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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the iconic movie "American Graffiti." The film depicts the deep connection between American teenagers and their cars.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN GRAFFITI")

RICHARD DREYFUS: (As Curt) I just saw a vision. I saw a goddess. Come on, you gotta catch up to her.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I didn't see anything.

CINDY WILLIAMS: (As Laurie) Come on, Curt. We can't be spending half the night chasing girls down for you.

WERTHEIMER: A lot has changed in the decades since. Studies show the millennial generation gets licenses later, drives less, and waits longer to make that very first car purchase. Over next few weeks, NPR and Youth Radio will ask what that means. We begin with the movie "American Graffiti" and NPR's Sonari Glinton.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: When you're a teenager, they are so many things you desperately want to find. You want to find friends, fun, a future, freedom. Well, how do you did get those things? In "American Graffiti," it seems so much simpler. The kids find all of that just by in getting in their cars. Richard Dreyfus' character even finds love, he thinks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN GRAFFITI")

DREYFUS: (As Curt) I think she said I love you. That means nothing to you people? You have no romance, no soul? See, someone wants me. Someone roaming the streets wants me. Will you turn the corner?

GLINTON: "American Graffiti," with its gleaming cars and articulate teenagers, is set in Modesto, Calif. - it was filmed elsewhere. In the film, the teenagers spend a whole lot of time tooling around in their cars; looking, cruising.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

GLINTON: I wanted to see if any part of the city was like the movie. So on a couple of hot summer weekend nights, I drove around Modesto. With its downtown and its long, wide streets, the city seems a perfect place to cruise. But that's not what's happening. Celene Murrillo and her friends were among the many teens I saw dropped off at the movie theater. Celene is 19, and she doesn't have a driver's license.

CELENE MURRILLO: You know, if there was something that was actually forcing me to get out there and like, actually get my license, then I probably would. There's like - you know - your parents, so have something to depend on. And so maybe that's why.

GLINTON: Celene says her parents to don't mind dropping her off around town, and she doesn't mind, either. Blanca Correa is 16, and she doesn't have a driver's license - and no immediate plans to get one.

BLANCA CORREA: I've never actually thought it was that important.

GLINTON: In Modesto?

CORREA: Yeah.

GLINTON: If you and your friends want to get around, how do you and your friends meet up with each other?

CORREA: Well, they pick us up, and we leave.

GLINTON: So Blanca says she can get around asking friends for rides, and if it's important, her parents will give her a lift. Neither see a license, in and of itself, as a symbol of independence. They're not alone. Buying a car, even a used one, is tough for teens who aren't financially independent. But getting a driver's license, that's different. That's a sign of intent.

Twenty years ago, three-quarters of kids would have had their license by the age 18, according to AAA. Only about half do now. But what do young people with more financial independence - say, in their early 20s - feel about driving?

MEGAN KURTZ: Well, I'd better always have a car because how else would you get places? I'd better have car.

GLINTON: That's Megan Kurtz. She's the only one of her group that owns a car. I found Kurtz, McKenzie Yates, Katie Gilles and Mike Clubb at an In-N-Out Burger. Clubb says he wishes he could afford a car.

MIKE CLUBB: My girlfriend drives me everywhere. That sounds sad and like, 20 years ago, I'd be considered pathetic. But it's almost normal, now, to be that way.

GLINTON: Clubb says for many of his friends, the Web and social media can take the place of a car.

CLUBB: You can visually communicate with each other like that - like, in the snap of a finger; other than, you know, spending 10 bucks in gas that you don't have and then seeing the same, exact thing.

GLINTON: Katie Gilles says cruising just to cruise, even in Modesto, is a thing of the past. She says just driving around your town has given way to documenting your life on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. Gilles says young people in Modesto definitely drive, but it's with a different purpose.

KATIE GILLES: They're not likely to just aimlessly go. They have to plan.

CLUBB: It has to be Instagram-worthy.

GILLES: Yeah. It has to be worth their popularity. Like, they have to cross an event off their list, you know what I mean?

GLINTON: It has to be Instagram-worthy.

CLUBB: Yeah. It has to be pretty, or somebody has to look. And if nobody sees, like, it's not really worth the time to go and share it with the world.

GLINTON: In modern-day Modesto, cars are vitally important, but not in the same way they were in "American Graffiti." They don't represent freedom, individuality, a rite of passage, a way to meet up with friends. So over the next few weeks, my friends at Youth Radio and I will look at this change, and what it means for the future of driving and the car industry. I'll give you a hint about what we find out: It's not necessarily bad for the car business.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

GLINTON: Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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