the drop in young people getting their licences, with plenty of social and economic factors in play, too.
A report from the NSW Bureau of Transport Statistics (BTS), which you can click to download here, showed the number of people in their 20s who held a licence fell by 10 per cent between 1998 and 2009, despite our increasing population, with just 70 to 80 per cent of that age group holding a licence now, compared to 80-90 per cent in the late 90s.
This shift is seen most clearly in cities, like Sydney, where the Household Travel Survey showed a decreasing reliance on driving a car by young people since 2001, and an increasing preference for “getting a lift” by the 15 to 24-year-old group.
Perhaps the most startling figure, though, is that among people aged 15 to 19 years old in Greater Sydney in 1991-92, some 23 per cent had a licence, yet by 2009 that number had fallen to just three per cent.
For those aged 20 to 24, the figure had fallen from 79 per cent to just 51 per cent. In Victoria, licensing rates for people under 25 have fallen from 77 per cent to 66 per cent since the turn of the century.
Figures reported here at WhichCar show older people are now, for the first time, more likely to have their licence than the younger generation in Australia.
A report by the BTS showed there are two major reasons for this shift. The first is the increased level of effort, and cost, it takes to convert your learner’s permit into a full licence, or at least P plates.
Not only has the age at which you can hold a full licence increased, but so has the minimum amount of supervised driving experience you need to endure on your Ls before even being allowed to sit the test.
Before the year 2000, there was no minimum requirement and learners could take the driving test with no formal training at all. Research at the time found the average person had about 20 hours’ of driving experience by the time they were tested; while from 2000 onwards the minimum legal requirement became 50 hours. In 2007, in NSW, that increased to 120 hours of supervised driving, including 20 hours of night driving.
While no one would argue that this is a wise idea, it has made the whole process far more intimidating and time consuming – and sticking at things for long periods of time is not a specialty of the average teenager. Nor are they fond of spending 120 hours in a car with their parents.
The BTS report by Tim Raimond and Frank Mitlhorpe also found the change has been driven by societal shifts in urbanisation and education, with far more young people living at home during their university years and cadging lifts off their parents.
The rising cost of getting a degree and the need to pay off HECS debts also means young people have less money to spend on the costs of getting a licence, or buying a car.
More people than ever in Australia are also living in higher-density suburbs with access to quality public transport, which lessens the perceived need for holding a licence.
Interestingly, the trend for young people to shun driving is not unique to Australia and has been observed in Europe and the US, where teenage licence-holding peaked at 12million in 1978 and has since declined to around 10million, despite enormous population growth in that time.
Across the world, priorities and time scales have changed. In past generations, people moved out of the family home, got married and got a mortgage a lot sooner, therefore taking on lifestyles that required car ownership. The housing affordability crisis in Australia is also affecting those choices for young people.
Overall, though, the car simply doesn’t seem to hold the same pride of place in the psyche of young people as it once did. For many years, Australians worshipped the car – and locally-built ones in particular – but that time is coming to an end.
Research has shown that millennials, or Gen Ys, don’t see having a car or a licence as a status symbol the way their parents did; they see it as more of a symbol of commitment they’re not ready for.
As one 22-year-old told researchers: “A car to me symbolises commitment, financial responsibility and, to some extent, becoming an adult.”
For the young person of today, devices like their beloved mobile phones and tablets are the new status symbols. Who needs to drive around to their friend’s house to chat when you can just look at what they ate for breakfast on Instagram?
As our means of connecting to one another change, our connection with cars and the need to get a licence has changed as well.