Boatbuilders, brokers, and really anyone with some skin in the marine industry seem to be wrestling with the question: How can we attract more millennials (those born in the early 1980s) to our pastime? It’s as important a question as ever, considering that millennials have recently surpassed baby boomers as the largest demographic in the U.S., an inherently irreversible trend that will only increase.
“Millennials are not buying boats at the same rate as their parents, and a big reason for that is student debt,” says Discover Boating President Carl Blackwell, who has commissioned numerous studies on the subject. “In the last 12 years student debt has increased between 300 and 400 percent. Their discretionary income, which is what people need to buy boats, is a lot less.”
Another staggering statistic showing the decline of younger boaters is that, according to Blackwell, in 1998, 55 percent of boat owners were under 50 years old. Today that number has shrunk to 35 percent.
Besides crushing student debt, another culprit that economists and industry experts point to for the decline of millennial boat ownership is a lack of discretionary time.
“We know that millennials are driven,” Blackwell says. “They’re starting their careers out and are challenged by time; most companies only start you out with two weeks of vacation, so time is a challenge.”
Despite these burdens, Blackwell suggests that the millennial generation is ripe for enjoying the intrinsic experiences that boating offers. “Millennials love experiences,” he says. “The great thing about the boating industry is that we can offer wonderful experiences. I think that opens the door for types of peer-to-peer boat rental programs, in boat clubs and just daily rentals. And we’re starting to see these opportunities emerge in the industry that will allow millennials to take advantage of that experience. Then hopefully when they have the money later on in life, they’ll buy boats.”
In the meantime, Blackwell suggests that the best way for builders, brokers, and boaters to encourage entry-level industry growth is simply to bring more people out on the water.
“When I take people out on my boat, I ask them how they feel while we’re going down to the boat. A lot of times they’re stressed, not focused. When I ask them that again when we’re on the water, you can tell from their energy that they’re relaxed. As soon as they step on the deck is when the boating magic starts.”