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Actually, millennials don't own fewer cars

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Avocado sales, craft beer, cable television — what hasn’t the millennial generation impacted?

According to a working paper from MIT Sloan professor Christopher Knittel: the auto industry. 

In his paper “Generational Trends in Vehicle Ownership and Use: Are Millennials Any Different?,” Knittel finds that no, millennials are not different, at least when it comes to owning as many cars as baby boomers. They do, however, put more miles on their cars compared to the older generation.

“While we find that millennials are altering life-choices that affect vehicle ownership, the net effect of these endogenous choices is to reduce vehicle ownership by less than 1%,” Knittel and his co-author, Elizabeth Murphy of Genser Energy, write.

The percent reduction in the number of cars owned by millennial households, compared to baby boomers.

Knittel and Murphy used data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Household Transportation Survey, the U.S. Census, and the American Community Survey for their research on household vehicle ownership, and vehicle usage (measured in annual vehicle miles traveled, or VMT).

The various data sets range from 1990 to as recently as 2017. While there’s disagreement on the official age range for millennials  — the Pew Research Center deems anyone born between 1981 and 1996 a millennial — for this study, “millennial” was assigned to heads of households born between 1980 and 1994. The only generation the U.S. Census Bureau defines is baby boomers; people born between 1946 and 1964.

The authors note they are not the first to research millennials and their life choices compared to earlier generations. But as with things like millennials’ food preferences and investments — which are viewed as disruptive to established industries — claims about their decisions on transportation “have not been explored rigorously, and limited data have been used to support these hypotheses.”

The idea that millennials are afraid of risk, stay in one place, and don’t make large investments like buying houses or cars, grew out of “a discussion that is dominated by anecdotal evidence,”  the authors write.

According to the research — which factors in variables like income, living in a city versus a rural area, and marital status — millennials drive 2,234 more miles per year than comparable baby boomers.

The researchers also found that millennials were more likely to live in urban areas, and less likely to marry before 35. Millennial families are also slightly larger (by about 2 percent) than those of baby boomers.

“Together, the results suggest that while millennial vehicle ownership and use may be lower early on in life, these differences are only temporary and, in fact, lifetime vehicle use is likely to be greater,” the paper states.

So what does this mean for global emissions? Knittel and Murphy write that developing countries like China and India — and their growing emissions levels — will play a bigger role in the environmental discussion, and note that their data is only for the U.S.  But the U.S. is “still an important driver of global emissions” they write, and the research suggests U.S. leadership in reducing emissions “may be more difficult than often thought.”

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