What’s Next? The Millennial Makers

What's Next PPT - Screen Grab

Saturday night, I was the guest speaker at the banquet for Algonquin Turn 2016 – the convention for members of the Niagara Frontier Region NMRA. This was held in Ottawa – a place I lived for much of the 1990s – and it was great to reconnect with a number of fellow hobbyists that I hadn’t seen in many years. Ottawa is only 4.5-5 hours away by highway, but it seems like another world sometimes, and I haven’t been to the nation’s capital in many years.

When I was asked to speak, I spent a lot of time thinking about what to say. A banquet speech needs to be special. I wasn’t going to stand in front of the crowd and give a how-to clinic, and I certainly didn’t want to make it “all about me” (and boy am I glad that I did not, as I’ll relate*). Fortunately, I have done many things in this hobby. I have worked in several scale/gauge combinations, attended conventions, operations weekends, RPM meets, narrow gauge gatherings, SIG events, train shows, exhibitions in which trains are displayed to the general public, and more. I’ve given speeches, written articles, produced and co-hosted a podcast, and been both a guest and a host on TrainMasters TV. And, of course, I’ve blogged.

But most of all, because of this exposure, I’ve had brilliant conversations with many, many people about our hobby. That includes people who have been railway modelling enthusiasts for decades… those who have just started… and those who have never heard of the hobby.

Man using Ear Trumpet

And one thing that I’ve learned is that for many of us in the hobby, this is more than a way to kill some time. It’s been a lifelong journey of friendships and learning. We love this hobby – and many of us wonder how we encourage more people to join us as railway modelling enthusiasts. In particular, we wonder how we’re going to reach young people.

I run into similar questions in my professional life as a speech writer. I’ve worked with many clients who are trying to connect their businesses – and the products and services they provide – with customers, and one demographic that everybody is trying to figure out is the Millennials. Broadly described, the Millennials are the cohort of young people born in the 1990s or later.

One of the biggest factors that sets Millennials apart from the rest of us is that this is a group that has never known a world in which the Internet did not exist. That has had a huge influence on how the Millennials think and act.

I won’t get into detail here – I had an hour for my speech, and I filled it – but I shared a number of insights about the Millennials, including:

1 – The world in which they’re living. Millennials gravitate to urban cores for a variety of reasons related to lifestyle and employment. And those are expensive places to live. That means dedicated space for a layout is limited, or non-existent.

2 – The economic reality they face: For a variety of reasons related to cost of living and the changing nature of employment, it’s expected that the members of this generation will be the first who are financially worse off than their parents.

3 – The relevance – or, more to the point, irrelevance – of real railroads in their daily lives.

Those are challenges, but there are some positive things to be said, too. Specifically, there’s a group of Millennials – call them The Makers – who love to build things. They are the future of our hobby.

4 – The Makers are building battle bots, steampunk accessories, LEGO machines, and more. They speak Arduino and Raspberry Pi. They’re comfortable with designing on computer, to run a machine (such as a 3D Printer) that does the construction. They develop apps to integrate their smart phones with their devices. And so on. Our challenge is not “How do we get young people to build things?” but “How do we identify those who do – and convince them to give our hobby a try?”

5 – Our hobby embodies many characteristics that appeal to Millennial Makers – including the collaborative nature of the “operations” game that we play, in which there are no winners or losers.

6 – I’ve run into many examples in our hobby where our interests, and those of The Makers – overlap. So we’re not as far apart as we think.

However, to engage with The Millenial Makers, we have to take a different approach. For them, trains are not the gateway into our hobby. I believe we need to back them into becoming railway modellers by emphasizing those things that appeal to the Millennial Makers – such as electronics, interactivity, collaborative work, and social media. For example:

7 – If a Millennial is doing something with servos and controllers, ask them how they would tackle a semaphore signalling system or train order boards.
8 – If they’re doing something with RFID, ask how they’d apply it to tracking freight cars on a layout.

9 – If they’re creating designs for a 3D Printer, ask how they would replicate a diesel control stand, in miniature, to hold the electronics found in a DCC throttle.
10 – If they’re interested in APP development, ask how they would create an APP to turn a smart watch into a fast clock.

