Boat sales are doing pretty well at the moment, which is the good news, especially since 95 percent of the boats sold in the U.S. are built in the U.S. But embedded in sales statistics is a dire warning: Most buyers are older people. The number of 20-somethings buying a first boat is diminishing. There is no generation coming up behind us. What happens in 2025, when Baby Boomers begin turning 80?
Where is Gen-X, where are the Millennials?
Experts cite various reasons for the decline in new boaters. Personally I see only one major cause—student debt. According to credit-score-company Experian, 44 million Americans owe $1.4 million for student loans, far more than our total credit card debt. As of 2017, the average student loan balance was a record $34,144.
Like many of you, when I was in my 20s, I bought my first boat with a bank loan. Today college loan payments have displaced young people’s ability to finance not just boats but all manner of “luxury” purchases. And each year the problem worsens. "That's the same money that, when you graduated, you used to move out of the house or you went out and spent money that improved the economy and helped companies grow," says billionaire Mark Cuban, a critic of how we fund kids’ educations.
Statistics also show that if someone doesn’t buy a boat when they are young, they are unlikely to ever do so. Once you pay off that debt at age 40 or whatever, your new found buying power is probably going to be exercised in other ways.
This from a 2015 report in our sister publication Soundings Trade Only:
In 1998, more than 30 percent of new-boat buyers were under the age of 40, and only about 12 percent were older than 60. That’s a stark contrast to 2014, when nearly the opposite was true, with about 32 percent of new buyers older than 60. Slightly more than 15 percent were under the age of 40.
A recent article in a rival boating publication correctly identified the problem, then went all mushy with optimistic anecdotes about how innovative programs that don’t involve individual ownership were popping up like so many daisies in the field.
This is my personal opinion, not necessarily shared by management: The simplest way to save the U.S. marine industry and preserve the boating lifestyle as a thing is socialism. Not the crappy socialism of the old USSR or Cuba today, but the lower-case-“s” socialism of Germany, where college is free. If you meet admission standards and produce good grades, you don’t pay. No one pays.
Maybe German kids aren’t buying boats either, I don’t know, but it’s not because they can’t afford to.
Germany believes having a well-educated, debt-free workforce is boon to their economy. Germany sees public funding for higher education as an investment. Germany is right.