So a lot of conversation is going on at the moment, post-Worldcon, about just how weird the demographics were, and that leads to “I’m tired of all this ageism” and while I am arguably not the most interesting or insightful on that matter, nor do I have a lot of experience with Worldcons, but hey, it’s the Internet, and when did that ever stop anybody?
I will say right now that it was by-and-large an older white con. Tina came along as part of my entourage (She said she’d never been on an entourage before!) and at one point she turned to me and said “Wow. I feel like the youngest person in the room.”
Tina’s in her fifties. I’m thirty-six.
In fact, the topic came up practically every time we talked to somebody–“Wow. Anybody seen a teenager?” Teiran claimed to have, and said they were the only ones who bought anything. The furry contingent sat around the bar shaking our heads. At Anthrocon—and indeed, by standard demographic spread—we are solidly middle-aged. At this con, we felt terrifyingly young. Of all the cons I do (and I have done many, over the years) this was far and away the oldest skew of any of them.
As for the panels—well, going through the program book, we had one on the fifties, one on the sixties, and either eleven or twelve—I lost count, I admit—on Robert E. Howard. I’ll just leave that statement standing there for a bit.
Now, before anybody gets their bowels in an uproar about ageism or about how we’re blaming fandom’s intransigence on old people, let me hastily say that this is a symptom, not necessarily the cause.
We will come back to SF in a minute, in fact. For now, let’s go on to my two other main fandoms, gardening and birdwatching.
Both of these hobbies skew older in a big way. Average ages tend to the fifties, and in practice, when I go to a birding hot spot, I can generally expect that I will be either the youngest person there, the second youngest, or that somebody’s got really well trained children. Birders are usually OLD. The only difference between a bunch of avid birders and a bunch of Worlcon attendees is that one group is wearing binoculars and tends to be in marginally better physical shape. (Again, this is not a reflection on the nature of fandom. If panels occurred on the tops of mountains or the middles of swamps, we might see a similar trend.)
The primary difference, I’d say, is that there are marginally more female birdwatchers, according to the survey I looked up for the purposes of making my point. Otherwise they also tend to be overwhelmingly white*, tend to a somewhat higher than average income, and incidentally are overwhelmingly married.
In gardening, I couldn’t find a good analysis of the racial demographics, but as garden bloggers go, I am on the young end of the spectrum. There are more women. The bloggers tend to be white—this may or may not reflect the demographics of gardening so much as blogging. Certainly the impression of gardeners tends to be of little old ladies with sun hats and dirty gloves.
I have been told, by the small subset of gardeners who read my gardening columns that aren’t already fans, that they admire my “punk-rock” style of gardening. (I have no idea what this means, but I assume it’s a sort of “you’re a weirdo who swears a lot and your bio pic has dyed hair, but your heart is in the right place” thing.) Definitely there is an impression that I am young, and a little out there, but that’s okay.
Now, somebody’s going to yell that birding is nothing like SF fandom, to which I say “Uh-huh. I travel around the country, running into some of the same people each time, doing an obscure thing most people think is really weird and geeky, which involves specialized knowledge and equipment and has its own lingo, dedicated almost entirely to the art of collecting one weird thing. (Bird sightings.) Then we all get together and compare our collections, engage in friendly one-upsmanship about Who Has Seen The Weirdest Thing. Then we tell stories about funny things that happened relative to acquiring said sightings. There are high end fans. There are obscure rules. New sourcebooks come out regularly. We judge each other for unethical behavior. There are clubs and organizations. We feel strongly about it.”
You tell me that’s not like fandom. Go on, do it. Tell me how different it is to stand in line to be at the midnight showing of Star Wars vs. getting up at 3 AM to be at the dawn chorus for the Colima Warbler. Tell me how your specialized knowledge of Lord of the Rings is wildly different than my specialized knowledge of the Ringed Kingfisher. Tell me that my comfort reading of The Essential Earthman and yours of Earthman’s Burden are different. Do it.
Then please hold while I laugh at you. It will take a few minutes for me to finish, so you might want to make a cup of tea.
