Have you ever look around your office or your job site and noticed that everyone is getting younger and younger? Or perhaps look across at the driver next to you in traffic and realize it’s likely a teenager, in Mom or Dads car. Those drivers look younger and younger, the older I get. Sometimes disconcertingly young! This is a natural process. The older you get, statistically, the younger everyone around you seems. Age is, like many other of life’s phenomenon’s, relative. I remember a time when I was the youngest person in the courtroom. 26 or 27 years old, straight out of Law School, I was the ‘kid’ in the room full of ‘old guys’. The judge, the jurors, the bailiffs, the clients, everyone was older than me. I felt awkward. I yearned for that aged maturity and the concomitant respect it bestowed. Then by my mid 30’s, younger lawyers showed up. Old guys retired and died off, and things started to equal out. By my 40’s I was the average age of the lawyers surrounding me. A fleck of gray, a confident gate, an understanding of the all the rules, I soaked it in. In my memory, I recall my unfolding maturity, decade by decade. All along the way, everyone got younger and younger. After 30 years in courtrooms, I’m almost one of the ‘old-guys’ now. But not quite.
This brings me to my point. I’ve been a biker along the same timeline. I certainly recall being ‘younger’ as a biker. But along that timeline of my biker life, I have NOT felt older and older as my life as a biker has unfolded. The logical conclusion to this phenomenon is that the biker population has aged WITH me. I’ve ridden in metric circles and racing circles and café circles and Harley circles, etc… etc… So my very unscientific study, while not based on anything but 40 years of biker observation, has brought me to the conclusion that my biker community is not getting an influx of younger riders equal to that of the riders ‘aging-out’.
This phenomenon has occurred to me over the last several years but is nothing more than ‘a feeling’. So I’ve decided to try to back up my ‘feeling’ with some empirical data and do some research. First, I called a friend of mine who is a statistician/actuary for an insurance company. His company underwrites insurance policies in the motorcycle insurance industry. His studies are backed by big business and computer algorithms and conclude that bikers of the Harley variety ARE getting older and older. My informal analysis focuses on my current riding habits. That being cruisers of the Harley Davidson variety. Of bikes, I’ve ridden them all, but American V-Twins have been my chosen steed for the last 25 years. I’ve got other bikes, but the aging demographic of my peers with similar riding habits is what intrigues me. Beemer riders and metric riders all seem to have a healthy influx of ‘young ins’ coming in to buy their brands. Fast, flashy, updated, a very different motorcycle than their forefather of just 10 years ago. Harley riders, like their bikes, just seem to be getting older. I can’t think of a 20 something that I’ve seen on a Harley, well, unless I think back to my 20’s!
The numbers don’t lie. I am told that the average age of a Harley Davidson buyer in 1999 was 43.4; and in 2004 up to 46.1; and in 2008 up to 48. The company officially stopped publically disclosing the age of their average buyer a decade ago for obvious pubic relations reasons. It’s bad for business. Especially if we’re dying off! But studies have shown that the average age of buyers has steadily risen 6 months every year since 1999 until about 10 years ago. That means, that if I die at my chosen target of 94 years, thereby besting my ‘Ol Grandpa John by a year, then the average age of a Harley buyer in the year of my estimated demise will be 73 years old! Simple math, but a VERY unlikely age for a Harley buyer, even in the year 2058. It happens, old guy buys a bike, but not often enough to sustain the brand. Ergo, the company would have long before me, bitten the proverbial dust if everything else remained the same. My guess is, everything else will not stay the same. Not if Harley wants to survive the next 4 decades.
The company has bumbled some corporate maneuvers over its 115 year history, but who amongst the corporate world has not? Amarchi, AMF, Acquiring Buell and MV Augusta, then selling them or folding them at loss, the V-Rod line, the newly announced electric line? Who knows? The rebelliousness that has made Harley a household name and well know rebel brand is rapidly disappearing from the collective consciousness of a buying society. For that, you need a rebellious buyer that happens to have disposable income. A rare combination.
There is hope. Recent studies show the Harley efforts at product realignment, community outreach and an increasingly digital marketing effort is having some effect of younger riders in the last couple of years. Take for example their lighter ‘Sportster’ and ‘Street” model sales. Up from 23,396 in quarter 1 of 2014 to 29,149 in quarter 1 of 2015. A good sign. It seems to me that with the economic factors of motorcycling as opposed to car ownership, younger riders would or should be drawn to the lifestyle of riding instead of driving. Easier and cheaper to buy, insure, maintain, park, run, not to mention the cool factor. But maybe my perception is skewed. Maybe motorcycles have gentrified beyond cool. Maybe young people see them a bit fuddy duddy. Harley’s perhaps the worst offender. Catering to the “Baby Boomer” and getting old right alongside them. I, in fact am a baby boomer. The last year, 1964. There is actually a phrase coined in the insurance industry known as the long awaited “baby boom die off”! That’s started in 2015 when the first year of the boomers hit 70. Harley surely needs to shift gears from a baby boomer driven marketplace. Though they still hold a majority market share in the U.S. at 52% in front of Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha put together, by over 20 percentage points. I’m sure Victory and Indian and Norton and the myriad of deceased brands of yesteryear at some point thought that they were invincible during their heyday. The key is, once you settle into middle age, as a person or as a company, how do you perceive yourself and then, what do you do about it?
I’ve come to grips with my “middle age”. Reflexes are off a tad, the 12 second 100 meters is gone to the ages and I stretch for as long as long as I actually work out nowadays. I accept it. I’ve made adjustments. Diet, exercise, curb the fats, the alcohol, the starches, the sugar, sleep well, take my vitamins, etc… Will I avoid death? No, no I will not. It’s inevitable. Will Harley, I sure hope so. An injection of YOUTH is what is needed. In the meantime, I hope to look next to me at the next biker event or rally and think to myself, “WOW, that biker looks too young to be on THAT bike. We’ll see.
Remember, ride hard, ride safe, and in the end make sure you ride home. –Irish