I remember seeing panels titled "The Greying of Fandom" back when I first got into fandom. It seemed like practically all my friends were into fandom. Many of my co-workers were also fannish. As the years have gone by, the folks I befriended when I started attending cons have remained friends and have grown older with me. Some of them have died; others have GAFIAted. It seems like cons were bigger years ago; that's because they were. A typical Westercon used to attract anywhere from 1800 to 2300 people. Nowadays we're lucky if we go above 700 (this year's did). Worldcon attendance is also down.
What isn't clear, however, is whether we're attracting fewer younger folks, fewer folks in general, folks are losing interest, or we're alienating potential repeat members. I've seen evidence of all of these. The question is why are SF con membership counts dwindling? I'm going to throw out some hypotheses for debate based on my observations.
- We're attracting fewer younger folks.
Part of this is due to changes in tastes amongst the younger generation. I look at my niece as the kind of typical fannish-oriented young adult we want to attract. She already attends media cons and anime cons. She likes to read, she likes to cosplay, she likes the Elizabethan era (she's working Pennsylvania Rennfaire this summer), she likes video games, and she likes SF TV shows and movies. What I don't know is what would get her to check out a general SF con. As far as I can tell, her local friends don't hit general SF cons, either. When she's done with Rennfaire, I intend to ask her what she and her friends look for in a con just as a random sampling.
- We're attracting fewer folks in general.
There are multiple reasons for this:
- The economy sucks. Many folks are either unemployed or underemployed. When it's a choice between paying rent or going to a con, rent generally wins.
- School starts earlier. This is more true for Worldcon than other cons, but most fen value education more than con attendance. There are a few who can balance the two, but when going to a con means missing school, parents are less likely to come if they can't take their kids. If one parents goes, the other has to stay home.
- Cons cost more than they used to. Facilities cost more. Hotels cost more. So does college tuition.
Perhaps what we need is a Student/hardship membership rate that's half the regular rate. To be eligible, someone would have to present a valid student ID or some proof of lack of income at the time of purchase. So what if it's a student ID that's going to have expired by the time the con rolls around? Students have bigger college loans, too. If they can start attending when they're part of the working world, they're more likely to be hooked. Yes, there will probably be forgeries. So be it. The same folks that might forge a student ID are the ones who would forge a con ID badge, so at least we'd be getting some money from them.
- Folks are getting ill and dying. Death happens. It sucks. I can think of many folks I used to see at cons in my age bracket who are either dead or not up to attending. There's not much we can do about this beyond encouraging our fellow fen to be more active and eat healthier. Even with a "perfect" lifestyle, some folks get sick and die. My father was the only one in our family who was always "normal" weight and who exercised regularly. When he was my age, he was dying from colon cancer.
- Folks are losing interest.
To some extent, this is a normal part of human growth. Sometimes what interests us at one age no longer interests us at another age. I have friends who have mastered musical instruments and then put them down, never to touch them again. There are more than one areas of fandom, so it's not like you have to keep doing the same thing over and over. On the other hand, sometimes folks feel like outsiders because they haven't kept up with reading SF or watching SF TV or movies. We need to make sure that these folks know that they're still welcome. These are the ones we want to not lose. At the same time, we don't want to seem "evangelistic" when it comes to selling a con to someone, because that can be just as off-putting. Some folks don't go to some cons because the fannish activities they enjoy aren't encouraged. Someone who likes to filk isn't going to want to go to a con that doesn't have a place for filking, just as someone who likes to game won't want to go to a con that doesn't have gaming. If someone is looking for regency dancing and doesn't find it because it's not there, they might not bother coming back.
- We're alienating potential repeat members. We need to find ways to make new members feel like "one of the gang from the moment we see them, especially young adults. This year at the BayCon hiss-and-purr session we heard someone complaining about "young punks crashing our party." As the discussion went on, it turned out the "young punks" were legitimate, paying BayCon members, well-behaved, and just dressed in a way that somehow offended the person complaining. hazelchaz was sitting next to me and rephrased it to me. "He's complaining that some young, well-mannered, legitimate BayCon attendees dressed like punks were attending his party. If most of the folks are that way, no wonder young fen don't feel welcome!" He was right.