Lemmings Over a Demographic Cliff?

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is US_ARRL_NCJ_Age_Barchart.png

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Figure2_RedBox-704x675.png

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?

BALANCEDRadio is a hobby, never interfering with duties owed to family, job, school or community.

The Radio Amateur’s Code

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.)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is BLS_TimeUse-1.png

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?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ccf_20160913_sawhill_13.png

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is BLS_AvgHoursLeisure_BySexEmployDay.png

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!

The Apple spot on 1984 for the Macintosh
The Famous Apple follow-up spot in 1985, called the Lemmings Ad

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…

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

12 Responses to “Lemmings Over a Demographic Cliff?”

  • Bernie Dodge, KD1BD:

    An excellent, substantive article! Might I add an additional thought? Diffusion of Innovation theory lists several characteristics of innovations that make them spread faster. One is trialability: the possibility of sampling something without much initial investment. Amateur radio, no matter how much cheap used equipment you shop around for, takes a lot of work and money just to get to your first QSO. You can’t try it out easily other than spending a few minutes on someone else’s rig. Merely listening, on the other hand, is easily done with a cheap radio or and RTL-SDR. Turn people on to the weird, interesting things on HF like Russian fishing boats, numbers stations, pirates, and the latest five year plan from North Korea. I think raising interest in the radio hobby more broadly might begin with getting people onboard just to listen and doing that through schools and libraries sounds very doable. I might give that a try myself once the pandemic is under control.

  • Art WB2WFJ:

    In a broad sense, well beyond contesting, this has been a pet peeve of mine about Ham Radio for the past several years, after having become active again after a 15-20 year hiatus. I attended my state’s annual convention a few years ago and immediately noted the “closer to dirt” demographic of the attendees. With ARRL representation at the conference, I asked what ARRL was doing to encourage younger participants in the hobby and I got a response around publications, etc., not the most effective tool in today’s environment.

    If I go back 50+ years and recall how I got interested, it came from a friend’s use of CB radio. I got a CB, the two of us would talk and meet others, and eventually we found ourselves studying morse code and theory to get Novice licenses. Although only one of us stayed with the hobby long term, I’d like to say we at least had a 50% retention rate. I doubt we can say that today with new hams.

    Kids don’t wake up one day and decide to become hams out of thin air. They get introduced directly by other hams, often family, or through exposure to electronics and radio through other means. It is this “other means” that seems to be failing. How do we interest kids in something as esoteric as radio? I would think schools would be a good place to start, along with computer clubs and any other electronics related clubs that might exist. What I would NOT do is introduce kids via state conventions or national conventions (Orlando, Dayton…) where the age bracket is “close to dirt” and, to put it mildly, the place looks like a city of “nerds”. Kids want to be cool, and being amongst seniors and people walking around with antennas on hard hats, etc. just won’t do the trick. (My apologies to the people who wear all this silly get-up. You know who you are.)

    If we want to allow our hobby to survive and grow long term, we are going to need to change how we do things. Now’s the time to start.

  • Jack KF7UDH:

    When I first got exposed to amateur radio more than 60 years ago, the QSO’s were pretty much all about technical questions, sharing technical discoveries, building this and designing that — you know, radio stuff. The most exciting time of year, every year, was the arrival of the new ARRL handbook with all its 500 plus pages of new technical information, its circuit drawings and photos of new stuff to build, etc . . .

    It was an exciting discovery for me, and I longed for the day when I could be one of those hams, though that day had to be put off for a very long time.

    But then, as happens eventually with all pastimes, someone decided to ruin it all by turning it into a contest.

    These days the bands are choked with 3-second QSOs between guys with $7,000 radios, $6,000 amplifiers, 85-foot towers and half-wave, rotating yagis, and that is the target group of the manufacturers, as well as the group to which the ARRL caters most. If in doubt about that, just pick up any copy of QST and thumb through the ads.

    One of the greatest disappointments of my life was finally getting into amateur radio after all those years, only to find that contesting had taken over.

    What amateur radio needs now, more than anything, is a totally different organization, one that caters to amateurs who are interested in helping each other and exchanging technical information, instead of competing with each other.

    Now, let the flaming begin . . .

  • Art WB2WFJ:

    Jack KF7UDH: Funny you should mention contesting as a problem. I have the March issue of QST in front of me and the “Member Spotlight” article highlights N9RV, former editor of the National Contest Journal, who is arguing that the route to growth in Ham Radio is contesting, citing electronic gaming as evidence of youthful interest in competition. There is certainly a subset of potential hams that might go this route but I don’t see contesting as a primary growth mode.