And yes, these are ideas that are already being tackled by hobbyists, but so what? These are the places where our hobbies meet. Let’s take advantage of that. And let’s recognize that there are many ways to approach a problem – a fresh, non-hobby set of eyes may be just what we need.

That said, reaching Millennial Makers will require changes to how many of us do things in the hobby. For example:

11 – We can’t do this if we’re preaching to younger people, because that will just drive them away. To encourage more people to join our hobby, we need to do more listening – to find out what fires a person’s interests, and then relate that to what we do. We enjoy a hobby unlike any other in terms of the depth and breadth of what can be done in it. No matter what a person says they’re interested in, I am confident we can find examples in our hobby to which they can relate. But we have to know what they like, first – and I’m as guilty of that as anyone else.

12 – We also can’t engage Millennial Makers – or anybody else for that matter – if our only public presence is the Train Show. That’s because at train shows, we’re mostly talking to ourselves. Say the words “Train Show” and an image comes to mind that, frankly, many people outside of the hobby would not consider interesting. To reach Millennial Makers, I think we need to do more to take our hobby to where they are – to events such as Maker Faires, and meetings at Maker Spaces. (If you’re not sure what those are, Google them.) And we need to do more to put our efforts online where younger, connected people can find them. Starting a blog is a good example of how we can do that, and in a previous post I’ve offered some thoughts on doing that, as well as some reasons why your hobby might benefit from one.

I hope I left the banquet attendees – about 80 people, I’m told – with some useful information and some ideas for further discussions. If you were in the room, thanks for letting me speak – and do share your thoughts on this via the comments section on this post (or start your own blog!), because it would be great to hear from you.

Unfortunately, other commitments prevented me from attending anything beyond the banquet portion of the convention. But I did get to take a quick spin through the convention’s contest room and model display area. The photos below show off some of the creative and accomplished work on display:

Algonquin Turn - Display

Algonquin Turn - Display

Algonquin Turn - Display

Algonquin Turn - Display

Algonquin Turn - Display

I also treated myself to a nice room overnight – at the Chateau Laurier. This is one of Canada’s legendary “Railway Hotels”. Originally owned by Canadian Pacific, they are located in major cities, near the station (or, as is the case in Ottawa, where the station used to be). I always enjoy the rooms and the lobbies, which are from a different era. And the Sunday morning brunch was a terrific way to start my journey home.

Chateau Laurier
(The view from my room of the interior of the U-shaped hotel)

Chateau Laurier Mailbox
(Mailbox in the lobby)

Chateau Laurier Mail Chute
(Mail chute in the elevator lobby)

Chateau Laurier Mail Chute
(Close up of the mail chute)

*On a technical note, I had a moment of panic when my PowerPoint presentation refused to launch on the NMRA’s laptop. In the end, I gave my speech without the support of pretty pictures. Fortunately, I was delivering a philosophical talk – a subject that does not rely upon visuals.

I had joked with a couple of friends before dinner about how PowerPoint presentations can be deadly dull and that instead of subjecting everyone to a slide show, I was going to describe my layout via an Interpretive Dance. Little did I know it almost came to that…

Dancing without a script

15 thoughts on “What’s Next? The Millennial Makers

  1. This is one of the most sophisticated and balanced looks to date addressing how the hobby might capture, or at least interest, Millennials that I have seen. Not surprisingly Trevor wrote the blog post although a bit unexpectedly this talk was given at an NMRA meeting. In the past few years I have been at best underwhelmed by the NMRA’s attempts to interest those under 40/50 –with the exception of the Boy Scouts- into giving model railroading a try and it would be nice to see some version of this talk reprinted in the NMRA magazine. The fact you gave this talk without Powerpoint probably made your remarks and insights even more powerful that night. You are correct people need to go and try to find new model railroaders in this demographic outside of traditional trains meets because that market is somewhat self limiting. On the bright side the hobby will continue to evolve as it always has and people will find new and exciting/creative ways to attack old problems. Whether the NMRA will be leading the way remains to be seen…I doubt it but look forward to being proved wrong

    Trevor you seem to be on quite a blogging tear this week and I look forward to what you come up with next. For the record I was in Ottawa for the first time a few weeks ago at a conference and it is a really beautiful city.


