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Bridging the generation gap with water, sun and sand

The question has been on the table for some time: What happens when the members of the large generation of baby-boom boaters swallow their collective anchors and exit stage left?
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The question has been on the table for some time: What happens when the members of the large generation of baby-boom boaters swallow their collective anchors and exit stage left?

To what degree will millennials fill the breach? Or Gen X? The clock is ticking — roughly 10,000 boomers turn 65 each day, a phenomenon that started in 2011 and will continue until 2030. This cohort remains the primary driver of our industry, particularly the younger trailing-edge segment. (The youngest boomer is about 51 years old.)

Despite a lot of hand wringing, all is not lost.

The industry has some favorable winds at its back. Participation, for instance, is at an all-time high, with somewhere in the vicinity of 90 million adults getting out on a boat at least once a year. And as NMMA president Thom Dammrich correctly points out, “Purchase follows participation.”

Consider this, too: The millions of boomers who boat have introduced more young people to the sport than any previous generation. That’s significant. Many of their offspring are now young adults and have the water gene firmly imprinted on their cerebral cortex, even if it’s lying dormant at the moment, given all the challenges the X generation faces.

But we know from research that an early introduction to the sport is an important indicator of future participation and boat ownership. Initiatives such as Discover Boating can help light the match that brings young adults into the fold when the time is right. It’s an important program that deserves continued support. We need to do all we can to remain part of the conversation that young people eventually will have over how to spend their discretionary dollars.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of challenges moving forward (see “Bracing for life without boomers” by Reagan Haynes, Pages 30-33).

Affordability remains an issue across generations, but nowhere does it have more impact than on young adults, many of whom are saddled with college debt and are just in the early stages of building a career, buying a home, starting a family and so on.

Can we produce a broader range of entry-level boats? Is there enough market and margin to warrant it? Although a handful of companies build what you could reasonably call an “affordable” model, the typical entry-level boat today continues to be an older used boat.

I know a pair of newly minted boaters in their mid-20s who just bought a 1989 13-foot Boston Whaler with a 25-hp outboard. They seem pretty typical in that every penny counts and they just wanted to get out on the water with something they could afford. I’m guessing they’re in it for the long haul.

Funny thing — it’s the same make and model boat that my older brother and I started with nearly 50 years ago, although ours was built in 1968. My brother still has the damn thing. How far have we really come?

On the flip side, we might ask this question: Do we need to put more thought into designing features and accommodations aimed at keeping boomers on the water longer? You see it already in areas such as side doors, improved ergonomics, slow-speed maneuvering systems, more sophisticated sun protection — things that really enhance the experience for boaters of all ages.

The popularity of kayaks and stand-up paddleboards is worth noting, too. They are popular, relatively inexpensive, and the core audience certainly skews young.

Will these boats serve as a feeder fleet to more traditional craft once the paddlers reach an age at which they get tired of being wet all the time? They certainly have demonstrated a propensity for the water. Time will tell, but sailing never really saw the lift it had hoped for from the popularity of boardsailing in the 1970s and ’80s.

So what do we know for sure?

There’s no stopping the trajectory of the massive baby-boom generation. And, yes, the members of the millennial and X generations are not the same as their parents. And they won’t boat exactly the same way, either. But here’s where all roads might converge.

You can split hairs and view the generational divide through psychographics and involved marketing matrixes, but what attracts young people to boating is not much different from what has drawn folks to pleasure craft for centuries: wind, water, sun, spray, laughter and an incredible sense of freedom that’s hard to find elsewhere.

That feeling of being alive in the moment — that’s the real magic of boating — transcends any generation gap.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.

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