Tradition and change are terrible bedfellows
It was an honor to have been invited to prepare what turned into a 2-article series in the ARRL’s National Contesting Journal on the aging demographics of hams who participate in the radio “sport” of contesting. These appeared in the July/August (Vol 48, No. 4) and Sept/Oct (Vol 48, No 5) issues. Dr. Scott Wright K0MD, Editor, asked me to assist with more fully analyzing the results of a survey conducted by the League office in Newington of their past and present subscriber list of NCJ recipients. I agreed but added some key data from four other sources. It particularly piqued my interest since amateur radio is a hobby. I spent part of my career studying the effects of sport participation and teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on the Sociology of Sports as a Professor. In future writing, I’ll compare amateur radio contesting to accepted definitions and elements of competitive sports.
In this Social Circuits column, there are several components. demography, the life course, vested interests and social capital. They are each valuable concepts to understand the Demographic Cliff facings U.S. contesting. But first, I’ll cover the additional data sources used in the two-part NCJ articles.
One data source was age distribution data from the U. S. Bureau of the Census (a source where I’ve lived, breathed, and used incessantly over the years). A second was the Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A third was from the ARRL’s membership files on age of member. A fourth was from the 2011 and 2013 surveys I conducted for the four states in the Delta Division as Assistant Director. Properly assembled, these four sources gave a much more illuminating picture of the challenges facing radio sport in the next decade. No, contesting is not likely to “die,” as great pessimists are likely to say, but it is clearly facing significant and perhaps substantial social change in order to remain a prominent ham radio niche.
I won’t repeat the two articles but I want to place some strategic emphasis on a few elements of the results and their implications. They have clear and almost compelling evidence for leadership in amateur radio to shape their programmatic actions to be more strategically efficient (that’s you, ARRL, among other groups). By that, I mean like we hams often chide the owner of a new HF screwdriver antenna on a vehicle: Yea, what you’re doing will work. But it could be done differently to be much a much more efficient antenna system! Don’t we want the ARRL and other groups to be more efficient with monies invested in those organizations?
The often-heard phrase of “only grey beards” inhabiting amateur radio these days is…both factual and a canard. The observed facts are that hams participating in several public activities do sport grey hair (and beards whether they still have hair on top!). These include those who say they participate in contests as well as appear at ham fests. But we simply do not have adequate data to make reliable inferences to all 750,000 or so hams holding licenses. We just don’t. And it’s causing all of the efforts by the League and other organizations to shoot into the dark more often than not. (The ARRL often says it’s conducted research on a topic but the previous CEO Howard Michel would not release the data to members who are even more savvy in terms of statistical survey analysis. Oy!) And we won’t. Until the ARRL or another entity supports the conduct of a professional caliber random sample survey design of the licensed amateur radio operators in the U.S.
But the “modest” data I presented in the NCJ articles do show the results in the following graphic on the demographic cliff. US is the Census Bureau’s age data for the U.S; ARRL is the League’s membership as a proxy for all hams (best available); and the NCJ is from the ARRL survey of past and present NCJ subscribers.
Hams, as indicated by the proxy of ARRL membership and in the NCJ past and present subscriber data, are sorely under-represented in the pre-50 age ranges. It’s not a close comparison either. More observantly, contest participants are even older in the aggregate than the League’s membership at large. This doesn’t mean that there are not contesters in the younger age groups, just that they are smaller in number. Why? There are some sound demographic reasons that have little to do with amateur radio itself. It’s important to understand non-amateur radio factors about the life course—the trajectory in which modern societies are organized around age-graded activities, positions and transitions. Sounds like gobbledygook? But so does many of the subjects we hams pride ourselves in to the uninitiated. Let’s get up to speed here.
The American Time Use Survey, conducted regularly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is a very high quality data series. It is the standard for measuring how teenagers to adults in the U.S. spend their time. The chart above captures a picture in 2018 for time use, reflecting time spent per day on each activity group. The data are compared by age groups. I have put a red box around a key category. Where does amateur radio as a hobby fall there? In Leisure and sports (note the use of radio “sport” by contest participants).
What is the general age pattern? Leisure pursuits are highest during youth and young adulthood but dramatically taper off about ages 25-34 until age 55 and over. This hollowing out of leisure and sport time is a predictable outcome of competing and more important activities. It has little to do with amateur radio per se outside of it being a leisure activity. Note that personal care (including sleep!) follows a similar age-graded pattern. A converse age pattern of increasing time spent is observed for work and related activities, moving from less time while young toward peeks at mid-career and a tapering off later in the life cycle. On average, age is linked to more household activities and fewer educational ones. So the conventional wisdom about “losing” hams after they enter middle age is all about doing things to keep them focused on the hobby within the context of these competing obligations. But is that both reasonable and consistent with the long-celebrated Amateur Radio Code? Should we really want hams to forsake family or work for a hobby?
BALANCED…Radio is a hobby, never interfering with duties owed to family, job, school or community.
Let’s delve into another demographic pattern within the 6-8 hours per week spent on Leisure and Sports activities. From the TUS for everyone over age 15, here are sub-categories of leisure and sports activity. Of the weekly average of just over 5 hours, there is one clear time allocation: watching TV. It captures 60 percent (or about 3 hours) of all daily leisure/sport time. Socializing and communicating (ostensibly where amateur radio might fit in) is a pale second to television. (In the NCJ articles, I presented data from the Delta Division Surveys in 2011 and 2013 about time spent on the air per week.)