    Gerard J. Fitzgerald
    Charlottesville, Virginia

  2. Thought-provoking post indeed. I don’t think that the old-line organisations such as the NMRA have looked at the future of the model rail hobby in quite this way or depth, preferring to address people with a latent/lapsed interest in model railroading and cash to spend on it with their WGH programme.

    I add nanotechnology to the list of pursuits that are applicable to our hobby. Imagine, for example, working N scale crossing gates, wig-wags, and semaphore signals all with the necessary moving bits enclosed in a scale-sized mechanism case. Presently the technology is rather expensive, but one will recall what may be the original DCC system, Hornby Zero One, offering loco decoders costing a hundred dollars or more in 1980 dollars. Today we buy drop-in decoders having many times the features of Zero One for far less in 2016 dollars than Hornby’s offerings of yore.

  3. I’m 66 years old and have been struggling with cultivating my 8 year old grandson’s natural creative impulses. He is a maker – mostly with LEGOs to date but has shown an interest in “Papa’s trains”. He is naturally more creative than I ever was and I certainly don’t want to stifle his imagination. Thank you for your insights Trevor and I STILL miss your podcast!

  4. A wonderful post Trevor. I was hoping you would share the content and outcome of your keynote speech.

    We face a difficult problem. On one hand we want people to take our interest in model trains seriously, yet our own behavior and way of discussing the work sends a very mixed message.

    As creative people in every discipline know, it can be hard to discuss your own work intelligently and convey what you’re trying to accomplish with it, or the depth of enjoyment you get from it. Couple this with the widespread public perception of model trains as toys and it isn’t hard to see the uphill struggle we face. Yes, it’s true that we’ve seen enormous technical advances but, philosophically, in over eighty years, little if anything has changed about how we view the work or our part in it.

    I honestly don’t know what the answer is but it seems clear that pandering to the lowest common denominator and the very human tendency to look for shortcuts to the easy road isn’t serving our cause very well. This is why I appreciate your blog and also the articulate writing that Gerry offers. Both are a welcome breath of fresh air.


    • Mike,

      “I honestly don’t know what the answer is but it seems clear that pandering to the lowest common denominator and the very human tendency to look for shortcuts to the easy road isn’t serving our cause very well. ”

      That is, I think, the single biggest problem the hobby faces, and the biggest threat to its growth. I have learned to avoid conversations/threads/blogs which include the word “bodge”*: anyone happy to proclaim such ineptitude is aiming at mediocrity and falling short of the target. (If saying this makes me some kind of snob, then I really don’t care.)

      One of my neighbours sniggers at my hobby interests, but the others are all fine with it. When I show a detailed, scratch built model to colleagues at work, they change their perception of the hobby away from “grown men playing with toys” to something serious and rewarding, which combines engineering and artistry, but there is a general perception of the hobby as being frivolous and childish, and we do ourselves no good when we confirm rather than confront those stereotypes.

      * Is that word used in North America? Means making a fudge out of things, muddling through, using “good enough” as an excuse for not trying, rather than as a way to define the optimum balance between level of detail, available resources and robustness.

  5. Great post, and it well reflects the experience I have had both with Millennials and makers.
    It’s as if we need to turn the whole presentation of the hobby upside down, or maybe more accurately, inside out. The fundamentals are computing, electronics, 3D design and printing, app building, and more. Those things are currently wrapped in robot and drone packaging, but there is no reason they can’t be wrapped up in a train package instead.
    I find it interesting that one of the first things I saw in a new maker space in Ottawa was a 4×8 HO scale layout…


  6. You’ve done a superb job of framing a conversation that is in stark contrast to the vision of the future we tend to favour perpetuating in traditional hobby society. Thank you.

    I’ve been involved in the hobby long enough to know that the sky isn’t falling, the hobby is not dying, and we have no evidence to support any trouble we’re experiencing in attracting anyone new. I believe that there will always continue to be a type of individual who is attracted to the hobby. It sounds reckless but I trust that to be true. What will change and has always been changing is who that person is and how they connect will change over time.

    We tend to think that the hobby has a direct relationship with real trains and that one only exists with the other. Whether we like real trains or not we all tend to describe trains in the way that they connect people, places, and things. I don’t believe there is a dependency between real and model but I do believe that, when the hobby is at its best, the models connect people in same way – we don’t need to travel by train to be connected by them, in either real or model form.

