Where have the good men gone?

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

An essay by this title recently smoked the pages of The Wall Street Journal, generating the most comments in WSJ’s online history. It was actually about “20-something’s” social and gender issues, but this and other recent news highlights demographic shifts affecting GA’s traditional market — guys!

As you know, General Aviation has always been predominantly male. The industry took some comfort when, during the 1976-79 TAKEOFF! campaign under Karen Coyle (Tripp), the female pilot population doubled to 6%. I don’t know that it has budged since, although the LSA flight school at Orlando-Apopka Airport in Florida now reports a 12% female student base. (Are the smaller, lighter LSAs the answer?) For most of GA, the easier marketing target has been (and remains) men.

The essay’s writer (Kay Hymowitz, author of Manning Up!) offers an insightful if controversial look into the state of today’s young men. Written mostly about young women’s dilemmas seeking responsible marriage prospects, the analysis does reflect more broadly on the stymied career and earning potential for some of today’s young men. For GA, it reminds me of potential young prospects lost to the 1960s-70s “sex, drugs and rock-n-roll” era as youth turned away from traditional post-World War II values and aspirations.

Manning Up! questions the current state of those hopes and aspirations. Unfortunately, it vilifies a symbolic “slacker” living at home or with buddies, under-achieving and hung up on Star Wars memorabilia and computer games. This yet-to-launch “Slacker Dude” — subject of some funny recent movies — is apparently a social phenomenon, whether brought on by malaise or economics. (Manning Up! says some men have “given up” in the face of women’s advancement. I would instead also look at the economics of the situation and would guess this plight is by no means universal among young men.)

But we all know that Generations X and Y have had their challenges compared to some Baby Boomers, who themselves were often challenged compared to graduates in the earlier 1960s. In any case, reduced earning and career prospects can blunt the (mostly discretionary) urge to fly. Today’s younger people (including those over 30) have larger debt, especially college loans, that will “keep them busy” for a long time even before family formation issues.

What is clear: Women today exceed men in earning college degrees – a huge generational change in progress for a while. A college education in today’s “knowledge society” is an even more powerful predictor of lifetime earnings than it was in 1980. So where does that leave GA if men want to fly and women mostly don’t? A little further behind the power curve?

Eyes are turning again to issues in flight training, AOPA study et al. I know from BE A PILOT that these issues and shortcomings can be identified. They were last time. The greater question – again — is whether the flight training industry can afford to fix these problems, except where the marketing plan is for a top-quality experience at top-shelf prices. The solutions are probably in the all-of-the-above category: New product, better marketing, better training, better customer care AND better positioning of the concept (plus a reasonable national economy.)

Then there IS the gender thing. Mac McClellan, in his new blog at EAA, recently (and conveniently) passed on the issue of why more women don’t fly. I don’t blame him. The reasons are more than can be covered in passing, I’m sure. But if GA is going to pull successful, smart, ambitious new adults into flying, it had better figure out how some more of them can be women.

Last month, Women in Aviation International met for another of its fabulous annual meetings. Its growth has been spectacular (as are the scholarships awarded each year.) I don’t know if a 7,000-strong membership organization can affect the future balance of the pilot population, but its forward-thinking sponsors can. And I’ll bet WAI will do more than its share although it is focused on all aviation professions, not just piloting.

Some new initiatives from several sources have just been announced. A start? Perhaps. But the rest of us “dudes” had better do some more thinking on this.

© Drew Steketee 2011 All Rights Reserved.


  1. Mark Miller says

    Your forgetting one of the biggest reasons kids (mostly boys and young men) don’t go to the airport and hang out, do odd jobs, fuel planes, and eventually learn to fly.. It’s because of computer games and the like. When I learned to fly, you had model airplanes and you had real airplanes. I learned to fly the models then I learned to fly the real ones. I saved my money from a dish washing job in a restaurant to take lessons.

    Now they can just load a $50 game into their computer and shoot down Messerschmidt’s until their hearts content… Why bother learning to fly a real plane and have to follow a bunch of rules?

    Also, airport security has increased to the point where you couldn’t step foot on airfield without being harassed incessantly by self appointed airport security Nazi’s . What is this country coming to? We’re afraid of our own shadows now?

  2. Howard Kave says

    Dont’ you think that we are missing a vast untapped market in not promoting aviation more aggressively and pointedly to mature women? I speak here of those who are in the 40-60 age range, beyond or without the burdens of child rearing, who are more likely to have the time and money needed to begin training.
    We do not target-market to this large population group do we? No “Be a Pilot” type ads appear in “Good Housekeeping” or “Ladies Home Journal” and perhaps they should.
    Women are serious flyers. In my (admittedly anecdotal) experience over the past 30 years, it appears that, while women make up only 6% of the pilot population, a much larger percentage of the ladies fly professionally than is true of the gentlemen. I am not sure why that is, but most of the women I know who fly are pretty serious about their aviation. Maybe it’s a gender thing. I don’t claim to know.
    I just know that there is a whole lot of room in aviation for women and we need to do more to encourage them, specifically, not just generally.

  3. says

    This is an interesting article…and can you tell me where Karen Coyle Tripp is now? We knew her in Wichita, KS a long, long time ago. Betty and Patric Rowley,

  4. Kent Misegades says

    You miss many points, Drew. As the father of two boys and a girl, all grown, it is all too obvious – the genders are wired differently. Without any real coaching from my wife and me, the boys tended towards dirt, cars, engines, the outdoors and flying things. Both race cars and are FAA-certified aircraft mechanics and love their professions. Our daughter liked to sew, dance, do crafts, cook, and again without being forced to do any of this. She has some hours in a cockpit, but it just wasn’t her thing. She studied fashion and is now head of a major textiles department at a well-known retailer from NW Arkansas. But look at the plight of young men since the late 60s – many grow up without a father at home, and our so-called “modern” society seems to be OK with this. These boys never learn how to change oil in a car, do household plumbing, mow a lawn, etc. Government schools have closed shop classes and ROTC programs, the best part of school when I was a kid. Scholarships abound for girls and minorities, but they are slim pickings for young white males – that may not be P.C., but it is reality. Fortunately, America is returning to its roots when it comes to the importance of real families, and alternatives to our failing government schools abound. We now have many young members of our EAA chapter (1114, Apex, NC) and many are young ladies. But we go out of our way to invite speakers who appeal to more than just the old guys.

  5. Nick From Montreal says

    I’m in the software industry and women are almost totally absent from engineering jobs. Planes and computers are machines and most women don’t care for them. It’s just a matter of personal interest, not abilities.

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