Gardening? Sure. We have flame wars, did you know that? Oh, we do. Talk to terribly nice people about butterfly bush being invasive and some of them will try to take your head off with a trowel. People have screamed at me for saying that mimosa trees are an invasive thug. There are wars fought over hybrid tea roses. I put my nose up snobbishly at the Stella d’Oro daylily, the Mourning Dove, and people who think Heinlein was the Greatest Author Who Ever Lived, in more or less equal measure.
In fact, my dear doubting reader, as far as age goes, my other two fandoms outrank SF fandom. Audubon’s first volume of Birds of America came out the year before Jules Verne was born. There were fortunes made and lost on collectibles in gardening long before any SF writer was a twinkle in his great-grandfather’s eyes.** SF fandom led to all sorts of scientific advances? How about Mendel and his pea plants and, y’know, genetics? How about the advances (some of them dangerous and disturbing) that arose from learning to extract nitrogen to make fertilizer to bring in a potentially dystopian world of too many people who, nevertheless, we still more or less manage to feed?
These are fandoms. These are people who act like fans, which is to say that they act like people, because much as we’d all like to pretend we’re special and different, we all do pretty much the same things, which is get together with our friends and find things to be excited about and bitch about stuff we think is stupid and go to daggers drawn over relatively insignificant details that an outsider would find really, really ridiculous. The difference between me in a used book store and me in a garden shop and me in the hill country with binoculars is mostly a matter of sunburn and what will eventually need to be watered.
Having said that.
The problem of Worldcon, sez I, and of a subset of SF fandom in general is not that it is full of old people. All my fandoms are full of old people. So far, it hasn’t been a problem. They’ve generally been glad to see me, and I’ve been glad to see them. The guy with the scope who got me my Elegant Tern was probably a contemporary of Jules Verne, and the guy who patiently got me onto a Cerulean Warbler in High Island was weathered like a megalith. And I would put any curmudgeon in SF, no matter how legendary, up against the late Henry Mitchell, who would have turned them into mulch and planted daffodils amongst their bones.
No, the problem is that it is insular and intransigent and run by rules (Robert’s Rules of Order, ahem***) that favor the status quo over change. It is that it has problems, and one of the manifestations of that problem is that young people aren’t showing up.
I am not saying that Worldcon would be infinitely better if it was run by the young whippersnappers. I am saying get your shit together, because whatever’s going on is making sure there are no young whippersnappers. However old birders and gardeners might be as a clump, people are still showing up who aren’t eligible for AARP—and we are welcomed. Gracefully, not grudgingly. (And in fact, among gardeners at least, people under 35 finally caught up with other age groups pretty recently. Whatever they are doing, it is bringing in new blood.)
And also that maybe eleven (or twelve) panels on Robert E. Howard is…well, bizarre, anyway. You go to a garden show, there will likely not be eleven (or twelve) hours dedicated to a single cultivar from 1936. I’m sure Howard’s awesome and all, but does he merit eleven (or twelve) times the number of YA panels, total?
A gaming section so small you could hide it in a matchbox is probably part of the problem. And the fact that we keep getting called “lady authors” is a problem. (We do not call female birders “lady birders” or female gardeners “lady gardeners.” That would be stupid. Other fandoms know this.) Maybe contempt toward all these “media awards” at the Hugos is part of the problem. (Birders, for one, embraced technology hard and fast. We spent the entire trip through hill country on our Sibley apps, checking eBird, which pinpoints the GPS coordinates where a bird has been sighted. You invent a better, lighter pair of waterproof binoculars and birders will fling money so fast it’ll look like a blizzard.)
Maybe an anemic dealer’s room with All The Same Stuff, And Too Much Of It is part of the problem. Gardeners like new stuff. They like old stuff, too—I bow to no one in my love of many heirloom plant breeds, and I plant them for a sense of history and continuity, and don’t get some people started on how much better the old narcissus bulbs were—but you only have to flip through a catalog for “NEW NEW NEW NEW NEW and also NEW!” Birders like new stuff—or dread it, occasionally, as the word comes down that science has now split the Winter Wren into two different species, the Pacific and Winter, and now we have to go find one or the other—but if there are birders going “Damnit, Winter Wrens were good enough for me as a boy, and they ought to be good enough for anybody! I won’t acknowledge the Pacific Wren! That’s stupid!” I have somehow missed it.
Three largely gray fandoms.
