I’m A Millennial And I Ride Motorcycles

It’s about time we kill the fallacy that we’d rather take selfies and ride the bus.

millennia's, motorcycle
No matter where they look, millennials are reminded of the economic concerns of the time. Still, someone get that woman a helmet. Photo by Joshua Humphrey.Joshua Humphrey

Next time you visit your local motorcycle dealer, say the word “millennial” and see what response you get from the salesperson. Very likely, you’ll get a shake of the head, a confounded shrug, and a glazed-over, defeated look similar to a Cleveland Browns fan rooting for a winless team in week 14 (I say this as a proud, though downtrodden, Cleveland native).

I ride with a group of guys who refer to themselves as “The Elderly Brothers,” of which I’m the youngest member by about three decades. It’s telling that I’m not friends with a single motorcyclist under the age of 60. In motorcycling terms, maybe I’m more representative of the Elderly Brothers’ generation than my own, having grown up riding motorcycles and reading Peter Egan (so naturally I expect to blow an inordinately large percentage of my income on Ducatis, S100 polish, and Isle of Man DVDs). In a sense, I’ve been grandfathered in.

As an inveterate motorcyclist and a man of a certain age (candidly, I shudder to own the millennial title foisted upon me), the industry's persistent misunderstanding of younger generations—and its struggle to sell them new motorcycles—is frustrating. According to David Beckel of the investment management firm AllianceBernstein, the US motorcycle industry is in "the throes of secular erosion… [and] the younger Gen Y population is adopting motorcycling at a far lower rate than prior generations."

“Secular erosion” sounds like some Dante-esque descent into hell, but no matter. The industry must stop thinking that 2006 levels of bike buying were anything other than the crest of the wave. The biggest problem is that the motorcycle industry looks at millennials as “the other,” a massive group whose perceived indifference to motorcycling is based largely on the notion that technology has replaced typical modes of recreation, institutions of community belonging, and methods of identity formation, once provided by things like, well, motorcycling.

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Regardless of age or generational stereotype, goofing around bikes is a universal pleasure. Photo by Joshua Humphrey.Joshua Humphrey

However, the idea that millennials’ preoccupation with the internet and social media is killing the motorcycle industry is erroneous—or at least incomplete. The industry has indeed recognized that economic factors, perhaps more than any other, are responsible for the younger generations’ lack of engagement, though it’s struggled to find ways to adapt. The problem is most glaring when attempts to reach a younger crowd come across as doubling down on the status quo. Building less expensive, smaller-displacement machines is a definite beginning.

I graduated from college in 2007, got a low-paying writing gig straight away, and the economy promptly tanked. The financial rug pulled out from under me, I responded by finding a job that my parents’ generation viewed as “alternative” or as motivated by “self-discovery” (“Hogwash,” I say!). Really, it was the only work I could find: I got a job picking apples. My friends, likewise, worked as bakers, potters, baristas, and bartenders, jobs that paid poorly and did not offer career trajectories amenable to, say, buying a car, starting a family, or moving out of parental basements.

A Goldman Sachs statistic indicates that the average student debt today has doubled since 2003. Plus, dollars don't go as far as they did when our parents were young. At our age, they were buying hi-fi equipment, Honda hatchbacks, and "beginner homes." We can only afford headphones, Uber, and less-than-ideal co-living arrangements. It's no wonder we aren't buying new motorcycles; we can barely afford to pay our share of the monthly rent. This is not meant to sound whiny; this is our lot, and it could be a lot worse.

One of the reasons the café-racer phenomenon has been so huge is that it inspires riders to buy a motorcycle they can afford, even if it’s “uncool” (see Honda CX500, “the plastic maggot”). A little know-how can turn it into something desirable (or make it unrideable, but that’s another story). The movement, while not wholly sprung from frugality, certainly reflects the financial realities faced by younger riders.

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Smart phone. Coffee. Vintage motorcycle. This must be Brooklyn. Photo by Rohit Tandon.Rohit Tandon

The singular experience that motorcycling provides transcends generational boundaries. Motorcycling can appeal to millennials. The communal nature of it (in spite of the individualistic “Ride Free” angle that lingers as a dominant message) is one that millennials can get behind. Motorcycles also represent the pursuit of “adventure,” a major theme in brand marketing and social media aimed at the younger crowd as a succor to ennui and city-dwelling malaise. I sincerely believe that OEMs will figure out how to not just market to millennials but to build bikes that fit our budgets and lifestyles.

The AMA also needs to help the industry by lobbying for the interests of younger riders. I don’t value abolishing helmet laws, but it sure would be nice to find easy motorcycle parking in my city. And I don’t understand why my well-to-do neighbor gets a huge tax credit on his hybrid car when I can’t get a break for buying a motorcycle that’s more fuel efficient. Help us out, AMA! Make it easier to be a motorcyclist.

The solution, I believe, will have to come from millennials. Peer-to-peer bike sharing and cooperative bike garages, for instance, are reason for optimism.

So the next time you’re grabbing a drink with friends, instead of fearing that millennials will never understand the draw of two wheels, give the overeducated girl behind the bar a good tip. You never know, she might be saving up to buy a motorcycle—once she pays off her grad school loans.