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Generation Z have the power to make or break the auto industry. Here’s why

This article first appeared in The Independent and can be viewed here.

The automotive industry has a big headache looming. No, not Brexit, nor the pandemic. Both of which can and will be resolved over time and with the proper amount of strategic planning. The question that will be keeping automotive executives up at night is how do they sell their cars to Generation Z; those succeeding Millennials and born between the late 90s and early 2010s.

Whilst the need to make cars appealing to fresh audiences isn’t new, Gen Z pose a unique challenge. Throughout the generations, we’ve seen distinct differences in the way demographic cohorts view automobiles. For the baby boomers, cars represented a route towards post-war prosperity, with the VW Beetle becoming a cultural and generational icon in the 1960s and 1970s. For Generation X, they viewed cars as the ultimate status symbols, having entered their economic zenith in Margaret Thatcher’s era of yuppies and flashy excess. Millennials were a trickier sell, but were ultimately attracted to cheaper, smaller and urban-friendly vehicles to suit their lifestyles and budgets. But Gen Z are different.

They are the first to grow up exclusively in a truly digital world. Culturally diverse, well-educated and in possession of a burning motivation to make the world a better place, Gen Z are and will be a force to be reckoned with. This digital upbringing and possession of a deep sense of environmental responsibility gives Gen Z a unique perspective on mobility. Unlike the generations that preceded them, Generation Z view cars simply as an appliance; nothing more than a tool for getting from A to B.

The reason why this matters is because Gen Z is set to become the largest generation ever, and already has 61 million consumers who influence $600 billion of spending. Put simply, automakers can’t afford to have Gen Z fall out of love with cars. So how do they stop that from happening?

Throughout my career, I’ve never been afraid to push the boundaries and challenge the status quo. That approach has afforded me the privilege of launching some fantastic cars. As CEO of Aston Martin, I oversaw the launch of the new DBX – Aston’s first ever foray into the luxury SUV market. As COO of Nissan, I took the Nissan LEAF from a derided concept to the world’s first mass-market electric vehicle. To appeal to Generation Z, a similarly radical approach to car-making is required.

A good starting point is the supposed notion that Gen Z are optimistic about the eventual reality of autonomous vehicles, with some evidence suggesting around 60% of Gen Z believe they will use autonomous vehicles by 2029. Automakers should channel that positivity and re-frame the traditional attributes of car “coolness” such as horsepower, noise and speed, towards new features such as productivity, shared time, or total experience. In other words, making Generation Z see cars as a way of helping them invest more time in their passion points and achieve their overarching life objectives.

We’ve already seen an early willingness from Generation Z to invest money and loyalty in brands that demonstrate an ability to align their marketing and offering with these values. Take Madrid as an example. With more than 5,000 electric scooters – available for on-demand use as a means to cut down on traffic, noise, pollution, and parking issues - young Spaniards flock to these options with great enthusiasm, forcing companies to increase the size of the fleet more than fivefold in the past year. Why? Because this mode of transport ticks the boxes that resonate most with the Gen Z psyche; cheap, easy-to-use, instantly available, saves time, good for the environment and fun!

With tech giants, such as Apple and Google, long rumoured to make a substantial move in the auto market, legacy carmakers are likely to be forced, kicking and screaming, to revamp their offering towards Generation Z’s preferences whether they like it or not. Though, if a carmaker is willing to take that risk out of choice rather than necessity, a game-changing opportunity is there for the taking.



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