Pursuing lost youth

Gen Xers and millennials who enjoyed the water as kids have fallen off the traditional ownership path, and the industry wants them back.
Kids who spend time on the water often become boat owners, but that trend is changing among Gen Xers and millennials.

Kids who spend time on the water often become boat owners, but that trend is changing among Gen Xers and millennials.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This begins a two-part special report on the industry’s declining baby-boomer client base and the reluctance of the next generations to commit to boat ownership.

People who grow up boating will always boat. That’s the message the industry has been sending in its effort to get more people on the water as kids. And for good reason. Traditionally, many of the people who grow up boating eventually become boat owners themselves. But what was a given in the past doesn’t seem to translate to the pattern for the future.

The reality is that the age of people who buy new and used boats is not going down, according to new data from Info-Link, a Miami-based company that analyzes data gleaned from boat registrations. The average boat owner was 55.5 in 2015, says Info-Link founder Jack Ellis. The average new-boat buyer last year was 51.5, which is actually a bit lower than the peak in 2013, when it was 52.5.

“So from a buyer’s perspective, there’s actually been a slight decline in the age of new-boat buyers,” Ellis says. “But part of that is due to an increase in PWC sales.” When those buyers are removed, the age of new-boat buyers is 52.8, down slightly from the high in 2013 and 2014 at 53.1.

“What is encouraging if you think about this is: We’ve got millions of people who are currently millennials or Gen Xers who grew up boating,” Ellis says. “We don’t really need to sell them on the sport. They already like it.”

But that enjoyment of the water is not transitioning to boat sales. During any five-year period in the past 20 years there have been about 15 million boat owners, Ellis estimates. Assuming conservatively that 10 million were married with children and that the average home has 2.5 kids, that means 25 million people have been exposed to boating who are now at the point where they can invest in a boat.

“Naturally, we as an industry want to get people excited about boating,” says Ellis, “but we do have this whole, relatively large group of people who are like, ‘Yeah, we love boating, but we’re not going to buy a boat.’ So the challenge is, how do we get them boating? I think boat rentals, clubs, and even some things that don’t exist yet, are going to take off to serve that market. There are millions of people under 40 who know boating is great. They’re just not buying boats. Maybe they’re using mom and dad’s boat. Statistically speaking, there’s got to be millions of them.”

With all the data regarding boat sales, and ownership, and marketing to generations, and dual-working households, and time spent on devices, and time spent on kids’ activities — as far as we know, no one has sat down and asked people ages 28 to 46 who grew up boating why they don’t have a boat and whether they plan to buy one.

So we decided to ask a few people ourselves. We found a half-dozen childhood boaters who were willing to talk about why they have not chosen to pursue the lifestyle through boat ownership. Not shockingly, time and expense were the most cited reasons for not having a boat. But how those interviewed painted the picture might come as a surprise.

‘Purely a price thing’

“I’ve had the opportunity to buy a little boat,” says Sarah Patrick, a 34-year-old who lives in Sister Bay, Wis., and grew up boating in Southern California with her family. “They’re just so expensive. It’s purely a price thing. And it’s a time issue. I’d love to even live aboard a boat, but it’s cheaper to have a house.”

Patrick ran down a laundry list of expenses that come with boat ownership — fuel, winterization, hauling in the fall, launching in the spring, a slip or a mooring. “I have a friend who bought a boat and didn’t even take it out of storage last summer,” she says. “It’s like owning a home. There’s a lot of hidden fees.”

Like many in the 1980s, Patrick’s mother was a stay-at-home mom, so she could do maintenance during the week. But Patrick, who works full time, worries that she wouldn’t have time to invest. “If you’re thinking you’re going out two or three times a summer on a boat, you’re better off chartering,” she says. “If you’re investing in a boat, you have to make it a lifestyle. You can’t just make it a hobby.

“People my age who are buying boats did not grow up on boats. They enjoy boats and say, let’s have a boat, and then they sell them in a few years once they find out how demanding it is. It’s a lot of upkeep,” Patrick says. “The boat salesman can sell me on the lifestyle all he wants, but I know all those things he’s not telling me. I know the demands on my time, my wallet and all the other things he’s not telling me. It’s like trying to sell ice to an Eskimo.”