In two, I’ve always felt intensely welcome. Total strangers have showered me with cuttings, patiently walked me through fieldmarks on birds that were (to them) extremely common, and cheered with me when I saw a new bird for the first time. Birders will routinely let total strangers sit in their garden to get a rare bird that has showed up at their feeder. Gardeners will spend hours hunting through guides to figure out what kinds of weird flower you’re looking at.
In the third, this past weekend, I sometimes felt like an archaeologist looking at the ruins of a dying civilization. And I love SF fandom. And I want better for it than that. Birding and gardening, as Kevin points out, do not require a secret handshake.
We have got to do better than this.
*The only minority group with equal participation was Native Americans, interestingly enough.
**If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re clearly too young and obviously don’t know the SMOG handshake. Pffeh. Go ahead, ask. I will shame you for your ignorance, then perhaps condescend to tell you. Maybe. If you’re lucky.****
***”Never get involved with people who fetishize Robert’s Rules of Order,” says my friend Dave, who has been in fandom long enough to know people that were old when I was born.
****Yes, I am joking, and yes, it’s the Dutch Tulip thing.
22 thoughts on “Three Gray Fandoms”
Ahh, the “lady x” problem. I get it at work, here and there- a lady rabbi! How unusual! How did you decide to do that?
As for fandom, I’ve never done cons (when I had time and could pretend I had money, I did folkdance camp instead, which also is an older demographic, mostly, who mostly doted on us teens-twenties-thirties types. Note, I was mostly in the first two of those categories, and really, the first one, when I was most involved). But you’d think that sci-fi fans would dote on technology, not that I do. (Age 29).
World Con’s also competing with Dragon Con in Atlanta that weekend, which tends to feel more welcoming and specialize in all those things that WorldCon ignores (technology! gaming! webcomics!). That’s going to make it pretty hard to woo the younger generation of fandom back, even if they try to adjust the way they do things.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any group skewing older than the general populace. Cadillac managed for years with an average owner age of 70+. Harley Davidson makes it money off the 40+ crowd. Care homes don’t care about the under-50s much.
The problem is if the older members of your group are leaving (well, dying) faster than you are gaining new members at the young end of your demographic. Is this happening with WorldCon?
(Aside: one thinks stereotypical Science Fiction fan, and one thinks teenagers. Certainly young people. If they aren’t going to WorldCon, one has to wonder why…(
Ursula: Quoted for truth: “…whatever’s going on is making sure there are no young whippersnappers.” Yes. Been saying so since I was in my mid-40s, and dammit, I’m 60 now. With a few notable exceptions, the once-welcoming SF convention fandom has become an old guard that has largely succeeded in maintaining the purity of SFs precious bodily fluids. The long-term result, tho, is not purity but stagnation.
Frankly, it’s too late for ‘mainstream’ SF fandom to recover. Younger generations have flocked to where theirs loves get respect and where their contributions are rewarded. The next generation of concoms look well outside Worldcon and the like because they are given responsibility and rewards rather than the cold shoulder.
Tom asks: “The problem is if the older members of your group are leaving (well, dying) faster than you are gaining new members at the young end of your demographic. Is this happening with WorldCon?” Yes. When I got involved with SF conrunning, I was about average age for most concom staff, a bit younger than most Worldcon staff. Thirty-five years later, that’s still largely true. Oh yes, there’s been *some* shift. But not nearly enough.
@Steve Simmons: I’m currently working with a con here in Arizona that is realizing that this problem exists, but part of the problem is that the folks running it don’t know *how* to fix this problem easily.And admittedly, it’s a bit unnerving when you walk into the con meeting and are one of the youngest ones there. (I am in my mid 30’s)
I dunno. I (29y.o.) have never noticed SF fandom skewing particularly gray, but then I go to more local cons. I say that because your experience there is from a Worldcon, which is one EXPENSIVE damn membership even before travel and hotels. Expensive hobbies are gray hobbies because whippersnappers have less spare cash. I sure don’t expect to go to one of those monsters anytime soon.
I just ran into a quote from an older SF author who says that the quality of cons is inversely proportionate to the number of people wearing costumes. Personally, I’ve found the opposite to be true – and I think the root cause is exactly the same lack of younger people.
