It turns out that millennials are more complicated than we thought. The auto industry has been running scared, afraid that the post-1980 generation will abandon car ownership and the lifestyle that comes with it. That’s why self-driving cars are all the rage. But maybe we’re wrong about the future, say a couple of new surveys.

MTV’s survey of 3,600 millennials says that three out of four would rather take drastic steps — giving up social media for a whole day, or a week of texting — rather than surrender their car. The survey said that tougher licensing requirements in the states, rather than lack of desire, is why a lot of teens — including my own daughters — delayed driving. A fairly impressive 33 percent say they plan to buy or lease a car or truck in the next six months.

Home ownership stats

Let's just say that views on homeownership are in flux. (Graphic: Trulia/flickr)

“There is a tremendous opportunity to work with millennials and the industry needs to do better at reaching them,” said Berj Kazanjian, MTV senior vice president for ad sales research.

Of course, this counters other surveys, such as the PIRG study from last fall, revealing that, between 2001 and 2009, average driving miles declined 23 percent for 16 to 34 year-olds (and public transit use, walking and cycling was up). And a University of Michigan study from 2013 found that old fogeys of 55 to 64 were 15 times more likely to buy a new car than 18- to 24 year-olds.

Millennial car ownership graphic

It's not easy owning a car these days, especially on a millennial salary. (Graphic: Geekstats/flickr)

I dunno, there’s more evidence that young people look in the mirror and see their parents staring back. A new poll by the National Association of Home Builders surveyed people born after 1977 and found that most (66 percent) want to live in a single-family house out of the city center, i.e., the suburbs. Twenty-four percent desired “rural areas.” Only a pathetic 10 percent chose the inner city. Who knew? Attitudes about where people want to live are important, because it's the suburban lifestyle that virtually demands owning a car.

Something about these polls didn’t ring completely true, so I decided to ask an authority — my 21-year-old daughter, Maya. “Do you want to live in the suburbs, like your parents?” I asked her.

“Are you friggin’ serious?” she replied. “Why do you think I go to NYU? I’m going to stay in New York after graduating, too. The suburbs start to look good after you have kids, but that’s not happening for many years.” She has no plans to buy a car, either, although she’s glad we have them to borrow. My other daughter has just started college in Boston, and I don’t see her headed back to the ‘burbs anytime soon.

They've got a social conscience, those millennials.

They have a social conscience, those millennials. (Graphic:Solution Revolution/flickr)

Of course, what people want — as expressed by what they said in that homebuilders survey — and what they actually do are two entirely different things. The same stats also reveal that only 36 percent of 35-year-old head of households own their own homes, the lowest figure since the Commerce Department began tracking it in 1994.

The Atlantic drills down on this. A Nielsen study last year found 62 percent of millennials saying they want to live close to shops, restaurants and their work, but the magazine concludes that this doesn’t necessarily translate into a love for cities.

Graduates head for the Gotham Cities of this world because that’s where the jobs are. And then they can’t leave. “It’s now the case that after young people live in a prosperous city for a few years, they're finding it increasingly hard to get the economic foothold that would allow them to leave,” Atlantic reported. Isn’t this what "Girls" is all about, getting stuck in a minimum-wage coffee shop job?

Driving is tied in to the whole suburban lifestyle.
Driving is tied in to the whole suburban lifestyle. (Photo: Thomas Anderson/flickr)

The end game for many millennials (who mostly grew up in suburbia, after all) might be the white picket fence of their childhoods, but they may be a while getting there. And they might not like what they find. I’m reading "Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town" by Sarah Payne Stuart, an account of the author’s failed attempt to go home again to her blue blood roots in WASP-y Concord, Massachusetts.

Surveys may indicate whatever, but most of us would be surprised to learn what we’ll be doing — and where we’ll be living — 20 or 30 years from now. We’ll definitely keep guessing where it’s all headed, because (among other things) the future of the auto industry depends on it.

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Wait, what? Now millennials say they do want to drive
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