    Like you, I see the change in how QSOs now occur versus what they were many moons ago. Many DX QSOs are now signal report and move on. I see North American hams calling CQ, having very short conversations, then moving on to the next QSO. I see activities such as POTA and special event stations, designed to keep bands active but which again encourage short contacts, a brief exchange of information, and moving on again. All of this has its place but seems to have relegated actually meeting people, talking and finding common interests (if any) to the sidelines. Maybe this is a reflection of society and culture today but I don’t think the desire for person to person contact and learning is a thing of the past. I know I now listen for people calling CQ, either CW or phone, quickly checking where a person is located via QRZ.com and, because I used to travel quite a bit for work, see quickly whether I know the area the caller is from. That’s a starting point for real conversation. The traditional “rig here is” and “weather here is” followed by some form of QRU leaves me flat. Maybe if you look for the “hook” through which to start a conversation, you might find things to talk about.

    73 and maybe I’ll see you on the air some day.

  • Goody K3NG:

    I don’t see contesting as a primary growth mode, either. The analogy between amateur radio contesting and gaming is severely flawed, in my opinion. With gaming people can pick it up and put it down pretty much whenever they want. While gaming, participants can network their audio and talk with other friends while playing. Amateur radio contesting usually requires participants to sit in a chair for a given amount of time, typically 24 to 48 hours, on a predetermined date. It’s impossible to be competitive unless you participate for the entire time period. Unless you’re in a multi-multi operation, you’re probably sitting alone for the entire event and not communicating in real time with your friends like you do in gaming. With gaming there are all types of missions and adventures. Contrast that with amateur radio contesting which is fairly uniform outside of different operating modes for various contests, but with the same basic mission, make more contacts. If anything, a comparison of contesting and gaming illustrates why few younger people would even want to participate in amateur radio contesting.

  • Gene kd8obw:

    This contributor is frustrated by how advanced the magazine QST has become.Surely there are other hams out there who need intermediate assistance on antennas, tuners, and baluns etc.
    I have ceased subscribing to QST because there was not much in the issues that could be utilized by this General class ham.
    From experiences with one the better ham clubs in this area, I am talking truth.

  • Art WB2WFJ:

    Gene, I don’t think QST caters primarily to the experts among us (I’m a technical luddite at this point) but ARRL membership includes other publications on-line that might better suit your needs. You might want to check them out.

    By the way, membership in ARRL is the primary purpose of your dues, not the byproduct magazine. ARRL acts in a number of ways to support amateur radio and would be worth the price even without QST. Something to consider…

  • Richard KW0U:

    A good discussion with great comments. My other main hobby, general aviation, is facing exactly the same problem. The section I’m in now, gliders, has been particularly hard hit. It has issues–weather related and space to operate–but is much cheaper than power and you can solo at 14, plus no medical is required. So it seems with these advantages it could attract young people, but there aren’t many. And most who are in it (or GA in general) seem to have come from connections with others in their family.

    We’ve talked about this a lot and at least part of the issue is that the old time way that kids tinkered with cars just doesn’t exist anymore. So the whole idea of controlling and really getting to know machines (except perhaps building computers) just isn’t there, for radios or planes. And I’m not at all sure that the public schools have done much to encourage hands on skill building either, though here and there it does happen and there are some school clubs. But here more could be done.

    Beyond that I’m not sure what the answer is except for more outreach. One thing is that a real sustained campaign for ham radio is badly needed, paired with cooperation and welcoming by local clubs. Maybe it could be encouraged as an easy and cheap way for parents and kids to do something fun together, especially given the current problems with travel. Honestly, the hobby really has to be better known by the public; I imagine most folks in the US have little or no idea that it even exists.

  • W2RE:


    Excellent article. It’s refreshing to see somebody that actually has spent the time to break this down.

