For some time now there's been ongoing discussions and blogging about the aging of ham radio operators, especially in the United States. Concern has been expressed about how to best attract and keep new operators and young people. In essence, how to compete with the internet, social networking, and all the other daily distractions that you and I and everyone else faces. Or, how to best combine and adopt those 'distractions' into ham radio itself, making the best of all worlds. Wouldn't a young person be more likely to become interested in ham radio if the internet was a big part of it? And wouldn't they be more inclined to stay a part of it?
Those are important topics, unquestionably. And, like it or not, we're increasingly facing those challenges every day.
But I have a problem with a particular part of the concern being expressed. Namely, the worry over the apparent discovery that US contesters are a good 12 years on average older than their European counterparts. I'm not sure just how accurate or valid those results are, but let's assume that they are correct. My next question would be, does this only apply to contesters or does it apply to all of the ham population? Is the average age of a US ham 10 to 12 years older than their European counterpart? I don't know the answer to that. But for the sake of discussion, let's assume that it's somewhere around that.
My question to you is, is this necessarily a 'bad' thing? Suppose for a moment that that primarily younger group of ham licensees in Europe (or anywhere) is substandard in terms of quality - with respect to operating habits and behavior. I'm not saying that it is, but just go with me for a moment. Would you rather have a younger group of poor operators or an older group of good operators?
Let me put it another way. In my line of work, we often evaluate and subcontract with outside engineering firms to do certain parts of our business. One of the criteria we examine is how much experience a firm has. If the average age of one firm is 50 and the average age of another is 36, I can tell you who gets bumped to the top of the list. Is that a definitive and always accurate barometer of that firm's capabilities? No, but more often than not there's some merit to it. Here's another. Do you want a doctor with 25 years of experience operating on you or a doctor with 5? Again, most are going to favor the doctor with more experience. That doesn't ALWAYS equate to the 'right' choice, but odds are in favor of experience.
Yes, I know, one can point out exceptions to both of those examples. But experience comes with doing something over and over. Experience comes with age. It has to. Because as you do things over and over, you get older, right? Just because European contesters are younger, are they better? Is the contesting world benefitting or suffering because of this? Does a group with 10 years experience in contesting fare well against a group with 20? I don't know, I'm asking. OK, I've beat that dead horse long enough.
I ask you to think about how operating habits have become since no-code licenses have become available. Can anyone say that they've improved? As someone who entered the hobby when there weren't pools of questions and answers readily available, took a code test, and then became inactive, returning 20 years later when everything had changed, I know the answer to that question. No, operating habits have deteriorated to mayhem at times.
But this isn't an essay to slam youth or debate about code/no-code. The rules are what they are and we have to live with them (or change them). But the only way to improve the quality of life on the bands is to promote better operating habits and let our on-the-air actions and behavior guide newcomers and those who aren't following "good operating practice".
Before we go off the deep end about how old we're getting and how ham radio is going to go down the toilet because of it, how about letting our experience and knowledge count for something? Just taking steps to get more young people involved isn't going to improve anything unless they learn and follow the right way. Do you want more people on HF who don't know what "split" means? Do you really think that a single multiple choice question (with the answer marked no less) in a study guide is going to teach them what "split" is?
This is where having an 'older' ham population should prove advantageous, wouldn't you think? Since we've been around the block, shoudn't we know the right way to operate? Isn't it our obligation to make sure that younger hams getting started in the hobby know this and that it becomes ingrained in them? Second nature.
So, just because the numbers show that US hams are older than hams in other parts of the world, why not turn that into a positive? At one time it was called being an elmer. I hardly ever hear that term anymore. Maybe its taken on a bad connotation that I'm not aware of? Maybe it sounds old-fashioned and "square"? Incidentally, my 13 year old daughter hates it when I use the word "groovy", so, naturally, I take every opportunity to use it in front of her (Daddy, you're such a doofus). So maybe we need to find another word besides "elmer"? Maybe it is the "groovy" of ham radio? But the point is, so what if our average age is 10 years older than European hams? Can we not share the knowledge that we are supposed to have from our 'advanced age' to teach others and better the experience for all?