(The SF author might feel this way because decades ago, the main costumers were Trek fans – and while I know more Trek fans with uniforms than I can count, exactly one of them reads SF in addition to consuming SF TV and movies.)
I didn’t go to Worldcon this year, but I did go last year – and the only younger people I met were hanging out in the gaming room. (They told me they were cosplayers, too, though they weren’t in costume.)
I will now push the URL of this blog entry at approximately everyone I know who has anything to do with running any convention.
It’s true that local conventions tend to have a much better demographic, both in terms of age and in terms of avoiding the *isms. But that can’t be left to chance – it needs to be thought about carefully and planned for. I work with Arisia, a fairly large regional con that has done a great deal to attract younger fans, fans of color, female fans. Every year it’s a lot of work and we still see more we can do.
Certainly there are things LSC3 could have done differently or better to be more attractive to younger fans. (And is anyone really given younger fen the cold shoulder just because of age difference? Sheesh!)
Thinking back, a much-younger me would have *loved* to attend that con. However, that me could in no way have afforded to do so. The cost of the membership alone would have been beyond my means at least into my early 20s, to say nothing of hotel and transportation costs.
An example of a mostly-genre-lit focused con that does a lot right and pulls a younger crowd is Texas’ own AggieCon. (Granted, they do manage to screw up simple stuff on a regular basis, mostly through a total lack of institutional memory. They mean well, and that counts for a lot…)
Lady authors, really? Never wd have said that in 1970! What happened?
In the case of Worldcon, I think there are three overwhelmingly important things going on. First of all, Worldcon is scheduled against DragonCon, and DragonCon not only is very strongly oriented toward the younger crowd but it’s also oriented toward a very strongly media-interested crowd.
Secondly, Worldcon is oriented toward readers. Compare the guest list at Worldcon versus that at DragonCon. One has writers, one has dancers. To say fewer young people are interested in Worldcon is to say that fewer young people are interested in written SF, and that’s true and that’s bad.
On top of this, Worldcon is very expensive and has priced itself out of the reach of many younger fans.
I don’t think any of these things are inherently problems. Worldcon remains what it has been, a place for editors and authors to talk with fans and with one another and a place to get business done.
If you want to decry the lack of younger people at Worldcon, I think what you first need to worry about is the ratio of younger readers to younger media viewers. Get more young people reading SF, and you will get more young people interested in attending a literary convention like Worldcon.
Aargh… change that “dancers” to “actors” in the last message. I have dance on the brain today.
I haven’t been to many cons, but even the few I’ve attended, I have noticed a certain level of this – and this is from cons local to my area (Mississippi). It seems to me there are really two sorts of “old people” involved with these cons.
The ones that fetishize the rules: these are the ones who seem to regard younger fans as upstarts, disrespectful brats, who do they think they are telling us what SF should be like…
The other sort seem much more like friendly grandparents, who are happy to see someone they don’t know, happy to share their fandom with younger folks, glad to be patient and educate the younger, and manage to not smother them in opinions framed as commandments.
And that’s just at a couple of tiny conventions run by gamers, aimed at gaming more than straight SF.
As for WorldCon itself, I have to admit I would kind of like to go next year…but that’s because one of my favorite authors is likely to BE there this time, since it’s being held in the city she lives in 😛
Just read this in a different article: “…Let me put it another way. The demographic shifts faced by WorldCon’s largest customer segment are the same ones faced by the Republican Party. Let that sink in for a minute.”
I will preface this by saying that i’ve never attended worldcon, so my sense of the con is based entirely on word of mouth from trusted friends and on a look through their program schedule from this year.
Based on that…i read SF and fantasy. I read quite a lot of it, in fact. So if there’s a reason beyond price why i’m not interested in attending a worldcon, it’s not that i don’t read, and it’s not that i don’t appreciate SF.
What i observed, looking over the program, was a lot of stuff on politics and literature that seemed *heavily* geared towards writers. No problem with it being there, but i don’t write stuff i let others read. I also observed a lot of panels for readings from authors i wasn’t familiar with (i find new authors by digging around the library’s SF/fantasy section, and my purely personal preference runs towards folks like charles delint, juliet mariller, patricia mckillip, jim butcher…), who are unlikely to draw me in unless i have a friend right there who says, “Oh, so-and-so! Sie’s awesome! Let’s go!” And i saw a lot of panels on famous writers whose work is so old it predates the civil rights movement, and me, i like stuff that’s very socially progressive. And then i saw some panels clearly aimed at people’s kids or grandkids that had no particular relevance to the con at all. There’s also the big awards ceremony…but i hate big formal do’s and i don’t like crowds.
