Dude, Where’s My Uber?

The weakening link between driving and masculinity


by Whitney Anderson, Director of Strategy

In 2012, on our second date, my husband picked me up in a beat-up 2000 Honda Civic. I’ve never been one to fawn over cars (or disparage them), so I didn’t give his car much thought — though I wondered briefly why someone who could certainly afford a nicer car had not chosen to get one. As he drove, he casually mentioned that the air conditioning broke a few years back and he hadn’t gotten it fixed. Okay, I thought, hot temperatures don’t bother him. And neither did inconvenience — as evidenced by his opening the driver’s side car door to collect the ticket to enter the parking lot. He matter-of-factly explained the driver’s side window no longer rolls down.

What intrigued me most about this was that he was not in the least bit embarrassed by it. He was completely comfortable with the car and with himself. In the city of Los Angeles, a status-conscious car culture if there ever was one, this stuck me as unusual. After all, single men have been trained to expect women to ask, “What do you drive?” within 10 seconds of meeting, as evidenced by Swingers, a cult film that captured post-modern masculinity in Los Angeles.

Over time, I began to wonder whether my now-husband’s complete nonchalance about his car was unique or if this was actually a sign of a trend. Are cars as status symbols and markers of success and masculinity gradually losing their power in America? Do men feel less pressure to impress others with their choice of transportation than in the past? It would appear so. A growing body of evidence suggests that men are increasingly rejecting the concept of a car as signifier. For example, millennial males’ agreement with the statement, “The vehicle a person owns says a lot about them” dropped 36% from 2007 to 2014.[1] On a similar note, AutoTrader’s “Next Generation Car Buyers Study” found that millennials see cars as more of a practical purchase, rather than an emotional one.[2]

The minivan — the ultimate in practicality — is increasingly being embraced by dads who reject the notion that it’s not a “manly” vehicle. As one GQ writer and minivan driver explained, “The real transformation that a man undergoes when he buys a minivan isn’t from being a real man to being a spineless pussy; it’s going from caring what people think to not giving a shit. [3]

Men are not just caring less about what people think of their car choice, many are rejecting car ownership entirely. Countless researchers have noted that millennials aren’t buying cars at rates anywhere near those of previous generations.[4] But not all have pointed out that this phenomenon is actually trending faster with men. A recent study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute found that the percentage of men ages 25 to 29 who have driver’s licenses declined by 10.6% over the past 15 years.[5] The number of women with licenses has also gone down — but only by half that.[6]

Car makers are hoping millennials’ lack of interest is economically driven and as the recession recovers they’ll move to the ‘burbs and see owning a car as a necessity. But the shift away from car ownership is more complicated than simple recessionary pressure and quick attempts to grab millennials’ attention, like Chevrolet’s adding “lemonade” and “denim” as paint color options to appeal to “a 23 year old who shops at H&M… and listens to Wale with Beats headphones,” hasn’t successfully addressed the deeper cultural shifts.[7] So what exactly is dismantling the once strong connection between cars and identity?

1. Freedom mythos is over. For North Americans, the car once represented mobility, adventure and independence. The cross-country road trip was almost a male rite of passage, like a mini Homeric odyssey, and car makers captured this sprit in countless ads. Males dominated as protagonists in road films, including classics like Easy Rider and On the Road, which glorified manly, cross-country travel. But with registration fees, insurance costs, smog checks, maintenance, traffic, toll roads, and fluctuating gas prices, car ownership requires more than just plunking down a few grand and driving off into the sunset. James Bond notwithstanding, cars are increasingly seen by millennial men as more of a nuisance than a fun, freedom-enabling toy.[8]

2. Overly complicated. Lessons in fixing cars were a father-son ritual for several generations. But as cars get more complex and more computerized, this type of bonding has waned. “The car… allowed fathers to act like a man, be in a manly state and try to teach his son to be a man and be responsible and be accountable,” a Boomer interviewed by NPR explained. [9] But dads today are more emotionally involved with their children; they don’t use the family car as a way to connect with their sons. Which is a good thing because it would practically require an engineering degree.

