When today's baby boomers were young, cars were a consuming fantasy -- symbols of adulthood and freedom, magic carpets that sped them away from the square world of mom and dad and connected them with the youth subculture.
You could buy a car cheap, learn to work on it, fill it with 25-cent-a-gallon gasoline, and off you went.
But the Internet and smart phones do the cultural connecting these days. Cars are expensive and stuffed with computer modules that thwart the would-be garage mechanic. And gasoline? A gallon costs what a tankful used to.
"I don't think the car symbolizes freedom to Gen Y to the extent it did baby boomers or, to a lesser extent, Gen Xers," says Sheryl Connelly, who tracks cultural trends for Ford Motor Co.
Some numbers back her up:
-- In 1978, nearly half of U.S. 16-year-olds and three-quarters of 17-year-olds had driver's licenses, according to the Department of Transportation. By 2008, only 31 percent of 16-year-olds and 49 percent of 17-year-olds had licenses. The downward trend also holds true for 18- and 19-year-olds as well and those in their 20s.
-- The share of miles driven by Americans 21 to 30 fell to 13.7 percent in 2009 from 18.3 percent in 2001 and 20.8 percent in 1995, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
William Draves, president of Lern, a consulting firm, says the digital age is reshaping the world much like the automobile reshaped American life early in the last century. The worker-bee mentality of a tight economy also is a factor, he says: "Time becomes really valuable to them. You can work on a train. You can't work in a car. And the difference is two to three hours a day or about 25 percent of one's productive time."
Some trend-watchers say the dwindling love affair with the auto will have a significant impact on sales. Carlos Gomes, an economist with ScotiaBank in Toronto, predicts growth in U.S. new-vehicle sales of only around 0.6 percent annually over the next decade, cutting by nearly half the 1.1 percent growth rate of the prior decade.