I don’t know who the people in “People” are and candidly I don’t care. I use to have some casual interest, but as I’ve aged, I realized that promoting faux stars is how an industry makes itself feel good about itself.
When you think of “aging boomers,” what comes to mind? Accelerating retirements, workforce skill shortages, stagnant incomes, or runaway health care spending? It’s unlikely you think about aging as an economic drag on Harley-Davidson, right?
Down the road from my place, in the rolling farmlands north of Sunset Highway (U.S. 26), is a greasy burger joint called Helvetia Tavern … a place I’ve been known to frequent a little more often than my doctor might recommend, but the burgers are oh so good! If you stop there on any given summer weekend, you might see a dozen or more bikers parked in the lot, who are talking bikes and showing off their blacked-out or chrome-laden Harleys. And nearly all of them are over the age of 45. Many are over 50.
This isn’t a coincidence. Harley-Davidson is a brand whose sales depend disproportionately — almost exclusively, in fact — on middle-aged males. There have been business case studies written and stock investment analysis looking at the H-D demographics while espousing doom and gloom for the company. The fact is that motor company has been working hard to try and capture a younger, more diverse set of riders, including women and are trying to appeal to the less experienced and younger riders who want cheaper alternatives.
I would submit that riders younger than 30 generally lack the time, interest or the bankroll to buy a Harley for touring. And by the time they get into their 50s or older, riding with the wind in the face loses it’s allure. It’s the noise, it’s the traffic, it’s the increased dangers, it’s the joint pain of long rides, it’s hot, it’s cold, it’s raining, it’s… always something.
I know that many of you are riding into your late 60s, but my observation is you’re doing it less frequently and you’re not buying a new bike as often as you might have in your 40’s. That means Harley has a growth problem with the boomer demographic that will not go away. Even with a robust economy which we are not experiencing.
But, this is all well documented and debatably old news (“Living High on the Hog” (WSJ: February 5, 2007).
The challenge for Harley-Davidson, in my view, is how they will continue to tap into the enormous resource that older Americans can provide? Boomers are generally healthier and more educated than prior generations. They are the largest group starting new businesses both in Oregon and nationally. And many economic projections about aging are misguided because they are based on outdated notions about retirement and what it means to grow older.
I can speak with some authority on this aging topic and it’s debatable whether Harley-Davidson can grow if boomers decide to quit riding in mass. I wanted to offer up some observations:
- Boomers are bombarded by media. In an attention overload society it’s very hard for the message to get noticed because it’s noisy out there and hype is more prevalent than ever.
- Boomers believe everything they’re into should last forever, but it doesn’t, just like them.
- Have all the latest gadgets but barely know how to use them.
- Boomers know the lyrics of “Hotel California.”
- The boomers can’t square looking good with feeling bad. All the hogwash about 50 being the new 30 and 60 being the new 40 has convinced them that they’re breaking the laws of science, but the truth is people break down, everybody does.
- Want to be anti TV, but talk about doing Netflix marathons.
- Were into the Great Society, but now don’t want to pay taxes, especially if the benefits don’t flow to them.
- Believed boil-able vegetable bags by the Green Giant were the future only to find out fresh and local was truly “in.”
- Thought college was where you grew up and learned something as opposed to overpaying for an entry ticket to a job.
- Still believe in government, and that their voice and vote counts.
- Know that you work ever harder for less money.
- Remember when companies were loyal.
- Remember when you fixed stuff, now you just throw it out and buy a new one.
- Want manufacturing to come back to the U.S., but still want very cheap electronics.
- Boomers talk about their health. The pills they take, the conditions they have, it comes up in conversation, and it doesn’t bug them, it’s akin to discussing bands when they were younger.
- Realize opportunity has slipped through their fingers. But are still dreamers nonetheless.
- Baseball, motorcycles and big block automobiles are so twentieth century. Baby boomers don’t stop talking about them, but their kids shrug their shoulders and lust for the latest mobile device.
Sure some of these observations are broad generalities and I’m painting a large group with a wide brush here, but I’m sure something resonated, right? Once upon a time the baby boomers were the younger generation, champing at the bit to replace our parents. But now we’re fading off into the sunset, just like Letterman. So long the era of the baby boomers. They were the largest segment of the population, who pushed and pulled and help change the world.
But, let’s face it, aging isn’t so much about the fact that we are getting older. It’s about how the motor company is always going after the young buyer and often denigrates or discounts the older demographic. They make an assumption that today’s Americans will behave in much the same way as prior cohorts did. I don’t know about you, but boomers in general have reshaped every element of society as they’ve aged. And, I would submit that Harley-Davidson is placing a disproportionate amount of focus and customer feedback on the youth lifestyle. Sean Cummings, H-D senior vice president of global demand reinforced this by stating: “We’re targeting the 55 million Generation X’ers to get them back out and riding.” In doing so, it makes it harder for Harley to keep a finger on the pulse of the aging motorcyclist.
Power, sex and youth have long been used to sell motorcycles, so anything that suggests older buyers might not be as virile and agile as they were could backfire and only serve to fulfill the “Silver Tsunami.”