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What’s Cool for Old People? A Hybrid

There are lots of factors that determine green buying patterns, but for those in the second half of life a certain level of status is attached to driving a hybrid.
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French MDI petro-air hybrid car developed with Tata. (PHOTO: DEEPAK GUPTA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

French MDI petro-air hybrid car developed with Tata. (PHOTO: DEEPAK GUPTA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Being green has become a cardinal virtue, but what drives people to be green remains imperfectly understood.

Take the market for gas-electric hybrid vehicles.

Given the rising, if temporarily abated, gasoline prices and the wide, if not universal, concern about climate change, hybrid vehicles seem like they would be a popular option for many, and based on growth of this segment—Toyota sells more Priuses these days than Buick does of everything—they are popular.

Who buys hybrids, and why? The commercial says, "Hum, hum, hum, everyone," but the reality is more likely people on the coasts and in places that are already environmentally plugged-in. Given the political polarization that colors everything in the U.S., green can be a factor of blue.

Research suggests that older buyers see hybrids as a status symbol, a public affirmation both of the driver’s green cred and their financial acumen, thanks to the presumed savings in gas.

After noting that hybrid registration rates were higher in Democratic neighborhoods in Massachusetts, Boston College sociologist Thomas Laidley that "the clear partisan divide illustrates the possibility that hybrid autos are imbued with liberal political symbolism, such that they reflect the overall ideological commitment of their owners." (He suggested that sneaking hybrid technology into a wider choice of vehicles likes SUVs “may be an effective tactic at getting those into the fold who otherwise would be resistant to the technology.”)

And as UCLA economists Matthew Kahn and Ryan Vaughn discovered, buying a hybrid may be contagious in neighborhoods that are greener, richer, whiter ... and older.

Yes, younger people are more focused on the environment, but they are less focused on buying hybrids, or, for that matter, cars themselves. (Perhaps some seeds of the latter are found in the former.) Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has been charting the greying of the U.S. automobile culture for some time, and he’s learned that while 20-somethings aren’t abandoning personal cars and driving, they’re not embracing them with the same gusto as their elders. He cites the example of 1983, when 92 percent of those age 20 to 24 had a driver’s license, while for those age 60 to 64 the figure was 84 percent. In 2011, 80 percent of the younger age group was licensed, compared to 93 percent of the older group.

The difference is even sharper in car-buying behavior.

Looking at the year 2011, he found those age 55 to 64 were the most likely to buy a car, pickup truck, minivan, or SUV (one vehicle per 14.6 drivers), while those 18 to 24 were least likely (one vehicle per 221.8 drivers). And while the economy was in the tank in 2011, especially for the young, while older people are more likely to have discretionary income period, the trends Sivak identified manifested before the current hard times.

Sales data indicates that older people, i.e. 50 and up, are buying hybrids—Toyota told me that the average age of a Prius buyer is 54, with an average age of 60 for the biggest model and 46 for the smaller, city-dweller version. Priuses—Prii?—are no longer the definition of the hybrid car industry anymore, but they still make up half the American market and serve as a handy proxy for the market as a whole.

Now new research suggests that these older buyers see hybrids as a status symbol, a public affirmation both of the driver’s green cred—which may help explain hybrids’ lower sales in redder states—and their financial acumen, thanks to the presumed savings in gas going forward.

"If I want to pay $5 for a 'green' detergent or sponge, I'll know that I'm helping the environment. But those things aren't highly visible," a release quoted one of the paper’s authors, Jeong-Ju “Jay” Yoo. “Other people aren't going to notice.” Yoo is an assistant professor of family and consumer sciences in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences; the paper he co-wrote with Korea-based business professors Won-Moo Hur and Jin Hur appears in the journal Human Factors and Ergonomics in Manufacturing and Service Industries.

The academics surveyed 314 American hybrid buyers over the age of 60 (considered "elderly" by the authors) to see what factors influenced their purchases.

“Social value”—how the purchase made them feel—was significant. “This finding suggests,” according to the paper, “that elderly consumers are concerned about how they appear to others when driving a hybrid car; moreover, they believe that driving a hybrid car builds a positive self-image of the people who drive them.”

"Hybrid cars have increased in visibility because of their environmental consciousness,” Yoo explained in a hint for marketers. “So people may be willing to pay an extra $5,000 or so in order to think, 'I'm great, and this is good for the environment.'" Plus, you get associated with the current crop of hybrid buyers, who are more educated, richer, and sustainability-minded than the population as a whole.

The authors were interested to discover that the notion of being an environmental pioneer didn’t translate into a greater sense of satisfaction behind the wheel, as you might see a mid-life crisis man tootling down the street in a shiny red Mustang. (A Tesla roadster might span that divide....) Speculating beyond cars, Hur, Yoo, and Hur wondered if this emotional component “may not be relevant in buying green products if the emphasis is more on the consumers’ responsibility.” In short, self-esteem comes from the nobility of the cause rather than the coolness of the ride. Even without scientific study, I think we can flip that to get at the attitudes of the young. Perhaps hybrids’ inherent anti-flashiness becomes a selling point to the AARP crowd.

Price and quality are also particularly important drivers for older drivers. That’s not necessarily the base price of the vehicle but the longer-term savings they anticipate. While their prices have dropped, hybrids are not the cheapest cars available, but the savings at the pump suggest future chances to be smug. That amortization attitude among the elderly doesn’t seem to be as strong in other “green” purchases, like solar panels, which also promise long-term savings for near-term expense but may not have the same status-enhancing properties as new wheels.

Whether older people act more ecologically has been a subject of dispute for years. Having experienced cheap gas, the 1973 oil shock, and the environmental movement, perhaps this baby boom generation is unique. And yet age could be linked with ecological behaviors, Diane M. Samdahl and Robert Robertson wrote almost a quarter century ago—but not on all measures of classical environmental concern.