Kids Today Don't Want to Drive, and I'll Never Understand It
Rather than simply a quirky feature of digital life, this is a terrible shift in what it means to be young in America. Plus: Edu Lobo's "Cantiga de Longe" from 1969.
There’s no sunshine coming through the window as I’m pressed up close to the cold glass, watching the stores and trees and highways go by on Route 10. Bundled up in the back seat–maybe 6, maybe 7–snatching quick looks at the giant lettering on the signs and storefronts.
“Where are we going?” I asked mom, turning for a brief moment away from the huge, world, only half-sketched in my imagination, that was passing outside the car. “Can we stop at Toys ‘R Us?”
By then, I’d constructed a relatively complex geography of our little slice of Northern Jersey based on the most critical of markers: toy stores–and places one could buy toys. I knew we’d be passing one such marker, and I couldn’t let the opportunity go by without, at least, asking.
She said no, and I was disappointed. The momentary sting came like a slap to a reasonably–though not terribly–spoiled kid. It wasn’t the end of the world, but I sure didn’t like it. As I got a little older, the requests became smaller and more mundane–and also, thankfully, less crushing when they were denied.
“Can we stop for Chinese?” “Not now,” she’d say, “but when you’re driving, you can stop anywhere you want, and go anywhere you want.” I don’t think it was that day that I began thinking about driving, but it wasn’t all that long afterward.
Like everyone I knew, I got my driver’s license the day I turned 17. I hit the streets in my grandmother’s old 1983 Chrysler Town and Country–it was a fire engine red, sedan-sized station wagon with wood paneling, and it would announce to everyone in the car, in a computerized voice when, “your door is ajar” and “your fuel is low.”
There was absolutely nothing sexy about the car. And unlike a stately old jalopy, there wasn’t anything nerdy or hip about it either. (Irony about such things hadn’t been invented yet.) Even as it had hardly been driven, by then, the car was more than a decade old, from the absolute nadir of American car manufacturing.
But I wasn’t ashamed of it for a minute; “The Log” performed its intended function, allowing me to be physically independent from my parents.
In my car, I was able, for the first time, to come and go as I pleased: to spend goofy hours over gyros and cigarettes with my pals at diners; to hunt vinyl and bootlegs at faraway record stores; to take a girl out to dinner or a movie or in a parked car, anywhere. My imagination, then, was pretty much limited to those things–but then again, what else is there?
Not every kid from New Jersey has wild, romantic fantasies about New York City, but most of my friends seemed to. But I think, as ever, I was the most fanatical. I wanted to disappear out of my town and into the bustling canyons of Manhattan–stopping for fresh Italian bread we’d munch on during the drives in.
“Ok, dad, see you later–going with Mike to the City.” We didn’t need to tell our parents in detail where we were going, because it was our business. And besides, who knew what would happen? The trip could be thrilling or mundane, but it was ours.
Freedom is inseparable from spontaneity. One of my favorite afternoons was grabbing my little sister Rachel–she was somewhere between 7 and 8–and burning rubber into the Upper West Side for Chinese food and to stroll around Tower Records near Lincoln Center. I took the George Washington Bridge across so we could see the skyline of Manhattan at dusk, orange dazzling across an endless stretch of buildings as we raced toward them. Other days, we’d shrug our shoulders and make an hour-long daytime drive to Canal Street, pick up a single tray of dumplings and Excellent Dumpling House, and head back to Morristown or Parsippany.
Writing this seems a little strange, because it was all a thoroughly ordinary experience. The transformation of awkward teenagers into independant, driving, and working young adults was easily the most important part about high school in the suburbs. Aside from graduation–not even the school football team–there was nothing that more united kids of every clique, type, background, class, or subculture. Everyone I knew rushed to get their licenses, even if their families couldn’t afford another car.
Because everyone turned 17 at a different time, sophomore and junior years were speckled with more cars hitting the school parking lot, more kids driving to their jobs, and more adventures where only the roads would take them.
The stereo in my first car was tinny and awful, and the thing topped out at about 70mph, but that was enough to be able to ride with windows open and the music blaring on a sunny day–the simple, beautiful, and perfect birthright of every American since the invention of the automobile.