    I’m co-owner of RemoteHamRadio.com and an avid contester. We invite young people under the age of 21 to operate contests with us M/M operating in the cloud. Here is our latest results: https://www.3830scores.com/showrumor.php?arg=HBaNz3qqvqaqX

    I’m biased but in my opinion I believe we have the best youth program in ham radio but you you wouldn’t know it exists because it’s not a non-profit organization doing it, so we dont get the publicity. We have stations here in USA and abroad that we have setup and dedicated just for youths under 25. It’s a huge success – young people from around the world are QRV at no cost and some have taken the extra steps to become FCC licensed. We’ve also setup a discord channel for them to communicate with each other, this chat channel is non stop 24/7. You wouldn’t believe the excitement we have generated – at some point we will be adding stations in schools once their back open. We provide a few little black boxes with a server and those who own a flex radio can open up their station to the RHR youth program. As of today, seven of the stations we own for youth operations with another five opened up by other individuals = 12 available stations in USA and abroad. The program is a huge success. https://www.remotehamradio.com/youth/

    When we did the WPX contest with 22.5m score operating in the new M/M distributed category we invited ten youths to join the team. Our average age of the team was 27 years old. Take any other M/M team in USA it would be average age 65 or greater. Today, with technology getting young people involved is as easy but you nailed the proverbial problem. Those that own M/M stations and most prominent contesters are donors to ARRL and dictate the rules, they don’t want any change and I get it. The ARRL needs a fundamental change to make a difference but they need those donors $$$. I’ve given up on ARRL but have high hope for other organizations to step up and fill the void and some are doing it.

    I really enjoyed this article, your 100% on all the points.

    73, Ray

  • Connor W4IPC:

    Great article. I just wanted to write a comment here to show that us youth do exist in this hobby. We are mostly silent and hermits but we do exist!

    The youth of the hobby today are more into DXing and Contesting rather than the typical rag chewing and net check-ins.

    We really enjoy getting on and doing FT8 and many of us enjoy CW, many of us do not enjoy SSB and getting on a mic and talking.

    Lots of us are into serious contesting and DXing. I am a part of the RHR Youth Program and there are so many of us that are members of that and communicate daily, we just do not make our presence known very often.


    Connor W4IPC (18)

  • W0MU Mike:

    Nice article. I was surprised that the library was mentioned. I have not been in one in years and years and honestly do not know any people that actually go to the public library. Heck it seems like the schools now encourage the kids to get their information on the internet.

    I sat on the CAC (Contest Advisory Council) for the ARRL for a number of years. Changing the status quo is nearly impossible and emerging technologies such as remotes and distributed contesting is being met with considerable opposition. To be very frank it is very unhealthy for contesters or anyone to spend countless hours sitting in a chair. Some ops are up for 48 hours straight. This is especially true with older people and the possibility to get clots for sitting so long with little movement or exercise.

    Time….Young people today have so many options for their free time, computers, unlimited movies, TV, outdoors and so many other ways to utilize their free time that was not available 30 years ago. The average person has a very small allotment of time to give to these leisure and recreational activities.

    This same problem is impacting all the volunteer organizations. I was a volunteer fire fighter it is very hard to find people that felt they had the time to devote to it. Companies hired people to be at work and need them at work and it was much harder for most volunteers to be able to help while working. This used to be the norm. I suspect that the volunteer fire service is probably filled with more grey beards too. During the day a good portion of those able to respond were older, retired or for whatever reason could get away from what they were doing and could devote the amount of time that a call might require.

    I applaud the Remote Ham Radio guys and what they are doing! They are reaching young people like never before and giving them access to some amazing stations, amazing people to elmer and mentor them.

    There are no easy answers and the ARRL seems much to slow to react to the changing times. It is time we tried some new methods of recruitment and marketing!

  • Ray W2RE:

    This all can be solved if the contest directors will think outside the box. The first big ticket item is Live Streaming. Contesting someday will be a spectator sport, it’s just a matter of time. When you click on somebody reporting a live score it will open up a live stream of them operating. Young people want to learn from the best and watching it live works! Second is allow M/M distributed in all major contests – this will allow many young people to participate as a team. Remember a 13,year old kid can’t travel but he can operate remote or his home station and participate as a team. Create categories in all contest just for youths – let them compete against their peers, have a click box on 3830 youth participant. I applaud Bud AA3B for the first director WPX to really add excitement to contesting, I sure hope others will follow his steps.

    Imagine what live streaming a contest would have on youth participation during the pandemic. It was a loss opportunity for all of us. This was a big ticket item that the contest directors were slow to react to. We won’t get this opportunity back since the pandemic is about over and everyone is getting back to normal life but enacting rules for live streaming sooner than later will get young participation. I’ve been responsible for 25 youths if not more who watch my live streams on TwitchTV a gaming platform for kids. They watched my live HF streams outside of contests and became licensed hams and participants of the RHR youth program – the tools are readily available are the contest committees going to react?

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