Cross-posted from City Observatory.
Will somebody teach the Atlantic and Bloomberg how to do long division?
Today, we take down more breathless contrarian reporting about how Millennials are just as suburban and car-obsessed as previous generations. Following several stories drawing questionable inferences from flawed migration data claiming that Millennials are disproportionately choosing the suburbs (they’re not) come two articles in quick succession from Bloomberg and the Atlantic, purporting to show the Millennials’ newfound love of automobiles.
Bloomberg wrote, “Millennials Embrace Cars, Defying Predictions of Sales Implosion.” Hot on its heels came a piece from Derek Thompson at the Atlantic (alternately titled “The Great Millennial Car Comeback” and “Millennials not so cheap after all”) recanting an earlier column that predicted Millennials would be less likely than previous generations to own cars.
The Atlantic and Bloomberg stories are both based on new estimates of auto sales produced by JD Power and Associates. The data for this report were not available on the JD Power website. However, JD Power released a press release making broadly similar claims last summer; we relied on that to better understand their methodology and definitions. (We’ll post a link to the new JD Power report as soon as it becomes available).
The headline finding is that Millennials (the so-called Gen Y) bought about 3.7 million cars, while their older Gen X peers bought only 3.3 million. (We extracted these numbers from the charts in the Atlantic story). Superficially, that seems to be evidence that Millennials are in fact buying more cars.
But there’s a huge problem with this interpretation: There are way, way more people in “Gen Y” than there are in “Gen X.” Part of the reason is that the Gen Y group — also often called the “echo boom” — were born in years when far more children were born in the U.S. The bigger, and less obvious problem is the arbitrary and varying periods used to define “generations.” According to the definitions used by JD Power, Gen Y includes people born from 1977 to 1994 (a 17-year cohort), while Gen X includes those born between 1965 and 1976 — just an 11-year cohort. As a result, these definitions put nearly 78 million people in Gen Y and fewer than 45 million in GenX. There are fully 33 million more Gen Xers than Gen Y.* Hardly surprising, and not at all meaningful, that this much larger group buys about 10 percent more cars than the much smaller group.