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“Signals suggest they’ll be more frugal,” Connelly says of young car consumers.

Ford Futurist Keeps Eye on Gen Z Behavior

It’s an age group that “someday will be renamed the COVID kids,” Ford's Sheryl Connelly says.

Now it’s Generation Z’s turn in the barrel as young people facing life’s rolling challenges, economic and otherwise.

It could affect their car-buying behavior, says Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s chief futurist.

Two generations before Gen Z (people born between 1996 to 2009), many Generation Xers (1965-1979) came of age during economic down times, and consequently had trouble landing work. Because of that, they unduly got branded as “slackers.”

But as they aged, times got better. They acquired more wherewithal. Now, automakers, including luxury brands, avidly pitch vehicles to the so-called slacker generation.

Then came the Millennials a.k.a. Gen Y (born between 1980 and 1995). For a while they worried the auto industry because they were perceived as a group uninterested in buying vehicles.

That turned out to be a false narrative. It wasn’t that Millennials disdained vehicles; rather, it was that many of them as young adults hitting the job market ran right into the financial crisis of a decade or so ago.

“Many of them were unemployed or underemployed,” Connelly says during an online presentation put on by the Society of Automotive Analysts. “They postponed large purchases,” including vehicles.

Despite their initial rap as showing apathy toward car ownership, they went on to become a major consumer force in today’s auto market.

Now, the industry has its eye on Gen Z, ranging in age from 16 to 25. They’re different from the rest in one adverse way: “Generation Z someday will be renamed the COVID kids,” Connelly says.

Generally, “their attitude is, ‘I don’t care if I fail, I’m going to try,’” she says, citing the latest Ford trend report. “They are searching for learning and growth, not necessarily excellence. They are stumbling through. Some are running businesses from their parents’ basement.”

Asked how that will affect their car-buying behavior, Connelly replies, “Signals suggest they’ll be more frugal.”

sheryl-connelly-Ford.jpgWith schools closed during the pandemic, Gen Z’s formal education went from classrooms to online learning at home. That restricted their peer interaction, Connelly says.

They express a greater feeling of loneliness. In Ford’s worldwide research, people of different age groups were asked if they felt lonely on a regular basis. “Yes” responses came from about 65% of Gen Z. That compares with slightly more than 50% of Millennials and slightly less than 50% of Gen X.

Those loneliness numbers could come down when the COVID crisis ends. “I think they are temporary; they will reset,” Connelly says.

Yet, even before COVID hit, Gen Z members “suffered from a greater degree of loneliness,” with 50% saying they felt lonely around others, she says. Yet, it may come down to a downside of youth. 

However, when it comes to hopefulness regarding the future of autonomous vehicles, Gen Z showed the most enthusiasm among generations (73%) in the U.S., Connelly says. In China, Millennials topped the charts at nearly 80%.

Connelly says her work title as a futurist is misleading because her job isn’t to predict the future. It’s to spot and track trends and patterns.

The good news for Ford and other automakers is that most polled people consider vehicles as necessities.

“People feel they need at least one car,” she says. “It’s part of a safety net.” 

In the latest polling from October, 76% of respondents globally said they couldn’t imagine life without a vehicle. “That’s good business news,” notes Connelly.

It’s not merely a transportation issue. According to the survey, 26% of people use their car to relax, 20% for privacy and 17% as a workplace (with three times more men than women indicating that).

Then there’s this: “Many people say they use their vehicle as a place to hide,” Connelly says.

In the midst of the COVID pandemic, Ford pollsters asked people when they thought life would return to normal. Most responded that will occur in one to two years. Some said never.

Steve Finlay is a retired WardsAuto senior editor. He can be reached at

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