People born between 1963 and 1965 are less likely to drive a car to work, are more likely to commute using public transit and are even less likely to own a car than people born just before or after those years. Why? It’s a great puzzle. Give it a guess.
Severen and van Benthem have a compelling answer:
An individual’s initial experiences with a common good, such as gasoline, can shape their behavior for decades. We first show that the 1979 oil crisis had a persistent negative effect on the likelihood that individuals that came of driving age during this time drove to work in the year 2000 (i.e., in their mid 30s). The effect is stronger for those with lower incomes and those in cities. Combining data on many cohorts, we then show that large increases in gasoline prices between the ages of 15 and 18 significantly reduce both (i) the likelihood of driving a private automobile to work and (ii) total annual vehicle miles traveled later in life, while also increasing public transit use. Differences in driver license age requirements generate additional variation in the formative window. These effects cannot be explained by contemporaneous income and do not appear to be only due to increased costs from delayed driving skill acquisition. Instead, they seem to reflect the formation of preferences for driving or persistent changes in the perceived costs of driving.
Here’s a nice figure from an excellent piece covering the Severen and van Benthem paper in the Washington Post by Van Dam. Van Dam also covers a paper by Malmendier and Shen which shows how unemployment in formative years can change behavior through a lifetime even absent differences in income.