About Those “Millennials Are the Worst Drivers” Articles

This morning USA Today posted an article titled “Millennial drivers are highway hazards, survey shows.” Because I am a Millennial, and because I try to keep my finger on the pulse of Millennial-bashing, I clicked through—and quickly wished I hadn’t.

Millennial drivers are the worst.

That’s not just their elders talking. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found 88% of drivers 19- to 24-years-old acknowledged engaging in risky behavior such as texting while driving, running red lights or speeding during the previous month, according to a report released Wednesday.

I’m sorry, what?! A Millennial is typically anyone born between 1980 and 2000. There isn’t complete agreement, of course, and the dates proffered can be vary slightly. I’ve sometimes seen the term defined as anyone born between 1982 and 2004. Individuals who are between 19 and 24 years old currently were born between roughly 1992 and 1997. They’re Millennials, yes, but they’re a very narrow swath of Millennials.

This sloppy use of the term “Millennial” ignores the realities faced by many of my Millennial friends, who are well into their 30s. If we pick 1980 as our start date, there are Millennials who will turn 37 this year; even if we choose the more conservative 1982, there are Millennials who are about to hit 35. This usage creates other problems as well—you cannot assume that a teenager, in 2017, is a Millennial. Using the 2000 end date, individuals turning 17 this year are not Millennials. And yet, many continue to use the term as shorthand for “teen or young adult” frequently with appendages like “self-absorbed” or “lazy” or “technology-addicted.”

On some level, none of this matters. It’s all words. Generation labels are made-up things that may prove explanatory in some ways but are ill-fitting in other ways. How much does a person turning 37 have in common with a person turning 18? There is some logic to the argument that we are the generation spanning the advent of new technology—that we are simultaneously the last generation that will remember life before the internet came into widespread use and the first generation to be digital natives—but even here, the twenty-year age grouping is too large to speak to a true common experience. To label, or not to label? That is the question.

And yet, somehow I still care—or at least, I care enough to care about accuracy.

Returning to the USA Today article on “Millennial” drivers:

The survey of 2,511 drivers from Aug. 25 through Sept. 6 by market research firm GfK found:

• Millennials acknowledged typing or sending a text or email while driving at nearly twice the rate of other drivers (59.3% to 31.4%).

• Nearly half of Millennials reported running a red light even if they could have stopped safely, compared with 36% of the rest of drivers.

• Nearly 12% of Millennials said it was acceptable to speed 10 mph over the speed limit in a school zone, compared with 5% of other drivers.

“Alarmingly, some of the drivers ages 19 to 24 believe that their dangerous driving behavior is acceptable,” said David Yang, the foundation’s executive director.

The label “Millennial” is not interchangeable with people ages 19 to 24. It just isn’t. And yet, this story is currently spreading like wildfire. Internet news site after internet news site is picking the story up and reprinting USA Today’s statistics with the label “Millennial” slapped all over their headlines.

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I finally tracked down a news release with a link to the actual study—why does no one ever link to the studies they cite?—and guess what? While the news release states that “Young Millennials Top List of Worst Behaved Drivers,”  the actual study does not use the word “Millennial” once. That’s all marketing, and for clicks.

Part of me wonders if everyone is running this story with the “Millennial” label in the headline because “Young drivers engage in more risky behavior than other drivers” is so obviously to be expected (and so clearly longstanding—when as that not been the case?) that it’s almost not news. But if you can tout the latest study stating the obvious while bashing Millennials? Well, that sells.

If you’re looking for a more accurate evaluation of this report, have a look at this Associated Press article, published this morning in the Chicago Tribune. From the headline—“Study: Most drivers, not just young, are taking risks”—to the very end of the article, the piece avoids the term “Millennial” and, perhaps as a result, manages to tell an interesting story and provide readers with actual information.

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