Neysa McNamara, a 38-year-old teacher who lives in Natick, Mass., where her husband was raised (and a town over from where she grew up), used to spend long weekends and vacations with her sister and parents at their house in Maine, where they kept a sailboat. They have since traded in the sailboat for a Grady-White, McNamara says, adding that she would be more apt to buy a powerboat if she were going to get a boat.

But “it isn’t even on my radar,” McNamara says, despite the fact that her 4- and 6-year-olds love being on her parents’ boat when they visit. “It’s a lot of upkeep, and then you have to store it for the winter,” she says. “My parents get their boat painted, cleaned. They pay for the mooring to keep it on the water all summer.”

There are millions of people under 40 who love boating, but the number who are buying boats isn’t what the industry would like it to be.

There are millions of people under 40 who love boating, but the number who are buying boats isn’t what the industry would like it to be.

‘Totally a luxury’

Buying a boat had never occurred to 28-year-old Jonathan King, a single photographer and musician in York, Maine, who grew up boating with his parents and sister. “I never really thought about it,” King says. “I would consider buying a boat myself, but at the moment I’m not able to afford it. That’s really the only reason, I guess, that I wouldn’t have a boat. I know how to dock it, understand the currents in the ocean, and definitely that comes from growing up on boats. For me, it feels natural to be on or in the water.

“It’s such a strange industry,” King adds. “It’s totally a luxury. People have boats to spend their free time on, and a lot of people these days don’t have free time. I feel like living on a boat is a sweet alternative way to live, possibly. It’s a lot, though. It’s got to [cost] more than a mortgage on a house.”

‘Maybe when we’re retired’

Samantha Larkin, 40, who is also single, works in the luxury clothing industry as a sales manager and buyer, and in late February she was closing on her first home, on Long Island, N.Y. Though she says she has “salt water running through my veins,” she has zero plans to buy a boat. “My first picture on a boat is me at 9 months old, propped up on the top of a Mercury outboard,” she says. Larkin grew up on Long Island during her early youth on her parents’ 39-foot Cigarette before they traded for a 35-foot Sea Ray Sundancer. When she was 10, her mother decided it would be proper for her to learn to sail, so she went off during summers to sailing camp at the local yacht club.

Yet Larkin isn’t buying a boat. “Lord knows” the financial investment is huge, she says. “And the time element, too. Most people work, a lot. And in most families I know, both parents work full time, which leaves little time after work, and that time is filled with chores like laundry and grocery shopping.”

“Maybe when we’re retired and have more time, and more money,” McNamara says in a noncommittal tone. “Right now the craziness of us both working and having little kids. My husband works all the time. And we have two little ones. We don’t ever talk about buying a boat.”

Jackie Gonzales, 45, of Kingston, N.Y., grew up with a 23-foot Chris-Craft that her family would take on Lake George, N.Y., as well as cruising to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod, Mass., and around Long Island, N.Y. She would love to own a boat with her 49-year-old husband, Rick, and two boys, William, 8, and Charlie, 6, but says they can’t afford it.

“Our 8-year-old is on the autism spectrum, and New York lacks in autism insurance reform, so in this instance, when I say we can’t afford it, there is no aspect of it that we could manage,” Gonzales says. “The irony is, the times he’s been on a boat, he’s been animated and engaged. He loves to swim and all things aquatic. Perhaps it’s a hereditary trait.”

Covering the therapies, which are considered elective, has caused the family to default on her student loans, sell their home and rent something smaller. “The world and culture of boating, and specifically those who boat, are so out of touch with the daily struggles of paycheck-to-paycheck living,” Gonzales says. “I can’t afford to take the time off to enjoy a boat, let alone own one.”

Burdensome debt

Alex Lastra, a 46-year-old who lives in South Florida, says the recession has hit a lot of people from Generation X and millennials harder than the industry understands. “A lot … are burdened with student loan debt and do not have the disposable income,” Lastra says.

McNamara says she and her husband recently finished paying their student loans, and like many, she says they were hoodwinked into rolling their loans in together, costing them thousands in interest because some of them were subsidized or interest-free, thanks to government programs. Rolling them together can negate that.

A survey from Citizens Financial Group in 2014 found that although the standard repayment plan for student loans puts borrowers on a 10-year track, research has shown that the average bachelor’s degree holder takes 21 years to pay them off.

Generation X was hit hardest by the recession, says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “The millennials are still very young. They’ve got time. It’s the Gen Xers, who are a bit older, in their 40s, they’ve got kids, and the housing market just crushed them during the recession. Job losses crushed them,” Dammrich says. “Millennials’ biggest problem is student debt, but the Xers have student debt, also. I’ve talked and written about this before and really believe as a country it’s something we’ve got to [deal with].”

