Opportunities: We Are Too Damn Old

Do me a favor: Look at this picture and strip out all that you know about who’s in it. Just for one second, look for WHAT is in the picture, and not WHO.

As a random individual, THIS is the face of the Outdoor Industry: He’s 45, male, makes a certain amount, has three kids, is married.

He’s our customer, he runs our companies, works in our retail stores. We see him at the crags, on the bike and running trails, on the slopes, and in the backcountry. He’s at the beach, in the mountains, and everywhere in between. As a slice of who and what we are, THIS is that guy.

What’s wrong with this picture? I’ll tell you: This guy is too damn old to be the Average Active American.

Of course, this guy is me. I just turned 45. For my age, I feel pretty young, and that’s important. You’re only as old as you feel, and I’m fortunate that – accident or misfortune aside – I feel as if I have a few more years left in me. It’s true that I’m experiencing “middle-age spread,” and there doesn’t seem to be a lot I can do about it. I don’t heal as quickly as I used to, and my body doesn’t respond to exercise the way it did even just a few years back. My vision has changed a LOT in the last three years, too. But I have good knees, good joints, a decent back if I maintain it well, and no specific issues that are likely to limit me, so far. With a little luck, I’ll be active for quite some time, yet.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about us. If we were a healthy industry, the Average Active American would be more in line with the age of the average American, which is now just a little older than 35. (Yep, we’re on average ten years older than the average American…)

For the past three years, at every Mountain Hardwear sales presentation I’ve shared statistics about who and what we are in the Outdoor Industry. For the past three years, the statistics have shown that I am only a few months older than the Average Active American, and each year the ages have tracked right along with me. I’m hoping that this year I fall off the bus and I start getting significantly older than what the statistics show us to be as a group.

The statistics we use come from the OIA and other recognized sources. I wish somebody somewhere was making them up, instead. Why?

If I’m just a few months older than the average of us, as a group we’re too damn old.

As with many things, it’s the Boomers fault. I’m not saying this as a way of placing blame; it’s just true. The Baby Boomers really founded the modern Outdoor Industry, there are a lot of them yet, and they are still active outdoors and in #OIBIZ. My group – Gen X – is a proportionately smaller number, so we’re a corresponding dip in the population that is working its way through the industry. Behind my demographic is Gen Y, also known as the Millennials.

The Millennials are our next best opportunity to swell our ranks in #OIBIZ, and that’s a good thing. But we’re competing with lots of other things for their time and attention, and we’re not drawing them at a rate that will replenish our numbers when the Boomers finally (and maybe literally) give up the ghost.

What to do?

We’re on the right track. We need to get more people of all age groups – and particularly younger ages – active in what we do. We need to embrace new populations – women, children, ethnic, differently-abled, and otherwise diverse – with an emphasis on new gateway activities, and even some old ones. Alongside Stand-Up Paddling and Slacklining, we need to be talking about the benefits of Family Camping. We need to put less emphasis on getting to the top of Everest, and more emphasis on getting to the local state park. We need to be talking about getting outside, which is not necessarily the same thing as getting to wild and remote places.

We’re doing all these things, yes. But we need to do them more often, more cohesively, and more naturally.

Why? Look at the picture again. We’re too damn old, too male, and – I may as well say it – too white.

Unless we plan to sell each other walkers and waterproof undergarments, we need to get some other people around here, and fast. At PEMBA, we’re going to beat this drum for a while yet, so stay tuned.


12 responses to “Opportunities: We Are Too Damn Old

  1. I totally agree that we need to put the emphasis on family camping and getting to the local state park…and dare I say it…just being comfortable in the woods! We should work harder at getting everyone of every demographic outside more.

    However, 45 being too damn old? Not a chance. Add to the population in the outdoors, but don’t write off the older generation quite yet. I didn’t even ENTER the outdoor industry until I was 46 and suspect my contribution will be outstanding when all is said and done (one can hope :) And, trust me, I am not an extreme athlete–just a woman who thrives in the outdoors. Let’s add to the #OBIZ industry, but let’s not fall into the trap of thinking only the more youthful portion of the population can fill these gaps….

