As hobbyists, we’re naturally concerned about the future of our hobby. I regularly engage in conversations with people about whether the hobby will survive in the age of Smartphones, Multitasking, Social Networking (including writing and reading blogs), etc.
The question is especially challenging for any hobby related to railroading, since real railroads no longer play the role they once did in people’s lives. That’s particularly true here in North America, where many people may go for days or weeks without seeing a train.
Some argue that we need to get more of the Boomer generation interested in model trains. The argument is that Boomers are retiring and looking for something to fill the time. They have money and are old enough for trains to have a nostalgia factor. The argument continues by saying we can attract them by showing them easy to buy, ready to run equipment – and by taking the pain out of layout-building.
Never mind the argument that Boomers will need something to fill their time – an argument that assumes they have no hobbies or other interests. The idea that we can attract retirees to the hobby by giving them an easy avenue of entry seems to me like a short-term solution to a long term problem.
Making the hobby “easy” to attract people will sell cheap, ready-to-run product. And that’ll work in the coming years – until energy prices and a higher standard of living put an end to manufacturing model trains overseas. As soon as it costs too much to make it economical to build ready to run product in China – or as soon as oil costs too much to make it economical to ship that ready to run product from China to here – the hobby as practiced through acquisition will become stupidly expensive. And those who joined the hobby because it’s “easy” and “fun” will find something else to do. (These two economic factors will also kill the opportunity for most hobbyists to build a monster layout. But that’s a thought for another day…)
And that’s where we’re headed.
We’re exhausting our sources of oil that’s easy to pull out of the ground. Prices have already risen high enough that difficult oil – like the stuff that’s mixed with sand in northern Alberta – is now economically-viable to extract and process. Oil prices may fluctuate from month to month, but year over year they’ll continue to rise.
Chinese labour costs are also going up. And factories are reassessing what they build – turning away difficult, precision work like model trains in favour of easier to assemble, more profitable consumer goods for China’s domestic market. It’s huge, it has buying power, and it wants stuff.
When I do the math – when I realize that we’re all going to be paying more for essentials like food and shelter – I’m convinced that flogging ready to run fun at retirees will only work for the short term. Securing the future of the hobby for the longer term will require another approach.
A popular adage provides one possible answer:
“Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”
As hobbyists, if we’re concerned about the future of the hobby, we need to recruit new blood by promoting the satisfaction that comes from learning skills:
– Instead of selling the new hobbyist a dozen ready to run freight cars, we need to help them build and paint their first resin freight car.
– Instead of selling the new hobbyist a ready to plant structure, we need to help them build their first structure kit – or a structure from scratch.
– Instead of selling the new hobbyist ready to use snap track with integrated ballast profile, we need to help them learn how to hand lay their first turnout.
In short, we need to encourage the potential new hobbyist not through an investment in stuff, but by mentoring and encouraging them to invest some sweat equity. This is not an approach that will be championed by major manufacturers or by the publications whose advertising dollars they support. (That said, there are some notable exceptions in the publishing world, and there are many hobby manufacturers who encourage craftsmanship instead of flogging product. And a big shout-out goes to the manufacturers who create the top-quality tools that hobbyists need.)
The first bit of good news is, there are people out there who want to learn these skills. And they’re not just Boomers “looking for something to do when they retire”. They’re people of all ages. Look at the Maker Movement – in which people young and old are building stuff. Look at the emergence of Maker Spaces – community workshops where members get access to tools and space that they can’t afford at home, and the mentoring that they need to learn to use them successfully and safely. Look at the popularity of courses in making things – such as woodworking and jewelry – offered by community colleges and businesses that supply into these hobbies.
As model railway enthusiasts, we need to identify potential new blood through our love of making things. We need to reach out to those in the Maker Movement, as well as those in other hobbies that are primarily about creating things – whether that’s a model-building hobby like armour or aircraft, or a craft like woodworking or metalworking, or an art such as painting or sculpture. But be warned: If we’re going to approach these potential recruits, we have to show them our very best stuff. It doesn’t have to be big: It does have to be great.
I’m trying to do my part – in part by sharing what I’m working on through this blog and in part by introducing non-hobbyists I know (or those just starting out) to my layout. I’m particularly pleased that I’ve had some younger people over to run trains, as it has given me an opportunity to talk about the non-financial investments I’ve made in this layout – including researching the history of a small corner of Ontario … hand-laying track … scratch-building structures trees … crafting scenery … and figuring out how to faithfully re-create the roles of a train crew on a branch line mixed or way freight in the 1950s.
The second bit of good news is, the model railway hobby will survive – regardless of what happens to the big manufacturers or major publications. Granted, it will be a much smaller hobby. We will not win over new recruits by the thousands, the hundreds or even the dozens: We will win them one at a time. But it will be a much stronger hobby in some respects, too – because when we’ve won over those new recruits, one by one, they’ll embrace the hobby for life.
(Wow: Lots of philosophy in my recent posts, and not much action. That’s the kind of week it has been. I’ll get back to sharing developments for the Port Rowan branch in future posts.)