Until something changed. Many kids today don’t want to drive.
I had heard, late last year, that more and more young people (ages 17-30) have neither an interest in driving nor even bother getting their licenses. A twitter poll I took–with more than 5000 respondents–showed that over 70% of followers polled knew at least one person like this.
Turns out, people have been writing about this since at least 2013, when at least four studies identified this trend. National Geographic reported: “In the United States, young people are not only driving less than teens did a generation ago, they aren't even getting licenses.”
As I’ve been so amazed and troubled since encountering this weird phenomenon, I raise the point every chance I get–including with some very bright GenZ or young Millennials who admit to not giving a toss about driving, either way.
They tell me that, since Uber and other ride-sharing apps came along, they can get where they want to go without the hassle of owning or driving a car. “Why spend the money keeping a car, when you can focus on where you want to go?”
Others report that driving is stress- and anxiety inducing. My grandmother was one of these people: despite having a driver’s license and a car (that spent a decade in the garage or driveway), she was too nervous and afraid to get behind the wheel. I was with her that one time we went food shopping, and that was it. But she was already old—and from the Old Country—and there was neither a strong urge nor a need to define her personal independence as it related to the family; she was already its matriarch.
But expense and a certain amount of stress or fear of the road aren’t exactly new; in prior generations, we just dealt with them because we really, really wanted to drive. The far higher prevalence of anxiety-type disorders and autism (self-diagnosed or otherwise) in the younger cohort has always been highly troubling, but now it seems to have warped and then disintegrated the way we used to engage in the most normal of ways.
These young people might argue that, now, they differentiate themselves digitally rather than physically. They create their own identities and seek out their own passions online rather than out in the world.
Somehow, though, we managed both. And I am certain we were healthier, more resilient—and far more passionate for it.
I don’t at all think it’s hyperbole to call this a significant civilizational shift—a deviation in American society. It must be so because, when we speak about it, we’re talking past one another: in the language of values, or about aesthetic sensibilities that just don’t seem to translate across the generational divide. I am certain it’s not just a quirky feature of digital life and the gig economy, but a terrible shift in what it means to be young in America.
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On the Turntable
The relationship between jazz and Brazilian music goes far deeper than Joao Gilberto’s fusion of cool jazz harmony and understated, hushed vocal style with the abstracted samba rhythms he played for guitar accompaniment. Which is to say, the link is far deeper than Bossa Nova, which took the world by storm in the early 1960s, and spins outward to the present day. By the time of the American hits which made stars out of Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sergio Mendes and Gilberto himself, an entirely new, new wave was beginning to crest in Brazil. (No, not Tropicalia—that’s for another day.)
There are quite a few Brazilian pop records that are loved by jazz fans for their fascinating and gorgeous harmonies and their rhythmic vitality. The list here is very long—and I’ve dealt with some of them—but unless you’re some kind of hipster or record crate diver, you haven't gotten into Edu Lobo. Which is a shame.
Edu Lobo was a pop composer who, like Carole King or Neil Diamond in the Brill Building, found the late 1960s the right time to step out and create highly personal records of his own. He was championed by Sergio Mendes, who secured him a deal with his American label, A&M. The resulting album was called Sergio Mendes Presents Edu Lobo, and it’s an all-time classic of the period. (You can buy a new pressing at Amazon for less than $23, and it’s a steal.)
This record was released concurrently in Brazil, and is considerably more difficult to get your hands on. For some reason, Lobo’s records haven’t gotten the credit they deserve, and all of his brilliant albums from the 70s are quite difficult to find on vinyl.
Cantiga de Longe (Songs from Afar) is like a piece of jewelry; vocal harmonies are etherial, guitar and piano lines weave and double. The ballads are peerless and floating. Features the great multi instrumentalist Hemeto Pascoal on flute throughout.
I turned 16 in 1991. My birthday fell on a Sunday and the next day was a holiday. I was so pissed that the DMV was closed. I had to wait TWO WHOLE DAYS to get my license and I could barely wait.
I guess I’m doing my part to help buck the trend. My 17-year-old is car crazy and got his license the first moment he could (which was delayed by COVID closures). But he’s definitely seen this in his peer group in our upscale suburb.