Even though the industry is attempting to design more value-oriented products, the vast majority will not be able to afford even those, Dammrich says. “I don’t think they have the money. I think the money is going to pay off student loans,” he says. “Millennials are delaying marriage and automobile purchases, and if they’re delaying automobile purchases, they’re certainly delaying boat purchases. I don’t think they’re delaying these things because they’re putting money in the bank and creating a nest egg. They’re delaying them because they’re not in the financial position to do them.”

The family togetherness recreational boating inspires has always been one of its strongest selling points.

The family togetherness recreational boating inspires has always been one of its strongest selling points.

‘A different world’

Generation X and millennials also say they’re working longer hours, with both parents holding jobs in many cases.

“It’s a different world now. It’s a different time,” says McNamara. “I think back to my childhood, and I think because my mom stayed home when we were young, I don’t know, it didn’t seem so crazy. I feel like everyone is rushing and busy. I think you’re very lucky if you can say, ‘Oh, let’s buy another house and buy a boat.’ We don’t have any friends that have a boat or a house on the water. It’s just so hard. It’s just different these days, where you have two people working so hard just to make ends meet.”

Generation X entered the workforce during the recession of the 1990s, and then, just as they were getting their footing, the dot-com bubble burst. As the housing market picked up in the 2000s, some bought homes at high prices, only to see real estate values plummet during the financial crisis.

Although the stock market has rebounded, real wages, after factoring in inflation, haven’t improved for most employees since before the recession, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Twenty-three percent of Gen Xers received no raise and 26 percent just a 1 or 2 percent bump in the past 12 months. Millennials were the hardest-hit during the Great Recession, losing almost half their wealth when the stock market slumped, compared with about 25 percent for baby boomers, according to a 2013 Pew Charitable Trusts survey.

Further and further behind

Billionaire venture capitalist Nick Hanauer penned a controversial essay for Politico in 2014 and expounded on it for PBS last year, saying the absence of overtime pay for salaried workers is bad for the economy.

“If you’re in the American middle class — or what’s left of it — here’s how you probably feel. You feel like you’re struggling harder than your parents did, working longer hours than ever before, and yet falling further and further behind. The reason you feel this way is because most of you are — falling further behind, that is. Adjusted for inflation, average salaries have actually dropped since the early 1970s, while hours for full-time workers have steadily climbed,” Hanauer wrote, echoing McNamara’s statements.

In 1975, 62 percent of full-time salaried workers, including a majority of college graduates, were eligible for overtime pay, according to the Department of Labor. Because only 11 percent of salaried workers — those making less than $23,660 (below the poverty line of $24,008 for a family of four) — qualified for overtime pay, “business owners like me have been able to make the other 89 percent of you work unlimited overtime hours for no additional pay at all,” Hanauer wrote. “In the absence of a law requiring me to pay you overtime, if you earn under a certain amount, you end up working harder — and the harder you work, the fewer employees I need. The fewer employees I need, the higher the unemployment rate. The higher the unemployment rate, the more leverage I have to ‘encourage’ you to ‘do what it takes’ to keep your job. And so you work even more hours, pushing unemployment up and wages down.”

Bigger than boating

A Department of Labor proposal to require overtime for those making as much as $50,440, expected to be ruled on late this year, has been criticized on both sides of the aisle. Student loan debt exceeded credit card debt in 2010 and auto loans in 2011. It passed the $1 trillion mark in 2012, and it is poised to continue its upward trajectory. A bill introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that would have allowed people with college loan debt to refinance with rates from the 2013-14 academic year was blocked last year.

“We’re asking [the young people] to make a significant financial investment, and this age today is carrying a lot of loan debt with a college education, and realizing they’ve got to have a place to live and they might not be able to buy a home. And yet we’re sitting here saying, well, how do we get this group interested in boating?” says Tom Slikkers, president of Tiara/Pursuit builder S2 Yachts. “There’s a lot in front of that group before we get to boating.” n

NEXT MONTH: The industry is not about to concede two generations of boat sales and is working hard to reverse the prevailing trend. We take a look at what industry leaders are doing to sell the adult boating experience and what government might do to ease the financial burdens on GenXers and millennials.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue.


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