RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This summer, NPR and Youth Radio have been exploring the changing relationship between young people and the automobile. The Internet and file-sharing have already transformed how young people acquire music, art, books and think about the very concept of ownership. Turns out this is not a good thing for the auto industry. Studies show that the generation known as millennials still want access to cars but are less interested in owning them. Here's Noah Nelson of Youth Radio.
NOAH NELSON, BYLINE: If there's one place in America you absolutely need a car, it's L.A.
ALYSSA ROSENTHAL: I have been in L.A. without a car for about two years now.
NELSON: OK - I stand corrected.
ROSENTHAL: My name is Alyssa Rosenthal and I'm a makeup artist.
NELSON: Alyssa's job means lugging a professional makeup kit - think of a small toolbox filled with enough supplies to make a supermodel or a zombie or a zombie supermodel. Point being: it's heavy, and it's her responsibility to get it to the movie set.
ROSENTHAL: It's not easy. It's definitely a big challenge, but I make it happen. Public transit really is blowing up in L.A. right now. The trains go a lot of places and it makes it sometimes easier to get to locations, you know, with traffic and everything in L.A.
NELSON: That blowing up Alyssa refers to are new transit options like the Metro Expo Line, which opened last year. It's already surpassing rider projections. Here's a stranger fact: At 28, Alyssa is part of a trend of millennials who are giving up, putting off or just not buying cars. This has left car companies scratching their heads.
JILL HENNESSY: As we've talked to consumers in this age group about how they feel about owning the car, the car companies kind of think about this as, well, that's sort of a silly question 'cause of course everybody wants to own a car.
NELSON: Jill Hennessy is clinical professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She studied the attitudes of millennials towards the car buying process. The short answer: They're a lot different from Baby Boomers and Gen X.
HENNESSY: When we've talked to millennials, they actually answer that question quite thoughtfully. And while they do still want to own a car - not as much as they want to own a smartphone, by the way, that's the physical possession they're most attached to - they are thinking about do I need a car or not? In a way that I think five years ago or 10 years ago we wouldn't have seen to the same extent.
NELSON: It's not just cars that millennials question owning. Nearly any possession you can think of stopped being an "of course" and became a "hmm" for millennials.
HENNESSY: You know, maybe it's not so great to own everything anyway.
NELSON: Hennessy says the economy has been a big part of that shift. Millennials have witnessed the worst economic downturn since the great depression. They've watched their parents struggle with financial insecurity, having trouble keeping their jobs and their homes, no matter what their education level. For someone born before Ronald Reagan was in office, this sounds like a nightmare. But Hennessy says that millennials are so gosh-darn optimistic that they put a positive spin on it.
HENNESSY: They're much more likely to find value in experiences than they are to find value in things.
NELSON: This is a paradigm shift - mark your '90s retro bingo card - that extends beyond cars to things like housing. One of the forces that's powering that change: It's all those apps in your pocket.
(SOUNDBITE OF SKATEBOARD ROLLING)
NELSON: That's the sound of Zach Brown's skateboard, which is his preferred mode of transportation. Zach, 27, an L.A. artist and actor who doesn't own a car.
ZACH BROWN: I don't feel like I actually buy things, like, for myself. Like, people would go out and buy clothes or buy music or electronics or things like that. Most of my spare time is spent just hanging out with friends, and you don't necessarily have to purchase anything in order to do that. Art supplies and food - that's the majority of where my excess money if I, you know, that I don't spend on a car goes to.
NELSON: Zach is friends with Alyssa Rosenthal, the makeup artist, who finds herself spending her spare cash less on things and more on experiences.
ROSENTHAL: I love going to the movies and I like going to concerts a lot, and I like listening to music. You know, I use Spotify and listen to Pandora and things like that, but as far as purchasing those things I don't typically do it.
NELSON: That's why we see all kinds of companies - from movie studios pumping out films in IMAX to Apple adding iTunes Radio to their phones - putting an emphasis on the experiences they can provide as the shift from an industrial to a service economy enters a mature stage. And for these two millennials, food is a big line item.
ROSENTHAL: It is a culture that I really do enjoy, going out to eat. Getting a good drink and, you know, being in that atmosphere. It's a lot of fun.
NELSON: Ah, the simple pleasures and the bare necessities. Perhaps millennials are on to something. For NPR News, I'm Noah Nelson.
MONTAGNE: And Noah Nelson is a reporter for TurnstyleNews.com, a project of Youth Radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.