Will millennials open their wallets when it’s time to buy a boat?

Millennials have been making headlines recently and not necessarily for the right reasons.

Many of the stories describe how millennials differ from the generations that preceded them — they’re burdened with more student debt, they have less disposable income, they aren’t buying homes at the same pace, they’re getting married later, they’re living with their parents longer, they’re having more trouble finding jobs.

Timing has not been their friend. Many millennials entered the job market just as the economy sailed off the proverbial cliff. No group was harder hit during the Great Recession than these so-called echo boomers.

The sheer size of this cohort and all of the economic, political and cultural changes that will accompany them as they pour onto center stage are, of course, the reasons for so much scrutiny. Among other firsts, they are the most racially diverse generation in history, according to the Pew Research Center.

In time, they will represent the bulk of boat buyers. The oldest members are now turning 33 or 34, the age when we might reasonably expect them to begin buying boats. But that, too, has been retarded.

Here’s a snapshot of how things have changed. In 1997, about 35 percent of all new-boat buyers were under 40 years old. By 2013, the percentage had dropped to 18 percent, according to Info-Link, the Miami-based research company.

“The concern is if these folks don’t boat, what will happen to the next generation?” says Info-Link managing director Jack Ellis. Though just a guess, Ellis adds, “It strikes me as a tough generation to sell boats to.” Time will tell.

There are plenty of reasons to be excited by this cohort, none the least its size. “This is the biggest generation yet,” says Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “It’s larger than the boomers. And a lot of wealth will be transferred to the millennials. When it does, where are those dollars going to go? That’s a huge conversation.”

Pew defines the millennial generation as those born after 1980, which puts the age of adult members between 18 and 33 in 2014. The youngest millennials are in their teens, and no chronological end point has been set for this group, Pew notes. The Washington Post reported in May that there were more 22-year-old Americans in 2013 than any other single age.

In time, the millennials will be the future engine of growth for boating. And Gruhn, like Ellis, says it’s critical that the industry find ways to introduce them to boating. “We need to get them on the water,” Gruhn says. “If the millennials aren’t boating, then their kids won’t be boating. What then?”

Gruhn says millennials represent a market unlike any before it. They are, in the vernacular, digital natives, the only generation that has not had to adapt to the digital era, given that they grew up in it. “These are kids who grew up with cellphones, who grew up with computers as the primary way of communicating and doing research,” Gruhn says. “They don’t want to be sold. They want to develop relationships. They like to come in educated. And they want their well-researched opinions affirmed.”

My two oldest daughters and their husbands are part of the millennial wave. These two working mothers grew up boating, fishing and tubing with yours truly. Their husbands also are avid anglers but boatless except for a kayak.

Dan is a 33-year-old engineer and a partner in his firm. Alana is a 31-year-old health care analyst. Dan says he’d like to own a “nice little family boat” someday, but he and Alana have a full plate at the moment. “It’s not a first priority,” he told me. “We have a lot of other things going on.”

Those other things include a home mortgage, student loans and a car loan, not to mention two young children — a newborn (1 month old) and a 2-1/2-year-old. They have good, secure jobs, and both are optimistic about the future. And it’s not just the money giving them pause — it’s as much about time.

“I don’t have time for anything,” says Dan, who has fished with me for years. “I don’t have time to take care of my house the way I’d like to. There’s no time. Hopefully, the answers will be different in 10 years.”

“I think it’s more realistic in 20 years,” Alana says. “Boats take a lot of time, and I think they’re only worth having if you have the time to spend on them. No one wants a boat that just sits in the backyard or in a slip all summer.”

Until the tide changes, Alana, Dan, Leah and Eric and their young broods plan to go out on this old goat’s boat as much as possible. The important thing is that they’ll be on the water. When the time is right, boats will follow.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue.


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