  2. I don’t disagree with you Robin. It just seems that we as an industry should be more aligned with who we are as a nation. We should be a microcosm of the US in terms of our demographics. And where we’re not – in age, gender, ethnicity – these represent opportunities for improvements, and growth.

    We’re not selling cosmetics to twenty-somethings, or cereal to kids, or adult under-garments to a particular population. What we do can be done at any age, by anybody. By definition, we don’t really have a “target market,” we should be selling to everybody in about the same ratios as the general population. It seems like we can do better by finding out WHY our demographic is mostly male, mostly white, and mostly about 45.

    We’re looking at a lot of different ways to slice this. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about engaging women, and now we’re looking at how to engage kids and address our skewed age-groups. We’ll also be addressing different types of populations as well. We can improve in so many areas.

    Also, we’re not intending to “write off” any demographic at all. We’re just looking at the fact that we’re skewing ten years older than the average population, so the obvious question is why aren’t we attracting and retaining more youth? (More ethnic groups? More women?)

    But this isn’t to say we want all the old white guys to go away. I mean, I for one would have to quit, right? Ain’t gonna happen…


  3. Correct me if I’m wrong. If you excluded the kids between 0-10 years of age from the calculation, the average age of the outdoor people would be right on the mark. No? (I’m NOT an expert of statistics…)

    Concerning the lack of ethnics and women; that’s another question altogether…


  4. That’s an excellent question. Two things:

    1) Our average age has crept steadily upwards for many years. No matter where you start measuring, that can’t be good.

    2) I’d still argue that we need to measure the 0 – 10 year olds. I was in a canoe at 6mos, and all three of my kids were at the crags when they were mere weeks old. Many of my best memories of being outside as a kid are prior to the age of ten.

    It just still feels like the demographics of our industry should mirror the demographics of the US, at least. Where we miss – with women, kids, minorities – seems like a good place to grow our base.

  5. Post really hits home. One of our clients, The Summit (part of the BSA), has it as their core mission to get kids outside, focus on exactly the things you point out. But this graphic politely has them listed in an “alternate universe.”

    And I’m not disputing that, actually. There’s a lot of history that leads up to that general impression. But how do we get beyond it? How do we get it out there that everyone, regular kids everywhere, can get into action sports? We’re finding that linking outdoor adventure to influencers (especially musicians) beyond the industry and tech (not ours, but theirs) is key. For young people, we’ve got to push the idea that the OI product is social.

    Uphill battle, for sure, but not one that can’t be won.

    Thanks so much for the great read today.

  6. Thank you, Ben!

    We actually have some guest posts coming up about the BSA. Two of us here at PEMBA are Eagles, and most of us were involved in some capacity with the BSA. Sometime during our #OIBIZ history we split off from that, but Desert Mountain Sports (where I bought much of my first outdoor gear) also had a full scout-supply section in the store.

    You generally don’t see that anymore. Why is that, do you think?

  7. My biggest issue with our industry for the past 15 years has been our inability for many reasons to cultivate ethnic diversity as well as youth and females. I will toot your same horn my fellow colleague, it drives me crazy that our industry continues to get older, and thanks for opening the door, whiter!

    My goodness, our Outdoor Retailer show is a microcosm of our glaring exclusivity. Our clothes are made too small for the “average” women, which is a size 12. Oh, I’m sorry we do make clothing for them, it’s just an XL. That is considered HUGE in our industry, well guess what people, go to Target, that’s who we need to go to our stores, buy our stuff, get engaged in our causes. For the love of lanterns, Coleman is doing more to get people “outside” than many of the great core outdoor brands, which I represent a few and love them. Columbia Sportswear is doing and has always done a great job of bringing “outdoor” to the very statistical needs you speak of. TNF is gone a different route, but their success over many strands of distribution is a direct result of their ability to make “outdoor” cool to the everyday peeps who have no idea who most of the brand we represent are.

    I love this industry and it could be so much more. Brad, I agree with you Big Time! I’m right behind you at 41, so let’s get younger, let’s make more things that fit more women, let’s speak to more ethnicity. Seriously, have you seen the recent Census? One of the most influential and growing populations segments are Hispanics. What outdoor brand is speaking to this population? One of the reasons we are so excited about representing adidas Outdoor is not only the great product, incredible global brand, but it truly can introduce one of the largest fan bases in the world to our little industry. What fan base you may ask, Futbol! What a great opportunity for our business.

