There’s a seismic generational shift in the offing in American culture and commerce that promises to be nothing short of transformational. In this corner is the reigning generation, my generation, the Baby Boom. It’s a dopey moniker. It sounds like something you’d find in a diaper, but we’ve been saddled with it for over a half-century, and so populous were we that pretty much everything revolved around our lives, and tastes, and aspirations, and romantic fancies, and finances—especially our finances. But now as of 2016 we’ve had our top slot in the population spreadsheet usurped by another generation—one with a really cool name, the Millennials; those born between roughly 1981 and 1997. And there’s a whole shitload of them, over 75 million, and their generational name sounds sorta like a spacecraft out of Star Wars, which it sorta is. How cool is that?
So, naturally, that’s where the marketing gurus are all directing their genius these days, and some industries are faring a hell of a lot better than others in that campaign. Anything having to do with smartphones, apps, social media, 3-D headsets, Dick Tracy wristwatches and digital tech of every description has a decent shot at engaging the Millennial masses.
The same can’t be said for that most sacred of all cultural icons, to my generation at least, the personal vehicle, and all it portends; the open road; the freedom of just going somewhere. The wind and weather, the far horizon, the greasy spoons, the quirky roadside attractions, the intimacy of sharing a trip with a good road buddy, or even an annoying one—some of the best stories come from suffering fools over the long haul before ditching them at a gas station.
It’s not a brave new world; it’s a self-absorbed insular new world, and one with a lot less wealth in play. And driver’s licenses—by the age of 18 only about half of the generation have one. (Asked to choose between a car and a smartphone, they invariably opted for the phone.) And any emotional attachment to the touchstones of the—ugh—Baby Boomers, who grew up on Brando and Bronson and Easy Rider and Evel Knievel.
And no one is feeling the heat more intensely than The Motor Company. It’s not like they didn’t see it coming. They’ve been strategizing about the looming demographic shift for a good long time now, making questionable moves in their alignments and outreach and coming up short. It’s not their fault. They had a truly tall hill to climb to translate their explosive success among my cohorts into something that would pass on to the Millennials.
The Motor Company survived the Model T, the British Invasion, the Japanese invasion, the dark days of AMF, and successive recessions crowned by the collapse of 2008.
In an interview with Yahoo last July, even before the disappointing financials of the most recent two quarters were published, and HOG stocks lost a third of their value, Matt Levatich, Harley-Davidson’s disarmingly candid CEO, didn’t gild the lily about the company’s prospects within the world of the Millennial future, noting frankly that he wasn’t sure how to get through to these kids, calling it “tricky,” and ruing somewhat the lack of a Sons of Anarchy effect, which was the first time I realized the company might actually have been viewing that series as a sales booster. “Our domestic market share dropped from 58 percent to 51 percent in two years,” he said. He also said that the mess in Waco didn’t do the brand any favors in how the newbies perceive the glories of getting on a Big Twin—Mr. Levatich called the episode “the worst vision possible” of their parents.
Then there’s the additional sticking point of whether Millennials can even afford Milwaukee iron.
Which they can’t. They’re saving their money to pay off student loans, and muster a first- and last-month deposit to get into their own place.
So there’s no big home equity payoff in the offing, which, we know now, fueled the mid-life Harley-buying binge of my peers. The housing bubble corresponded directly with the Harley bubble, and the wealth of the contractors building the McMansions fueled the high-buck success, while it lasted, of the likes of Big Dog, American IronHorse, Big Bear, Bourget and the dozens—literally—of other custom off-brands.
It’s a bitch. H-D can’t make it on Street 750s. Bringing back a Sprint 350 won’t make a dent in their predicament. The overhead’s way too high, and they know it, but they have to persevere nonetheless. And that brings us back to the boomer generation. Milwaukee has a new appreciation for our ability to age gracefully and in good health, and still living out our moto-dreams of our long ago youth.
You dance with the date that brung ya, and Milwaukee needs to keep dancing. That’s the message that’s getting through even as they’re obliged to move forward on two very different fronts, engaging the new while retaining the old, and recently reallocating a good bit of their budget to the task. It’s a tough balancing act, no doubt, and there’s no road map through the thicket. The biggest danger, though, might be overthinking the whole deal. You deal with the day and let tomorrow take care of itself. So far, that philosophy has paid off for Milwaukee for generations. Don’t overthink it, guys. Let the Bar & Shield work its magic. It always has.
It’s all right here in the diaries…