    For example: Recalling occasions where you’ve shared your own relationship with modelling in S scale you often credit a healthy community of local S scalers as being a major element contributing to your own success. It’s not that the S Scale Workshop affects your relationship with the greater hobby but it connects you to other S scalers, S scale products, and offers you the opportunity to travel with them to S scale meets. Further, it invites you to build a more intimate relationship with Canadian S scale than you might have built when working in other scales. That reinforces your commitment to the hobby in general by forging a stronger bond to a part. That’s terrific and I believe I see a similar potential linkage between people and the hobby when I look at the way that FREMO groups connect their members through the medium of modular model railroading.

    Right now is such a terrific time to live in. We’re learning to leverage social media (beyond just Facebook) to connect us with like-minded individuals and with that connection create communities in real places and these provide focal points to connect us. Even here in Charlottetown we have very accessible groups of software developers and gamers. It’s not that these groups could be places where I could sell model railroading as a hobby better than their current interests but that these could become really great places to get help with things I don’t have as much confidence in. If the problem is how I connect an Arduino to my model railroad than it doesn’t matter if it’s a model railroad or a robot – the problem and the solution are the inside the Arduino and in a group of Arduino-loving folk I might find a solution or at least a better understanding of the problem.

    There’s a certain vulnerability we all share being modellers. When we create a model it can become a measure of our abilities as crafts people but also an expression of how we view the world. Through the medium of a rich environment of print and digital media we collaboratively fund a set of common assumptions that become a definition of the hobby that we impose on the newcomer and the experienced modeler. I find it all good to have such ready access to such a rich font of knowledge but it has also felt very anxiety inducing as I relate my own abilities and work back. In providing for the future and the modern model railroader, what can we be doing to help him understand his relationship with the hobby and support him in that personal growth?

    As for the interpretive dance bit…that would have been awesome. Now I fully expect to see Port Rowan expressed in the medium of interpretive movement set to a backdrop of suggestive audio.


  7. Trevor, you nailed it. A much better approach than the typical NMRA position of ignoring youngsters and concentrating on retirees. I was flabbergasted when I was sitting on a panel of supposed thought leaders in the NMRA and was rebuked for suggesting we try to include youngsters through new technologies like tablets and smart phones. Thanks, as always, for your fresh view of classic problems in the hobby.

    An example of your suggestion: our local division has a group of 10 year olds who figured out ON THEIR OWN how to have a friend in another town remotely dispatch a 1500 sf layout with JMRI. We are learning as much from the post-Millennials as they are from us Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. Let’s spend more time encouraging that instead of ignoring the next generation of train enthusiasts because it’s too hard to get them interested.

  8. Trevor,
    I’ve been a frequent visitor to your blog, but have never commented before. This post really surprised me and I’d like to chime in. As a 20 year old, (a mellinial although ashamed to admit it as the word drags with it its connotations) I enjoyed your thoughtful input on attracting my generation to the hobby. Sometimes I find older members of the hobby shun us instead of encourage us, which is why your post is such a relief. I know so many of my peers that have the technical skill and knowledge of modern technologies that are useful in the hobby, and the maker types or DIY as I hear more often is definitely on the rise. The only real drawback that I have found with getting my peers into the hobby is that an interest with railroading, full size and/or to scale, has become synonymous with awkwardness and weirdness. Presenting the hobby as “cool”, the same way that my peers see the model car and plane hobbies, in my opinion is the biggest hurdle to get over.

    Any way, in my own experience I’ve used Google sketchup (now just sketchup) to design buildings, trestles, turntables, etc. for my new HO layout and have recently used a 3d printer to make a gear box for that same turntable with great success. I find it funny how I use technology in the present (2010s) to model the 1910s.

    By the way, your blog has been a great inspiration for me and gave me the courage to start a new layout. ” Breaking Marley’s chains” post is what really helped me understand a better philosophy to the hobby.

    Keep up the fantastic work.

  9. I appreciate your recognition of the economic circumstances of the Millennials.

    My children are both professionals, though in different fields. Each works 12 hours per day, usually six days a week. When they travel for work, they do not get overtime or comp time. Maybe they can come in late the next morning, but the texts and messages and emails have been piling up and will not go away.