3. Sharing economy. In a city like Los Angeles, there’s Uber, Lyft, and an array of shared rental car services, including zipcar, Getaround, and RelayRides. Unlike previous generations, male millennials are used to owning fewer things; they don’t buy CDs or newspapers, and it’s natural and convenient to them to rent, borrow or share. A Northeastern University researcher interviewed users of car-sharing schemes and found they prefer variety: “People get to try out different cars, different lifestyles, different identities. By contrast owning a car, they said, felt like being tied down — like a marriage.”[10] While this trend affects both genders, men are slightly more likely be early adopters of new tech services, which may partially explain why women drivers currently outnumber men in the US, 105.7 to 104.3 million.[11]

4. Smartphones and public transportation. Twenty years ago if you had a long transit commute, you could read, sleep or play The Legend of Zelda on Nintendo Gameboy. But with smartphones, men can do everything from knock out a couple hours of work, to binge watch Walking Dead or Sons of Anarchy. The ability to be productive and entertained is one reason why the use of public transit in the US in 2014 reached its highest levels since 1956.[12] And there’s a big appetite to enhance and extend the nation’s public transportation system; in the last two years 70% of transit tax initiatives have succeeded.[13]

5. Cites are becoming more bike friendly. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of cycling trips rose 64%.[14] A growing number of urban men feel freer and more masculine commuting on their bike. A man interviewed by citylab.com, explained. “For me, cycling=self-sufficiency, which is about as traditionally ‘masculine’ a concept as there is in this country.”[15] Another cyclist stated, “I’m living [masculinity on a bike]: freedom, health, power, virility, and feeling like you’re a tough and happy dad.”[16]

6. Prius disruption. When wealthy men, like Lenoardo DiCarpio and Larry David, started buying Priuses — others followed suit. This was a key turning point for American car culture as the cost of one’s car stopped being a (somewhat) reliable indicator of an individual’s economic status. Granted, the Prius is a badge of a different sort, “Hey, I care about environment,” but its success helped to break the correlation between a person’s income and the brand of car they drive. Wealthy tech entrepreneurs who wear jeans, hoodies and drive average cars (e.g. Mark Zuckerberg and his $30,000 Acura TSX) have also helped to break this once predicable correlation. Low key is the new cool and a Honda is basically normcore for your car.


But if the emotional triggers that worked in the past to stimulate desire don’t resonate with younger men, what will it take to get them to buy a car or upgrade their beaters? Especially when they prioritize experiences, like vacations and nice dinners, over ownership. I was surprised when I posed this question to 25-year-old in my office. He told me: “The car maker would have to convince me it would help save the planet.” He went on to explain he wanted more than a hybrid, which he saw as incrementally better than a gas-fueled car; he wanted transformation. “It would also have to have revolutionary features that change the way I live my life.”

So it seems one of the biggest influences on car culture is the rate of technological-advancement in other industries, which has been so rapid it has trained younger men to expect gigantic steps forward. Disruptive technologies and innovation spark their passion now, not the spirit of the open road. Millennial men are not overly impressed with the industry’s current offerings, with the exception of Tesla, the Apple of the car world, which excites them because it’s an industry disruptor, green, and designed with style. But it’s also priced out of reach for most. The solution is for car makers and marketers is to think far, far outside the box with their offerings, to take much bigger risks and to stop assuming a small bit of personalization and a better economy is going to entice millennial men to purchase a car. It may actually take affordable driverless cars to trigger a purchase in some stalwarts given all the great alternative options today, at least to those in big cities. In 50 years, “real men drive stick” may mean very little.

Because real men may not drive at all. Robots will.


The above article originally appeared in the print edition of Wake Up Quarterly, Q4 2014.


