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Zero Bias – A CQ Editorial

How Old Are You Now?


*e-mail: w2vu@cq-amateur-radio.com

There is an interesting discussion taking place in the contest community — and carried over into the pages of this issue by Contesting Editor K3ZJ — about the relative age of the ham population in general, and of contesters in particular. This stems from a prelimi- nary report from CQ World Wide DX Contest Director Randy Thompson, K5ZJ, on the CQWW Contest Com- mittee's 2015 Contest Survey. The full results will likely be out by the time you read this, but the initial release pro- vided only demographic information, including continent, preferred modes, and operator age1.

The numbers are significant because, with over 5,000 responses, this represents one of the largest samples of ham radio operators surveyed for any purpose in many years. While it is limited to a subset of hams who are active enough in contesting to see and respond to this survey (emailed to participants in the 2014 CQWW contest who submitted logs and posted on contesting email reflectors), contesters are among the most active hams and it is not unreasonable to extrapolate at least some of these results to the broader amateur population.

One of the data sets that drew immediate comment was that of age. Over 70% of the respondents to the survey report being over age 50 (87% in North America), and fewer than
9% are below age 40 (a mere 3% of North American respon- dents). K3ZJ's assessment of these statistics is, "(n)ot only are we old, we are bordering on extinction."

As much as I'd rather not disagree in print with one of our own columnists, my perception is somewhat different and I would like to offer an alternate viewpoint, particular- ly in terms of "bordering on extinction." We're not.

Let me be clear that I do not take issue with the need to focus on ways to attract young people to our hobby. But this is nothing new. It has been one of my highest priori- ties going back at least 30 years, when I was involved (along with CQ Publisher K2MGA and ARRL CEO K1ZZ) in overseeing the "Archie's Ham Radio Adventure" comic book project. The young hams we recruited in the 1980s are today's "old-timers," wondering where the next gener­ ation of younger hams will come from.

One bit of demographics we cannot escape is that of the broader society in which we live. The biggest bulge in our population today — general and ham alike — is that rep­ resented by the "baby boomers," those people born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964, and we are all growing older together.

According to the Pew Research Center2, the "Generation X" group (born between 1965 and 1981) is significantly smaller than both the baby boomers and the "millennial" generation that followed them (birth years 1982-1998). According to Pew's statistics, there are 20 million fewer "GenX"ers today than boomers, and 11 million fewer than millennials. When the pool from which we can draw new hams shrinks by 20 million, it amazes me that the U.S. ham population continues to grow and remains at record highs. Contest participation continues to grow as well, with the number of logs submitted in the CQ WW more than dou­ bling in the past 15 years. Neither ham radio in general nor contesting in particular is in danger of extinction.

Discussion about the survey on the CQWW contest com­ mittee's email reflector speculated on possible  reasons behind the low number of responses from under-40 hams. (It should be noted that, while many of us assume that the responses indicated that there are very few younger con­ testers out there, all we really know for certain is that very few  younger  contesters  responded   to  the  survey.) Suggested reasons included growing numbers of alterna­ tive activities for technically-minded young people, barriers to entry into the hobby (taking a test and, in some coun­ tries, a continuing code test requirement), the costs of set­ ting up a station, the even greater costs of setting up a competitive contest station, and the  growing  number of antenna restrictions.

Some of these sounded very familiar, so I looked back 20 years to the results of the 1995 contest survey, con­ ducted in the pages of CQ3 by then-Contest Editor John Dorr, K1AR. (It should be noted that 230 people respond­ ed to the 1995 survey vs. 5,100 in 2015.)

While John did not ask questions about age, he did ask, "What do you consider the main reason(s) why larger num­ bers of new contesters are not entering our ranks?" The most common answers included the cost of entry into con­ testing,  low  solar  activity,  and   antenna  restrictions. Growing numbers of alternate activities for young people were not cited, but those concerns are as old as the per­ sonal computer. Bottom line: The more things change, the more they stay the same!

None of this is meant to suggest that we should not be focusing on getting more young people involved in ham radio and more young hams involved in contesting, DXing or whatever your favorite part of the hobby may be. This has to be an ongoing effort, and I applaud some of the efforts already under way and the suggestions that have been made so far, such as creating special contest cate­ gories (overlays?) for young competitors and encouraging multi-op teams to recruit and include one or more young operators. Operating with a multi-op group is a great way for a young person who can't afford a competitive station to get involved and learn from veteran contesters. In addi­ tion, he or she probably has more stamina for long stints in front of the radio than some of the older folks. This is how many of today's top contesters got started.

One other challenge facing all hobbies, not just ham radio, is the growing demands on young people's time. While technology eased time demands on workers of the baby boom era, GenXers and millennials are tied to their smartphones and often are expected to be on call for work nearly 24/7. Today's young people have less leisure time than their parents, not more.

Recruiting and encouraging more young people to get involved in contesting and other aspects of ham radio is important and an ongoing challenge, but it is not the exis­ tential challenge that some folks are portraying.  K3ZJ encourages your input on a conversation on this subject, and I join him in encouraging you to share your thoughts.

QRP Special

If it's February, it must be time for our annual QRP Special! Once again, we've got a wide variety of articles demonstrating the depth of interest in low-power operat­ ing and the breadth of activities and projects into which QRP is a perfect fit. Using a low-power station makes it easier to take a ham station with you while traveling, and QRP projects are just the thing to satisfy the resurgent inter­ est in building among hams (something that is drawing more young people into the hobby). We even get some contesting into the mix, with SMØMDG's article on his pur­ suit (and capture) of the Swedish QRP record in the CQ WW 160-Meter contest.

So no matter what your ham radio interest — be it con­ testing, construction, vintage gear, portable operating, or something else — read on and see what we've got in store for you this month.– 73, Rich, W2VU


  1. <http://cqww.com/blog/2015-cq-ww-survey-results-part-1/>
  2. 2. <http://pewrsr.ch/1BBgNN9>
  3. 3. CQ, March 1996, pp. 90-91

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