    Sorry to ramble, but you hit a great nerve. Thank you for caring and raising your concerns.

  8. Thanks Scott! Yep, can’t agree more. A few pending guest posts coming up here on PEMBA will deal with different types of diversity. One we didn’t address – or haven’t yet – is the size issue you brought up. Now that you have, I feel bad for not having thought of it.

    Hispanics? Yep, one in six in the US is Hispanic. And as a group, these people camp. It’s a big part of their culture. Do we have one in six Hispanics in our industry, either at the #OIBIZ level, or at the customer level? No, I don’t think so.

    So many opportunities…

    Thanks again for your comments.

  9. Might it be possible that the outdoor “industry” distances itself from people who DON’T fit that demographic? When was the last time you saw an Alaska Native in an outdoor clothing ad – but who is more familiar with extreme environments than the people who live in them?

    For some reason the industry and the populace in general value people who reside in “normal” locations, go to Starbucks, post on the Internet, sleep in cozy warm beds all the time, and only every now and then (relatively) venture into extreme environments. Could this be because these are the people to whom we, as the consumers, relate?

    I was so excited to see the Helly Hansen booth at OR, with the life-size picture of a female climber. That in itself is pretty rare. I can only imagine how racial minorities feel about it.

    On another topic; re: sizing for women – please don’t encourage more vanity sizing. I’m already sick of having to find smaller and smaller “sizes” as time goes on even though I remain the same. I’m not a tiny tiny girl, why am I on the verge of wearing an XS in some products? What do the REALLY small women do, and why is all the conversation about sizing meant to appease the larger end of the spectrum? The solution is not to just make bigger clothes and relabel them to appear as if they are smaller. Not a popular thought, I know.

  10. biking is a key gateway activity for youth. Expanding on this with urban trails and opening up national/state park trails to family friendly MTB trails will help our industry. I get very frustrated with the affluent, white baby boomer trying to ‘save the environment’ by denying non motorized access to some trails but they drive their SUV to hike and live in 5000sqft homes. I know some kids enjoy hiking but it is not going to engage with most active kids these days. We are competing with iPad,Wii etc..kids these days are use to stimulation. As I heard the CEO of REI say their biggest competitor is not another gear store but Best Buy.

  11. Thanks Jill & Jen.

    Jill, I agree with you about vanity sizing. I’ve been a size 30 pant for my entire adult life and – um – I don’t have a 30-inch waist anymore. It’s insane. I don’t think we should foster vanity-sizing in the outdoor industry.

    But that’s not what I was referring to, above. We tend to discriminate against people of size in a variety of ways. Most outdoor clothing, for instance, only comes in sizes up to XL, and pant sizes max out at 38 for men and 16 for women. But there are many options for clothing if people really want to get outdoors. Sweatpants work outdoors, too.

    What’s hard: Finding sleeping bags that fit, or backpacks, or backpacking tents that are big enough to accommodate big people. Canoes and kayaks are regularly too small to allow large people to get into them. Find a pair of performance shoes (climbing, hiking, ski boots…) if you have a large, meaty feet. Climbing harnesses and – for that matter – helmets are also hard to find for big people. PFD’s, ski clothing, the list goes on. We don’t have much good gear for big people, period.

    Couple this with the attitude when large people show up to play: “What are YOU doing HERE?” We can’t be a gateway to activity and fitness if our gate is too narrow to allow large people through.

    We may have a guest post from somebody in the weeks and months to come that goes through all of these things, from a personal perspective. Stay tuned.

  12. I can relate to what Brad is saying about size. I’ve said it a million times, I was an inch away from never getting into kayaking simply because I was sold, then sold again boats that were way to large by salespeople who made very wrong assumptions about my size. These days of course I’m a coach, hike, run, cycle etc., but I’ll never be a rail. People do need to be careful about the assumptions they make. And yes, it is hard sometimes to find gear when your short combined with being bigger built.