[1] GfK Mediamark Research & Intelligence. (2013, Doublebase GfK MRI). Automotive Attitudes 2007–2013. Base: Millennial Men. Retrieved from MRI Mediamark Reporter database.

[2] Autotrader.com. Next Generation Car Buyer Study (2013): n. pag. AutoTrader.com. Web. <http://www.autonews.com/assets/PDF/CA90353823.PDF>.

[3] Magary, Drew. “Is It Okay for Men to Drive Minivans?” GQ. N.p., Apr. 2012. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.gq.com/news-politics/mens-lives/201204/buying-minivan-men-masculinity-gq-april-2012>.

[4] Ball, Jeffrey. “The Number of Young People Who Drive Is Plummeting in Amazing Ways.” New Republic. New Republic, 12 Mar. 2014. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116993/millennials-are-abandoning-cars-bikes-carshare-will-it-stick>.

[5] Hingston, Sandy. “Trend: Millennial Men Aren’t Into Cars, Getting a Driver’s License | The Philly Post | News | Philadelphia Magazine.” Philadelphia Magazine. N.p., 10 Oct. 2012. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.phillymag.com/news/2012/12/10/millennials-drivers-license-not-driving-cars/>.

[6] Hingston, Sandy. “Trend: Millennial Men Aren’t Into Cars, Getting a Driver’s License | The Philly Post | News | Philadelphia Magazine.” Philadelphia Magazine. N.p., 10 Oct. 2012. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.phillymag.com/news/2012/12/10/millennials-drivers-license-not-driving-cars/>.

[7] Weissmann, Jordan. “Why Don’t Young Americans Buy Cars?” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 25 Mar. 2012. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/03/why-dont-young-americans-buy-cars/255001/>.

[8] Ball, Jeffrey. “The Number of Young People Who Drive Is Plummeting in Amazing Ways.” New Republic. New Republic, 12 Mar. 2014. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116993/millennials-are-abandoning-cars-bikes-carshare-will-it-stick>.

[9] Glinton, Sonari. “Complicated Cars Put A Dent In An Old Father-Son Ritual.” NPR. NPR, 5 Aug. 2014. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.npr.org/2014/08/05/338099738/complicated-cars-put-a-dent-in-an-old-father-son-ritual>.

[10] “Seeing the Back of the Car.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 22 Sept. 2012. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.economist.com/node/21563280>.

[11] Hingston, Sandy. “Trend: Millennial Men Aren’t Into Cars, Getting a Driver’s License | The Philly Post | News | Philadelphia Magazine.” Philadelphia Magazine. N.p., 10 Oct. 2012. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.phillymag.com/news/2012/12/10/millennials-drivers-license-not-driving-cars/>.

[12] Hurdle, Jon. “Use of Public Transit in U.S. Reaches Highest Level Since 1956, Advocates Report.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 09 Mar. 2014. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/10/us/use-of-public-transit-in-us-reaches-highest-level-since-1956-advocates-report.html?_r=0>.

[13] Hurdle, Jon. “Use of Public Transit in U.S. Reaches Highest Level Since 1956, Advocates Report.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 09 Mar. 2014. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/10/us/use-of-public-transit-in-us-reaches-highest-level-since-1956-advocates-report.html?_r=0>.

[14] Leader, Jessica. “Best Bike Cities In The U.S. 2012: Bicycling Magazine’s Top-Rated Regions.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 23 May 2012. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/23/best-cities-biking-cycling-bicycle_n_1536262.html>.

[15] Goodyear, Sarah. “Is There Such a Thing as a ‘Masculine’ Way to Ride a Bike?” CityLab. CityLab, 13 May 2014. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.citylab.com/commute/2014/05/there-such-thing-masculine-way-ride-bike/9083/>.

[16] Goodyear, Sarah. “Is There Such a Thing as a ‘Masculine’ Way to Ride a Bike?” CityLab. CityLab, 13 May 2014. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.citylab.com/commute/2014/05/there-such-thing-masculine-way-ride-bike/9083/>.

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