So on the whole, the only remaining draw worldcon might have is if a flock of my friends are there and i’m going just to see them–and i think i’ve got better opportunities to see the friends i have who attend. Opportunities like, say, working security at other cons.
So with the deepest of respect, i’d love it if people didn’t try to tell me that worldcon is suffering because we young’uns (for the record, my age is close to ursula’s) don’t read enough or haven’t noticed that SF books can be cool, too. I read plenty. I just read different stuff and celebrate it in different ways.
I have no doubt you’ve put your finger right on a bunch of influencing factors. I couldn’t stop thinking about two other science fiction conventions: Philcon, which has borne a lot of doom and gloom predictions for several years now, and Arisia, which is much smaller but has a wonderful generational mix. (And is still in its ‘expands to fill the space it gets’ phase.) Arisia unquestionably has a youth advantage, being held in Boston over MLK weekend, when lots of college students are newly back in town, with little homework to do yet and lots of Christmas cash. Nevertheless, to all appearances Arisia has also worked really hard, in a lot of really effective ways, to encourage their young base. For new parents and their children, there’s Fast Track, which is a whole programming track (*good* programming– my friends and I have enviously looked in on panels like “Learn to Sword Fight” and “Build a Pirate Ship”) that lasts the entire four-day weekend. For even younger children, there’s childcare. There’s a room party culture that is strongly supported by the convention’s room-booking policy– for the same or similar rate to a room, the convention will upgrade a party organizer to a suite. There’s a con suite that serves up massive amounts of free food– not just junk food but also fresh fruit, bagels, meatballs, and other staples. And while the specific programming varies by year, there’s always at least two late-night dances. And that’s not even getting into the actual programming.
A lot of cons do some of these things, but I feel like at some point someone within Arisia took a long look at the kind of things young (teens through thirties) congoers want and need, and made a really concerted effort to address a lot of those needs. Where older congoers probably won’t balk at a lack of childcare, it’s the only reason several of my friends can go. Where more well-off congoers can afford to dine out at surrounding restaurants, my friends and I eat two or three con suite meals over the course of the weekend (and some pretty much live off it). And while we attend lots of panels, we also really look forward to the casual late-night socializing and the carnival atmosphere of the room parties.
(My apologies, gang, for not stopping in here often enough—the Livejournal version of this has run to 500+ comments and I am scrambling to keep on top of it!)
@vitupera : Arisia has 3,500 members; Philcon has about 600 currently.
Still, Arisia is smaller than Icon in Long Island, which has a strong media contingent, and (last I knew) has about 6,000 members. Then there’s Anime Boston (22,000) and PAX East (60,000).
@cogitationitis Still, Arisia is smaller than Icon in Long Island, which has a strong media contingent, and (last I knew) has about 6,000 members. Then there’s Anime Boston (22,000) and PAX East (60,000).
So? Different cons grow at different rates, and for different reasons. Part of the reason for Arisia’s, in your eyes, modest size is the organizers believe in controlled growth over time. This is probably due in some way to seeing what happened when others cons grew too big too fast and not wanting to repeat the same mistake. To Ursula’s main point, what is the age range of Icon? The age ranges for Anime Boston and PAX East vary widely. Anime Boston skews very young. There are a few of the 30+ set but most are mid20s are younger. PAXEast ages seem to run the whole gamut but seems to skew 16 – 25 mainly. If most of those 6,000 are over 50 that’s going to be a problem in 20-30 years if there isn’t’ any new blood coming in.
