THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: 10-29-06; Geezery Rider
George W. Bush was sending an economic message when he visited the Harley-Davidson motorcycle factory in York, Penn., in August. With its big foreign markets, Harley-Davidson is a rare American manufacturer that thrives on, rather than fears, free trade. But when the president donned a slightly ridiculous pair of wraparound sunglasses, mounted a Harley Softail Deluxe and revved it loudly, he was conveying something more personal. Motorcycles are a symbol of independence, youth and nonconformity -- to those who like them, that is. To those who don't, they are a symbol of aggression, immaturity and fecklessness. What made the president so sure that viewers would make the former link and not the latter?
Perhaps he realizes that the symbolism of motorcycles, as we have known it roughly since ''Easy Rider'' in 1969, is changing. Supermarket magazines have long celebrated tough old codgers like Malcolm Forbes, or even middle-aged stars like George Clooney, who persist in this strenuous and virile habit well after their wild years are supposed to have passed. Older riders are presented as eccentrics in a lifestyle that is otherwise dominated by younger rebels and solitary bad boys. But statistics paint a different picture. In the last two decades, men (and a few women) in middle age have become the motorcycle market. Few of the Harley riders from the veterans group Rolling Thunder who clog the highways every Memorial Day can be much younger than 50, and yet, as bikers go, they aren't atypically old.
Motorcycles are a symbol of youth that young people no longer particularly care for. In 1980, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, half of riders were 24 or younger, and half of those were of high-school age. Nowadays not even 4 percent of bikers are under 18. Roughly half are over 40, and more than a quarter are over 50. For some brands of bike, the median age is particularly high: the typical Harley-Davidson buyer is 47. Civic-minded motorcycle associations, which two decades ago would have sounded as oxymoronic as nonsmoking barrooms, abound. There are biker churches, biker A.A. groups and various white-collar equivalents of gangs -- lawyers' groups and the like. At the Motorcycle Color Show in Japan in April, the body-paint division of the BASF corporation unveiled 100 new soft colors to appeal to what news releases called a ''sophisticated adult culture arising from the aging baby-boomer generation.'' The theme that organizers selected for the show? ''Maturecycle.''
So who are these aging bikers, who symbolize not rebellion but sound trade policy? One view is that they're the same people who, as 20-somethings, tore up the road around 1978, and that natural selection has favored the more cautious among them. The real wild ones in their cohort have gone to prison or been incapacitated or killed in fiery wrecks, leaving a rump of bourgeois milquetoasts. Statistics on traffic fatalities make that hypothesis look questionable, however, because if there is one area in which older bikers stand out, it is recklessness. Back in 1981, when the Traffic Safety Center at the University of Southern California published its comprehensive report on the causes of motorcycle accidents, its conclusion that people in their teens and early 20's were vastly overrepresented in traffic accidents was so unsurprising as to merit little comment. But things have changed. Since bottoming out at just more than 2,000 deaths nationwide in 1997, motorcycle deaths have roughly doubled in the last decade, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and older bikers account for the bulk of them. Only about 5 percent of the 3,888 biker deaths in 2004 were teenagers. Nearly half were riders over 40.
Surely some of those killed were experienced motorcyclists hanging on a bit too long to something they used to be. But many were older novices who felt they had missed out on something and now sought to buy into it. Today plenty of products that used to be for young people have been remarketed to those who think (as the novelist Tom Robbins once put it) that ''it's never too late to have a happy childhood.'' In Britain, the Hornby model-train company reports that 75 percent of its sales are to adults, not children and teenagers. Stores for baseball-card collectors are decidedly grown-up places. Meanwhile something is driving younger riders away from motorcycles -- maybe the expense of big new 1,200-cc bikes, maybe the various picayune requirements for insurance and special licenses, mandated safety courses and inspections and helmets. It takes very few regulatory straws to break the camel's back of teenage demand.
All advertising and classic-rock lyrics to the contrary, there is nothing ''youthful'' about motorcycles, only about motorcyclists at certain times and places. The idea that products embody certain spiritual properties is probably a sociological mirage of the baby boom. If the customer is always right, the generation that has the most customers will always get its way. By catering to the collective id of the generation that has the most people (and the most disposable income), motorcycle companies have chalked up spectacular successes. Sales of motorcycles have risen every year since 1993, and there are now almost 25 million bikers in the country. Business writers often marvel at Harley-Davidson's ability to hold onto the baby-boom market as it has aged, contrasting it with the considerably weaker performance of, say, Levi-Strauss. This, of course, is a bit unfair to Levi-Strauss. To keep wearing Levi's, you have to maintain the physique you had when you were 20, which is a tricky proposition. To keep riding a Harley, all you have to hang on to is the ideas you had when you were 20. Anyone can do that.
Christopher Caldwell is a contributing writer for the magazine.