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Opinion | How electric vehicles are changing the state of car culture

The shift to electric vehicles isn't coming from the consumer. Instead, the automakers are pushing the change thanks to governmental action and the emergence of new challengers, like Tesla.

Car culture is ingrained in American society. From the toy cars children play with at an early age to the automobiles made famous in movies and TV, these four-wheeled machines are front and center in many aspects of our lives.

On the practical side, cars are the reason you get a paycheck. Plus, it’s a business responsible for about 3% of the country’s GDP, employs more people than any other industry, and generates the highest dollar value of exports. Needless to say, cars are a big deal for Americans. But you already know that.

However, the rise of each generation has changed car buying habits. Wanting to be different from their Baby Boomer parents, Gen Xers frequently skipped Detroit brands in favor of imports. And while many Millennials spent their formative years in the back of a minivan, they wouldn’t be caught dead toting their offspring around in one. Car buyers change, and automakers adapt in response. It’s the tail wagging the dog sort of thing.

Yet, the shift to electric vehicles isn’t coming from the consumer. Sure, some buyers are looking to be more environmentally sensitive. Instead, the automakers are pushing the change thanks to governmental action and the emergence of new challengers, like Tesla.

Embracing the future of EVs

Your personal take on an all-electric tomorrow may have much to do with how many EVs sit on the showroom floor. Some dealers are still waiting for that future to begin (we’re looking at you, Honda), while others are awash with EV options.

But, individual thoughts aside, it’s time to welcome the certainty of EVs. From a customer standpoint, however, it’s vital to understand that not everyone embraces a driving life without an internal combustion engine. Perceptions about and acceptance of electric vehicles vary by generation.

Defining the car-buying generations

Before diving into these generational characteristics, let’s define the label and age range for each group of car buyers.

  • Baby Boomers: Born 1946–1964 / 59–77 years old
  • Gen X: Born 1965–1980 / 43–58 years old
  • Millennials: Born 1981–1996 / 27–42 years old
  • Gen Z: Born 1997–2012 / 11–26 years old

Now that you’ve identified your generation, it’s time to see how each group stacks up regarding EVs.

Hanging on to the old ways

According to a 2021 Pew Research study, 39% of adults are interested in purchasing an electric vehicle. Put another way, more adults would rather fill up at the pump than at a charging station. Unsurprisingly, the Boomers are most inclined to stick to their ICE-powered ways. Only 32% expressed an interest in buying an EV. The Gen X crowd matched the 39% interest of all adults.

But the tables turn for younger car buyers. The study reveals that 47% of Millennials would consider buying an electric vehicle, followed by 42% of Gen Zers. Mostly, these two generations grew up surrounded by technology, which is at the heart of the electric car. It’s fair to argue that these buyers perceive EVs as another device, more so than replacing the traditional automobile.

Reasons for buying electric vehicles

The techno-centric nature of EVs is steering the new generation of car buyers in this direction. According to a 2022 survey from insurance marketplace Jerry, 32% of Gen Z shoppers simply want an EV because it’s cool.

This plays into the concept that having the latest is the greatest. It’s a more expensive play for those who rush out to buy the newest cell phone or gaming console. And it’s not too challenging to imagine Gen Z shoppers skipping the traditional car buying process in favor of a short-term lease or subscription that will put them behind the wheel of the latest EV every year or two.

However, the coolness factor is the farthest thing from the minds of Boomers with electric vehicles. The Jerry survey shows that a nearly equal number of this group choose to switch to electric for environmental (38%) or gas savings (37%) reasons. In short, Boomers buy electric vehicles to be practical.

EV buyers: the real numbers

While the figures may change as dealers offer more EVs (and buyers have fewer ICE options), it’s clear younger buyers are the driving force behind EV purchases. The Jerry study shows 18% of Gen Z drivers already own an EV, followed by 11% of Millennials. Gen Xers and Baby Boomers fall far behind, with EV ownership at 4% and 1%, respectively.

Should this trend continue (and it will), we’ll see cars become more and more like the electronic gadgets we use daily. Just wait until electric vehicles from Apple and Sony hit the road.

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David Goldberg
David Goldberg
David Goldberg is a contributing writer and reporter for CBT News. He brings a unique combination of dealership experience, a lifelong love of automobiles, and a journalism background to his writing for CBT News. He has a BA in journalism from The George Washington University.

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