The Near Future Of Mobility

baby boomers, smartphones

Hotrod Sinners and Phone Beginners

Parents cringe when kids get their first smartphone. They have valid concerns about the hours kids will spend on the phone, as well as the accidental, or deliberate, exposure to the digital perils of cyber-bullying, cyber-porn, and more.

Yet these smartphones also bring parents a peace of mind that an older generation never experienced.  Although there are still far too many vehicle accidents, young people are getting their driver’s licenses later and waiting longer to get behind the wheel. Fewer parents now spend restless evenings waiting up, praying that their kid and the car return safely from a nocturnal adventure.  


Smartphones have replaced cars as the status symbol for young people. Phones are changing the rulebook of how teens and parents work out growing pains. In this two-part blog we will highlight some of the differences, and center here on the more easily observed car/phone trade-offs.

The average age for acquiring a personal smartphone (in the US) is only ten, but there is a forceful movement to wait until eight, as in eighth grade . Smartphones have become a teen rite-of-passage. An earlier generation of Boomers, and to some extent Millennials, used their cars as the opportunity to establish independence and connections outside the immediate household. As John Zimmer, the  co-founder of Zimiride, and  president of Lyft observes

The independence once represented by the car has been replaced by cell phones and social networks, which are now at the forefront of people’s expression of freedom and access.


So, what are some of the differences between coming of age today, and coming of age when wheels ruled the road?


ENVIRONMENTAL: The environmental record is not so green for Baby Boomers and older Millennials. Their transportation preferences locked them into big-oil, and the affection for drive alone leaves behind an oversized carbon footprint.  With smartphones, today’s teens are far more eco-friendly, and cut their fossil-fuel travel trips  by doing both errands and entertainment online instead of taking  travel trips.  As the trend continues, there is an important sea-change just ahead: The convergence of the smartphone and the automobile is occurring with self-driving, autonomous vehicles. As you might imagine, polls find that teens and young people embrace the technology. Older people, the Boomers, are resistant to self-driving cars, and when you dig into the reasons, they say it threatens their freedom and independence .

FINANCIAL: Most rites of passage invoke some sacrifice or exchange of funds, and in this case, the younger generation wins again. Boomers were motivated to get a car and incurred the added cost of fuel, maintenance, and insurance. That often required the need to get a first or second job in addition to schooling.  David Murdock, who hails  from an older generation, quipped, “ We take better  care our cars than we take care of the maintenance of our bodies.”

Today’s teens still crave the ownership ritual, but it comes with less of a financial strain.  Twelve year olds to twenty year olds are registered for the family cellphone contract, and do not have to work as hard to afford the trendiest phone or heavy -duty data plan. They may even have extra change left to playfully try out stylish phone cases, headphones, and downloads.


CONFIDENTIAL: One of the pivotal differences between phones and cars cuts deeper. Boomers will recall that they did many private things in their own cars, or in the car they borrowed from parents. Cars became an indoor vehicle literally for the private consumption of alcohol or other illicit substances. Backseats were also legendary on date-night as the go-to place and, for many different reasons, teen pregnancies soared in comparison to the rates today.  When all stationary activities were exhausted, there were also trips! The Boomers, as teens, could visit with friends or travel to a site that their elders had specifically forbidden.

Today’s teens may be starting earlier, but there is a similar penchant to forge trails that are private and beyond the prying eyes of adults. Snapchat and messaging sites often provide a ‘teen-preferred’ space, by virtue of being edgy, and/or tricky to navigate. The back seat of the car may have been supplanted by the camera on the phone,  i.e. teens  sending, receiving, and forwarding sexually explicit message and images. There is a subtle similarity: Like young drivers who do not pay full attention to the road, teenagers on their phone may not be thinking about the risks and repercussions when they are deep into sexting. I Curiously, the demographics are different today:  women in relationships are more likely to sext than men, and that may explain why an older age group, 18 the 24 years olds, are the largest users.

 DIGITAL LITERACY: No matter what teens once did in cars there is one blockbuster difference. We used to expect parents, backed by strict hours of classroom time and in-vehicle instruction, to make young people driver-ready.  In an earlier blog we suggested the idea of a provisional license for smartphone users  and on our Facebook page, SmartphoneZen, we noted  the application of Yondr bags so that students were less distracted in the classroom.

Teens know how to use a smartphone and they are usually more proficient at it than their parents. But, they often lack the knowledge to use it mindfully and with purpose. These are skills that need to be taught. Since the nineteen seventies there has been a small movement to teach media studies in the school curriculum. However, it has never been widely adopted. Incongruously, most middle schools and high schools did make room in the academic curriculum  for classes on sexual health and body awareness.

Here stands a new opportunity: teens going online today  encounter a lot of information about sexual health and awareness, including cyber porn. That information is in full sight. For example,  The New York Times cites an older study (2008) that 93 percent of male college students and 62 percent of female students encountered online porn before they were 18.

So, if the smartphone is the new vehicle, and the classroom is the new setting, this might be the opportune moment to pair the two. Parents and educators  take note:  We  need a curriculum that is part of a larger umbrella where kids learn to use their phones in ways that are mindful and responsible. We need to help kids mature alongside their digital freedom and independence.