Generational Shifts to Have Profound Impact on Cars, Culture, Mobility

Courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Sheryl Connelly

Sheryl Connelly, Ford Motor Company's futurist, says 2016 will be marked by increased mindfulness and mobility.

Millennials will continue to reset the clock of consumer culture in 2016 and beyond, aided by social media and a rising sense of self-reliance enhanced by increasingly useful tools and technology, predicts Ford Motor Co.'s in-house futurist, Sheryl Connelly. 

Connelly's findings, published today in Ford's annual Looking Further survey of trends, point to a near future in which consumers are more hopeful, mobile, productive and personally grounded.

"In our four years of compiling consumer trends, never have we seen optimism, resilience and self-reliance figure so prominently," Connelly stated.

And with 75 million Millennials finally overtaking Baby Boomers as the largest generational cohort, the divergent needs and values of both will increasingly shape society in the coming years, Connelly said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

"For Baby Boomers, it was all about stuff — and that's not surprising when you consider the ethos of that generation: early to arrive and last to leave, the most dedicated employee," Connelly said. "That was the recipe to get ahead and the return was great: financial security for the rest of your life and for your family after you were gone."

Millennials, coming of age amid chronic job uncertainty and carrying tens of thousands in student debt, have no illusions about the cause and effect of hard work and rewards and have steered their scarcer dollars away from trophy purchases.

Where Baby Boomers drove — and continue to drive — the craze for SUVs and record-setting sales of luxury cars in recent years, Millennials "do not associate their level of success or affluence with what they own — it's more attributed to what they have access to," Connelly said. "You curate your identity by the experiences you have had. That's a fundamental shift in the marketplace."

For Boomers, a driver's license was a cherished ticket to personal freedom and exploration but not for Millennials and especially Generation Z, offspring of the Millennials, whose plunging interest in car ownership — and even driving — strikes terror into the hearts of car executives from Detroit to Stuttgart.

Connelly cited a Department of Transportation study that revealed the percentage of 16-year-olds possessing a driver's license had dropped from 70 percent in 1978 to 50 percent in recent years. Today, she said, smart phones and social media supply the personal connectivity and freedom that access to a car once provided. "Digital devices created a society where you were virtually together but physically apart," she said.

Connelly traces the digression from outright ownership to today's nascent sharing economy, with its emphasis on seamless, on-demand services such as Uber and Lyft, through the recent history of the record industry, which has yet to conjure a business model to replace the one decimated by peer-to-peer file sharing.  

"Baby Boomers bought albums, Gen. Xr's bought CDs, and Millennials downloaded iTunes," she said. "But Gen Z isn't buying anything. They're streaming their music — Spotify, Pandora. That's how they consume, and that's where access trumps ownership."

Connelly cited Uber as an example of an enterprise that would have been inconceivable without the peer review and transparency made possible by smart phones and connectivity. 

"Uber, at its core, is hitch-hiking," she said. "But with transparency and connectivity, I can go: Hey, 300 people have used this driver before and they've all had relatively nice things to say. It's OK for me to get into a car with a complete stranger. That transparency engenders a sense of trust."

Connelly said that Ford and other car companies needed to address those realities in their future products and marketing, becoming companies that manufacture and sell cars but also mobility and connectivity.

"Brands have an obligation to find ways to make their engagements more meaningful," she said. "Because there is so much choice out there, the only way to rise above the noise is to do something that touches people on an emotional level."