Demographic Trends Facing Amateur Radio in Canada

Results from the RAC Survey 2021 and Statistics Canada

One of the pressing issues facing all amateur radio organizations in the modern world is what appears to be a rapidly aging set of participants. We mostly base this belief on various observations at in-person amateur radio activities since licensing bodies rarely ever collect or release birth dates with their license data. (Not all release actual license records themselves.) The issue is whether we are simply seeing ham operators who participate in these venue events or is the ham population actually aging as much as our eyes tell us? I present national data on the aging patterns of Canadian amateurs in addition to projections for the future. The results are sobering for they are predicated on a clear demographic pattern in the developed world itself.

“..there simply will not be enough members of these youngest cohorts to replace their current age segment even if all parties went into recruitment modes with their “hair on fire”.”

From every data source that I have seen or analyzed, the population of amateur radio licensees worldwide is substantially graying.1 RAC Survey 2021 respondents were asked what is your age group and given a choice of mostly decade-length age ranges. The 2021 Census of Canada age-by-year data were extracted from Statistics Canada and collapsed to fit the same age ranges (see Final Report). These data are presented in a population pyramid in Figure 1. The Canadian population (left) and RAC Survey 2021 of amateurs (right) add a further confirmation of this aging amateur radio population. Ham operators in the survey are far below the population at less than age fifty but increasingly over the population distribution after the half-century mark. In the sixties and above, amateur operator percentages are over double that of the population at large.

What does this population distribution comparison mean for amateur radio in Canada? There are at least two elements to the demographic equation here. If we think of amateur radio as a behavior, a hobby or a pastime that occurs over the life course of individuals, then the behavior of being a ham operator may be age-related regardless of the historical period.2 Or, alternatively, it could be an historical period behavior that is prominent during an age range (or birth cohort) of one or more adjacent periods in history. In simpler terms, is amateur radio mostly a Baby Boom-era hobby that is scheduled to recede into a much smaller pursuit? There are many behaviors that do largely fade away as the participants age through other stages of life. Some, however, begin at later stages without younger groups joining the activity until they reach that age range. I will show evidence of both through my analysis of this national Canadian survey.

This life course perspective recognizes the effects on hobby behavior that are frequently revealed by hams themselves: work, marriage, family formation, competing interests, and others. Additional investigations with relevant data are required to answer these questions. But one aspect that is critical involves the future Canadian population itself. How is it scheduled to age over the next several decades? This will indeed shape the hobby in significant ways, given current circumstances in the hobby.

Statistics Canada has published age-specific population projections for the nation. These have been used to prepare Figure 2 with various projection scenarios (left) and age-specific projections from 2021 to 2050 (right). As is common, the “medium growth” scenario was selected to present the scheduled growth of age groups. Shown in the purple line (left), this set of assumptions for population growth fall in the middle of those with high-growth or slow-aging models versus low-growth or fast-aging parameters. They are generally the most reliable to use for analyses such as this.

The results in the right panel for each age group that were configured to match the RAC Survey age groups tell us that the population in Canada will grow in the middle-age categories and in the most senior ones. Those in the twenties through fifties will top the age pyramid by 2050, followed by those most senior residents in their seventies and over. The youngest population of teens (10 through 19) will be far smaller. This is a significant signal to policy-makers in Canada with two clear implications for amateur radio in Canada.

One is that the age groups of 60-80 years of age, now dominating amateur radio as the RAC Survey suggests, will simply disappear as they age-out to infirmity or becoming Silent Keys. Yet, the projected number of persons in these age groups are scheduled to actually grow in number over the forecast period.

A second implication is that teens will be a relatively scarce recruitment commodity in terms of the age pyramid. There will simply not be enough of them to replace those Baby Boomers now dominating the hobby. The much higher rates for the recruitment of younger people are significantly higher than has been the case in the recent past. Compare Figure 1 Canadian population versus estimated amateur radio population for these age groups to also see this imbalance as follows. The ratio of the population percent to the amateur operator percent tells us what recruitment improvement would be necessary to actually fit the population.

