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.