Pingback: Hugos and Worldcon Redux | Cora Buhlert
I’m not sure the rules fetishization is that big a constraint on change. I’ve been involved in the British Eastercons for years, which like the Worldcon are general SF cons with a literary SF focus, but, as we’re British, we don’t have a written constitution for them. In fact we have very few real rules for them, bar a few around how bidding and the business meeting is arranged. Instead everything is down to custom and tradition, and I think those are far more of a dead hand holding back change than the WSFS rules. Changing things from what is “always done” is really hard, and often relies on a willingness to put up with an awful lot of criticism being thrown at you (I had a shorter 4-letter word starting with cr- in mind there). I think the same applies to Worldcons. The rules may affect some of the bidding & pricing processes, and they are more stringent when it comes to the Hugos, but this doesn’t really alter what kind of con is run. The programme, the guests, the promotion, what kind of outreach is done beyond the existing membership is all down to each Worldcon. I think that trying to meet the expectations of those who always go to Worldcons, and putting that so far ahead of being welcoming to new people and new ideas is much more of a issue.
Cost is an issue too, but hard to fix, Worldcons could only get significantly cheaper by becoming much smaller, or much, much larger. As it is, there isn’t that much difference with the price of a Worldcon and Dragon Con. The next US-based Worldcon (Sasquan, in Spokane in 2015) membership is currently $140 for a 5-day con, Dragon Con 2014 is $130 for a 4-day con, though D*C is significantly cheaper for one-day memberships. The Anaheim Worldcon of a few years back had an inexpensive taster membership that seemed to work quite well and it’s a shame it hasn’t been taken up.
You know, thinking about the three greying fandoms, I’ve run into some of the attitude in gardening, too. Of course, this is in the big biannual Home & Garden Shows out here. The only people who can afford to be vendors there are those trying to scrape up business for big landscaping or home repair projects, and anyone simply trying to sell plants or seeds is completely screwed because of the booth fees. With a lack of unique programming, the only people who show up are the ones who’ve been going since forever. (My local shows are sponsored by the “Dallas Morning News”, which means that the entrance to the show is blocked off by the alter kokkers raging at the poor schlub trying to sell subscriptions at the “Morning News” booth because they didn’t receive a paper one day in May 1983 and they demand satisfaction NOW. And I wish I were kidding about this.) Those people coming since forever are also so cheap that they use both sides of the toilet paper, so you get more squawking than in a pterosaur rookery when the admissions clerk tries to point out that the coupon they snagged from the local Tom Thumb is only good for one half-price ticket with the purchase of a full-price ticket, not half-price for the entire crowd. Here, you see a few kids, but they were dragged out there because Grandma and Grandpa thought this would be a great event, and they’re bored out of their goddamn minds. And anyone between the ages of 18 and 35? Oh, HELL no: the few who walk in once never come back, because they get tired of being shoved out of the way by geezers who are there solely to get as much free stuff as they can carry home. Those garden shows are painfully old and painfully white, and if I wanted to listen to the impotent screechings of seventysomething xenophobes, I’d go to a family reunion. (I’m 47, and I stopped going to these, the same way I stopped going to a certain local garden center that caters to the same crowd, when I regularly got people coming up to me and demanding that I carry items to their car for them. When I’d gently explain that I didn’t work there, and that I was a customer just like them, they’d screech “Well, WHY NOT?” Yeah, I really want to be associated with these brats.)
Now, that said, I’m seeing some real hope with little regional gardening shows, usually organized by various farmer’s markets. Those tend to attract the twentysomethings turned off gardening because of their memories of weeding and mowing their parents’ yards, and there’s no judgment about not knowing anything. These have vendors who aren’t trying to shove roses and irises down the attendees’ throats, and who usually have interesting things to add about container gardens or other gardening venues that don’t take a lot of time. It’s no surprise that Gayla Trail’s You Grow Girl or Amanda Thomsen’s Kiss My Aster sites are extremely popular with this crowd, because this is a crowd that’s both unafraid of the Internet and possessing of a sense of humor. Best of all, they’re very welcoming to us older gardeners who have no interest in associating with the rose-and-gesneriad control freaks any more. I quit my local gardening club five years ago because I got desperately sick and tired of being volunteered for the dirty jobs of the club while the club officers used the space to sell us all on their personal businesses. I come out to these little shows and run into others who were driven off, and they don’t want to go back, either. One thing’s for sure: we aren’t wasting our time at the big Home & Garden Shows until the control freaks cack it, and with developments in modern medicine, that may not happen for a very long time. No big deal: we’re happier over here.