To aid in illustrating what the demographic patterns for the Canadian age structure mean for amateur radio, consider what rates of “recruitment” would be necessary to simply replace the current share of licensed hams by age group. I’ve summarized a simple table (Table 1) of this “additional recruitment success” that would be needed to just maintain what we have today in Canada for those below age 50.

While it would only take recruiting 1.5 times the current number in the age 40 range, it becomes increasing more challenging as each age group gets younger. For those in their thirties, when typical family obligations are most demanding, it would require 4.6 times the current number to be recruited base on the future population projections for this age segment. The dramatically higher rates are for those in their twenties (16.7 times) and teens (20 times) make it simply unfeasible to realistically believe that current methods of age-specific recruitment will come close to securing these levels of required newcomes into the hobby. To repeat, in practical terms, there simply will not be enough members of these youngest cohorts to replace their current age segment even if all parties went into recruitment modes with their “hair on fire”.

Demography can be destiny. But it does not have to be so.

Understanding Ham “Careers” and Recruitment into the Hobby

While the population demography reflects a challenge for the future of amateur radio in Canada, it is important to more fully understand how the hobby is pursued over the ham’s “career” as a licensed amateur operator. There is a notion, perhaps rooted in the Baby Boomer and preceding generations, harkening back to the emergence of amateur radio itself, that young people get exposed to amateur radio, get licensed and continue their amateur radio careers in a continuous fashion. (For more and an empirical investigation, see Howell 2021) This would make the teen years the principal period in the life course for recruitment into the hobby. In the survey, however, there is only modest evidence of this pattern.

RAC Survey 2021 participants were asked how many years they had held a license as well as have been active in the hobby. The graphic in Figure 3 displays histograms of the frequency of hams in each year bin. On the left is length of holding a license (tenure). The right panel is the same display except for years of activity. The average years of license tenure is about 26 while 22 is the average of years active. The variation in each measure is about the same, a standard deviation of around 17-18 years. The experience levels among Canadian amateurs are lengthy but it is also quite variable.

There are two things to hold out as important from this graphic. One is that survey responses bunch around newcomers (or zero to 4 years) or 25-30 years of holding a license. Activity is about the same pattern except the bunching of respondents is not as pronounced as license tenure. The “careers” of activity in amateur radio tend to vary quite a bit. A second is that these two variables are not linked to the same amateur. How many have activity periods that last for most of their license tenure? What lengths of active periods characterize Canadian hams?

Hams who are in the most senior age groups report years of license tenure suggesting that the teen years were when they became licensed. Moreover, a large number of them say they have been “active” all of their licensed years.3 This notion, however, does not fit many respondents in the survey. The latter are large enough to beg the question of how valid is this traditional idea with which we often characterize all amateurs. Like many stereotypes, there are significant popular examples that fit but it also mischaracterizes a larger share of ham operators.

We have visualized this linkage through a scatterplot of ham radio activity by license tenure with age groups identified (see Figure 4). A scatter plot is an X-Y plotting of individual data points along the data values of each variable. The age group for each survey respondent is shown by a distinct color.

There are no respondents above the line in this plot since activity is predicated in this survey upon holding a license. The diagonal line of hams reflects those who have been active their entire careers in ham radio. Only among those in the most senior age groups (e.g., 70 and over) supports the commonly held pattern of getting licensed at a teen or young adult and staying the course. There are many of these amateurs but they are far from being the dominant group.

The large number of data points moving away from this diagonal (toward the lower right) reflect hams who got licensed and have not been “active” nearly as long as those on the straight diagonal line. The most senior groups reveal many who were not licensed early in their lives but significantly later. Thus, these data illustrate that our conventional image of the amateur who gets licensed early in life and maintains that hobby activity throughout is largely a stereotype that nevertheless fits a smaller share of the population. These patterns of activity are directly pertinent to policies for recruitment into the hobby. They illustrate clearly the significant market for late-in-life hams. See Howell (2013) for another U.S. survey with data on late-in-life ham operators.

To further illustrate inactivity over the ham’s career, Figure 5 uses box plots of the simple difference between years licensed and years of activity (i.e., years licensed – years active). It’s broken out by age group. Box plots show the data around the center point of the median at the middle of the box. In this case, zero provides a bounding so that there is only one end of the distribution of survey respondents.