So what’s the demographic upshot of this? The main competitor to engagement of amateur radio operators to being on the air or at their workbench or (name your favorite ham activity) is…Television! This is not shocking to those social scientists who study time use. The Brookings Institution published a study on this using the Time Use Survey covering 2005-2015. They document how “free time became screen time” in the following trend chart, expressed as hours per week instead of day. About 2007, screen time (not just TV) surpassed other active leisure activities in average time spent. By 2015, the gap favoring screen time was over an hour, reflecting over 11 hours per week—on average with some much more and much less—of activity. Sound familiar in your household?
The demographic picture presented here continues to illuminate our understanding of the dynamics of what is a social behavior—amateur radio operation. But there is a demonstrable demographic partition in the time use data, fostered by the social roles and responsibilities typically embedded in U.S. households. Gender, employment, and weekday vs. weekend days interact in sociologically predictable ways as shown in this chart, again from the TUS in daily averages.
The clearest differential among men and women is in TV watching and socializing/communicating. Whether it’s the weekday or weekend, men systematically spend more time watching TV than women who tend to communicate and socialize more than similar men. Hmm. Women tend to spend more time communicating. Isn’t that promising for amateur radio?
Lemmings and the Demographic Cliff
Tradition and change are terrible bedfellows
One can simply ask after seeing these data: So what? But here’s the deal. Traditional radio sport is facing a demographic cliff of aging ham contesters. Those highly invested in the status quo won’t be around (by becoming SKs) to experience the diminishing participants. They now have the political clout to direct strategic actions. Is this demographic cliff inevitable? It reminds me of the famous IBM-focused Macintosh announcement in 1984, followed up by the Lemmings video in Apple’s 1985 Super Bowl commercial to announce the Macintosh!
I don’t think so, as I stated in the NCJ article series. There are two clear actions that leading organizations can take, which do not suggest that other existing programs should be curtailed or stopped. But is there the political will among decision-makers to take such actions by stepping out of line among the Lemmings?
The ability to make group decisions that often fly in the face of individual power brokers’ individual interests is called social capital. Whether those actors who drive the organization and practice of amateur radio contesting are willing to share resources (e.g., allow newcomers into the circle) and identify as contesting new forms of such competition is how social capital would be manifested in amateur radio. Trust and reciprocity in the common good is the key element for this example.
Social capital, however, is more than simply having social connections and networks. Social capital is exhibited in individuals who have a well-developed sense of mutual trust and “give-and-take” or “reciprocity” in their social networks. Moreover, it is exhibited in individuals who are actively engaged in civic and political life. This trust, reciprocity, and civic and political engagement then enriches the communities where these individuals reside.”
One programmatic change is to actively invite change in the types of amateur radio contests so as to engage a wider variety of hams into contesting activities. This will upset the apple cart of the extant contest culture who currently are invested in the existing models of contesting. Sometimes, hundreds of thousands of dollars are invested. Competition over band frequencies and calendar space is legion as any reading of website such as eHam.net, QRZ.com, and others will reveal. Try launching a new contest for even more direct evidence! But strategic conflict is a necessary evil for social change in many, many cases. No group owns a frequency or calendar dates. We must share them—through active cooperative efforts. But it is also very clear that “tradition” begets a sense of ownership which is anathema to vibrant change for the greater good. Many of the power brokers in the contesting niche in amateur radio here in the U.S. are also significant donors to the ARRL. Some are seated on the Board of Directors. That adds to the ability to have sway over official efforts to move their cheese. Will enough members of that conventional contesting group be willing to change for the good of that part of the hobby? Perhaps not. Nonetheless, I’m optimistic in that the famous Lemmings commercial did have one member of the landed gentry who stopped short of the cliff’s edge to take off his blinders and see the future!
A second is to fish where the fish are and with the most effective bait, recognizing the demographics that shape the potential for recruitment. The ARRL and many local clubs have focused on getting amateur radio into schools. Like the screwdriver antenna example, if you can get the owner(s) to agree to mounting that antenna, it will work. It just won’t work as efficiently as some others. But it does work. I noted in the TUS results above that women spend more time socializing and communicating per week than do men, whether either are employed or whether it’s a weekday or weekend. While it’s not a large distinction, it bodes well for amateur radio educational outreach programs to fish where the fish are. Where are women (and youth)? I’ve written previously that the local public library is strategic.
The average 10.5 trips to the library U.S. adults report taking in 2019 exceeds their participation in eight other common leisure activities.…it’s the most common cultural activity Americans engage in, by far. [emphasis mine]Gallup Survey Organization
Don’t stop working schools for recruitment, if you can get into the increasingly burdened school day and night, but add public libraries as a new “served agency” for educational outreach. The Plant the Seed, Sow the Future initiative launched in the Delta Division by Director David Norris K5UZ is a model for doing so. Some other clubs around the U.S. have begun to practice that model already. Get radio sport as one strategic element to convey amateur radio to young people and women at public libraries. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has short-circuited most libraries in the short run in terms of physical walk-in programs. But this model clearly has legs for the future, if the ARRL’s other Divisions and the League office itself view the data objectively and be willing to adopt something “not invented here” in Newington.
It is often attributed to the social thinker August Comte to have said, Demography is Destiny. But it does not have to be so. (see my talk to the Sutton & Cheam Society in London) It does require taking the blinders off of tradition and evaluate it for what it is today and what it means for the future. This almost always requires those in power to make such decisions to forsake their own vested interests in favor of change. Like the famous Lemmings advertisement by Apple, not everyone has to walk off this demographic cliff. We just have to take the blinders of tradition off our eyes, wake up, act for the common good, and smell the demographic coffee. Because it’s brewing…