    On the seventh day, one of them goes with his family to church and plays with his children and mows the lawn. The other sees her husband, who works similar hours, often on assignment overseas, goes to the grocery, and may have dinner with friends.

    They both have satisfying careers and live well, but they do not have the choice of cutting back and very little leisure time.

    Remember the articles back in the ’80’s about growth in the hobby based on the new leisure? The new leisure didn’t happen and it isn’t going to. The structured work weeks of Good Union Jobs are gone. Bowling is dying, lodges and brotherhoods are dying. The Masons are advertising. If you have the money for a serious hobby, you don’t have the time. If you have time, you can’t afford the space.

    I think the recent emphasis on small, probably temporary layouts begun with plug-and-play electronics and ready-to-run equipment has promise, though it is useless unless entry level hobbyists learn what you can do when you are finished, especially with a layout that doesn’t go round-and-round.

    The strain in the hobby that focuses on the satisfactions of meticulous craftsmanship — well represented by other commentators here — has promise for attracting people who have time to do leisure programming or building or tinkering, but are there lots of them?

    Back when I was getting paid to tell organizations how to deal with the future, one of the things I always repeated and wish I had invented was “in the short run, technology changes things a lot less rapidly than we expect. In the long run, it changes things much more profoundly than we can imagine.”

  10. I agree completely about the makers, millennial or otherwise. We included a maker room into our 2015 PCR convention, but discovered that we’d scheduled our convention against the San Mateo Maker Faire, so while it was good for educating our members we didn’t do well in outreach.

    We are exploring other venues and events in which to repeat the Maker display (modeling with 3D, CNC mills, Cricut cutters etc, electronics: robotics, Arduino, rPI, RFID etc as well as traditional modeling techniques — just making something new). We hope to offer passes to local high school science and technology programs, advertise at Maker Spaces, Tech Shops, etc.

    While many of us see the opportunity, it takes a lot of work and some resources to organize these events

    • Very insightful and a fresh look at a perceptually stodgy hobby. While I don’t fall into the Mellenial category, I can speak from an under 40, works and travels, doesn’t own the house lived in, and competes timewise with family commitments perspective. Therefor, there has to be special motivation (blogs like Trevor’s for one) and I’ll say it for me, shortcuts to try achieve a more idialistic goal in a gratifying timeline. One day I hope to have time to scratch build this and craft that.

      To that end, technology can help advance this goal. For example, the Shapeways 3D printing of an otherwise unaitainable model. There are so many great possibilities there. In my case, I’m completing a BlueRail dead rail install in S scale, allowing smartphone control of an engine. This is a cool crossover of technology that intrigues the next generation while still providing a bridge to the railroading past. Not to mention it eschews the time of wiring a layout and the investment in DCC.

      I am hopeful that the younger generations will adapt and overcome the obsticals that lay before them. That is the challenge, the draw, perhaps that makes this hobby inspiring and filled with a sense of accomplishment. Looking forward to seeing where it takes us all.

  11. Excellent, Trevor. Most thought provoking and stimulating. Much along the lines I have been advocating for some time – encouraging people to actually make things. But you have identified a specific target audience and put it far more succinctly. Well done! Super photos too.

  12. Trevor, it was great seeing you once again at the Algonquin Turn convention here in Ottawa. I enjoyed your post dinner speech tremendously. As I mentioned to you that evening, one other character trait I find in most millennials (beyond the many you listed) is resiliency. Life’s prospects are not the easiest for this age group, yet I find many of them able to rise above the myriad stressors they face and get on with life. It’s wonderful watching many of these young people start their own businesses after encountering great difficulty finding jobs in the workplace.

    Some of the finest examples of modelling and diesel detailing I have seen in recent times are results of the efforts of these younger modellers. While there are fewer of them around, their eagerness to attempt the more challenging activities in the hobby and to share them is exemplary.

    Finally, speaking of resiliency, you, young man, proved it in spades last week when your power point failed you and you carried on to deliver one of the finest speeches I have had the privilege to attend. Indeed, only the future knows the answer to where this wonderful hobby will take us. With that being said, I thank you for encouraging such thought-provoking discussion in the present.

    Mike Hamer
    Clinician/Layout Host
    Algonquin Turn

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