These data are highly skewed toward higher periods of less activity (“inactivity”). The median lines in the boxes are barely visible. There is a trail of hams who report a growing gap of inactivity as age increases. Some get licensed but drop out of the hobby, at least for some periods of time. For example, for the most senior group, some have been licensed-but-inactive for 40 or more years. Over their license tenure, a significant group of hams fall away from practicing the hobby.4 This licensed but inactive segment represents a ripe market for recruitment back into amateur radio activities. I will note in passing that we do not have any consensus for what “active” in the hobby means.

Conclusions

These results describe an emerging demographic shift in Canada that will affect the amateur radio hobby.  There will simply not be enough younger people to replace those Baby Boomers now dominating the hobby. But what is the fundamental reason behind these population projections leading to fewer younger people in the decades ahead? It is now something unique to Canada but common to all developed countries. In Figure 6, I’ve reproduced a graph showing the total fertility rate (TFR) over time among a number of countries. This was recently published in the highly respected demography journal, The Lancet. The gray line at the fertility rate of 2.1 is the replacement level for a given population. High income countries include Canada, the U.S. and the UK, among others. They have been below replacement level since around 1980. Thus, the issue of why official Canadian population projections show that younger age groups will be diminished in the near term is due to this falling total fertility rate among high income countries around the world.

Returning to the issue of these demographic patterns for amateur radio, the rates for the recruitment of younger people to achieve mere replacement are significantly higher than has been the case in the recent past. This should not be misconstrued to suggest that it would be a waste of time to expose young people to amateur radio as a recruitment method. It may well be an incubator effect of planting the seed that will be sown later in the life course. The short-term efforts should not ignore middle-age prospects for the hobby. They have three key characteristics that make them prime targets for marketing. One, they tend to be “empty nesters” without dependent children. Two, they are at or near their peak-earning years with perhaps the highest discretionary income they will ever have. Three, they have more time on their hands for the pursuit of hobbies. The demographic fact is that there will also be more of them in the near term for effective recruitment into the hobby.

These results encourage strategic and efficient methods for RAC and its membership clubs and associated organizations to reach both the youth population as well as later-in-life adults. Demography does not have to be destiny if these actions are taken soon. But it will be if heads are placed solidly into the sand.

Notes

1.For other data on the aging ham operator population in the United States and the United Kingdom, see https://k4fmh.com/2021/08/28/the-secret-storm-approaching-cw-contesting/ or https://k4fmh.com/2021/03/31/uk-regulator-ofcom-releases-ham-licenses-by-age-compares-favorably-with-us-estimates/.

2.The “life course” is the routine and mostly orderly progression of the transition of individuals among various recognized stages of life. The broadest definition is “The entirety of individual’s life from birth to death and the typical set of circumstances an individual experiences in a given society as they age.” (Source: https://sociologydictionary.org/life-course/).

3.This question wording leaves the definition of activity up to the respondent. I’ve asked many hams what being “active” in the hobby means. I received a wide-ranging variety of responses that do not identify a singular coherent defining concept.

4.In analysis not shown, there is virtually no distinction in reported inactivity during the amateur career and current RAC membership. We cannot determine whether past membership patterns is linked to periods of inactivity during the full period of license tenure.

References

Frank M. Howell. 2013. “Survey of Members 2013.” ARRL Delta Division Report. Online resource: http://arrldelta.org/dd-final13.pdf.

Frank M. Howell. 2021. “The lost Tribe, the Pied Piper and the Executive.” The Spectrum Monitor October, 7-12. Available for download as a PDF here.

Frank M. Howell and Scott Wright. 2021. https://foxmikehotel.com/aging-and-radio-contesting/

Frank Howell, K4FMH, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Mississippi, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

One Response to “Demographic Trends Facing Amateur Radio in Canada”

  • TA1DX:

    It is a good work, even if the results are very sad.

    Congratulations, if I give myself an example, I’m almost at a standstill after FT8. I am 64 years old and I have a 36-year license.

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