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Gen Z is strangely averse to getting their driver's license. What the heck is going on?

Compared to earlier generations, today's teens are in no rush to drive and parents are scratching their heads.

teens driving
Photo by Fabian Albert on Unsplash

Many teens and young adults are in no hurry to hop behind the wheel.

I and pretty much every Gen X teen I grew up with couldn't wait to learn to drive. Getting a driver's license was a huge milestone that meant freedom, independence, the ability to go to our friends' houses whenever we wanted to (so long as we had access to a car) and more—and we were totally psyched about it.

Today's teens are … different. While some are just as eager as we were to get behind the wheel, there's a whole bunch of young folks who have little to no interest in driving. As USA Today reported last year, "Data collected from the Federal Highway Administration and analyzed by Green Car Congress showed that in 2018 approximately 61% of 18-year-olds in the U.S. had a driver’s license, down from 80% percent in 1983. The number of 16-year-olds with licenses decreased from 46% to 25% in the same period."

My oldest kid was interested, but took her sweet time and didn't get her license until she was 18. My current 18-year-old still doesn't have her license and has zero desire to get it, despite having completed driver's ed. She just takes the bus and walks everywhere. Other parents in my immediate social circle have similarly disinterested-in-driving young adults, and I keep seeing parents posting about it on social media with a sense of bewilderment.


What the heck is going on with Gen Z when it comes to driving?

One obvious difference between today's young people and their parents' generation is the way they communicate with their peers. If we wanted to talk to our friends, we had two choices—a phone call on a landline (which was sometimes occupied and that our parents didn't want us to monopolize) or seeing our friends in person. Kids today? Countless options to talk to their friends in various ways without having to go anywhere. While my generation thought video calls on handheld devices were the stuff of Jetsons-like future eras, our kids have never known life without them.

The desire to go out and be social isn't as urgent with kids today because it simply isn't as necessary. Despite us all lamenting how much time kids spend on devices, in my experience, they're often using them to socialize—sometimes a lot more than we were ever able to at the same age. Though nothing can replace face-to-face social time, there's not as much of a need to drive if you can always "hang out" with your friends online.

Another difference is the expansion of public transportation and improvements in attitudes toward using it. Unless you lived in New York City, using public transportation just wasn't cool when we were kids. But Gen X has grown up being hammered with climate change awareness since birth, so riding the city bus is viewed as the preferred, environmentally friendly choice over driving a car. Throw in ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, and the need for driving yourself diminishes drastically.

There's also some anxiety about cars in general that may be playing a role in the younger set due to, ironically, how much car safety has increased. My generation was the first to have seatbelts as a standard feature in all cars—and it wasn't even mandatory for everyone to wear a seatbelt in my state until I was 11. Our kids, on the other hand, have had all manner of car seats and booster seats reinforcing the idea that cars are inherently unsafe from birth. (That's not a bad thing, it's just a thing.) Young people today are more aware of the dangers of driving, just as they're more aware of everything thanks to the internet, and with the rise in anxiety in general, fear may be keeping a lot of teens away from the wheel. Again, there is some data to back this up. In a survey of nondriving teens by insurance comparison website The Zebra, nearly 25% responded that they don't have a license because they are afraid to drive a car.

The reasons for Gen Z not wanting to drive may be varied, but not wanting to learn to drive doesn't mean they shouldn't. My stance as a parent is that driving is an important life skill, like swimming, so even if you have no intention of driving, it's important to know how. If my adult kids ever get stuck someplace and need to be able to drive legally, I want them to be able to do that, so I want them to get a driver's license as well.

We don't seem to be heading toward a truly carless future anytime soon, so Gen Z may want to rethink their reticence and at least learn how to drive, even if they have no intention of driving.

All images by Rebecca Cohen, used with permission.

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