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Why Subcultures Die
I gave a talk recently to a chapter of the American Humanist Association. The audience was smaller than I expected and old; it felt to me like the remnant of a dying culture. Talking with members afterwards, they confirmed my guess that they found it hard to get young members. Many of the young were atheists, few inclined to join their organization.
That started me thinking about why organizations and the subcultures they represent age, decline, sometimes die. I know very little about the Humanists but have been an active member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that does historical recreation,1 for over fifty years. The Society is not dying yet but it does not seem to be growing.2 The membership is getting older; a common concern, as with the Humanists, is the difficulty of recruiting young people.
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In the early days the SCA was largely made up of college groups, pulling in new members with on-campus demos, fighting practices, sometimes dance practices. It no longer is. It is not just that it now has older members but that there is no longer much energy, or many new members, at the young end.
In a recent online discussion of the problem some blamed the difficulty and expense of participation, arguing that college students could no longer afford the hobby. I do not think that is the explanation, or even true. Both incomes and prices, adjusted for inflation, are about what they were fifty years ago, making participation no more expensive now than then relative to income; the problems people were discussing are real but they were real then too. And, as one commenter pointed out, college students do spend time on hobbies — just not ours.
What changed was that more and more of those already participating were people who had been doing it for decades. The clothes you made yourself still satisfied the requirement of some attempt at pre-17th century garb but almost everyone else had something better. You could still make inexpensive body armor out of carpet, hardened leather if you were more ambitious, but other fighters had mail or plate which, whether or not it protected better, looked a lot snazzier. It was no more expensive than in the past to participate but substantially more expensive to do it without looking like a poor relation.
The same is true of other sources of status. In the early days, someone with a little ingenuity and access to a good research library could be the first person in his kingdom, even in the Society, to research how something was done in the Middle Ages, teach classes or write articles to spread what he had learned to the rest of us, and be rewarded with membership in the Order of the Laurel, the Society’s highest award for artistic achievement. It is harder now that almost all the easy things have been done.3 You can still earn a knighthood, the equivalent reward for combat — by fighting at the level of people who have been doing it for decades
One solution to the problem, one way of opening opportunities for new members, is to start something new. After Shogun came out, first the book and then the movie, some people in the Society started doing Japanese persona; that meant a lot of new things to learn, do and teach. In the early years, fighting as a sport was based on medieval armored foot combat, most commonly with sword and shield. Eventually a new game was added, combat based on Renaissance fencing. That too was a way in which someone new to the Society could do something that was new for everyone else as well.
Introducing something new may solve, at least for a while, one of the problems, but there are others. A group of mixed ages feels different, for many of the younger members less comfortable, than a group where most of the members are young. Different generations watch different movies, read different books, play different games. One reason to participate in a hobby is to find a mate. That works less well when most of the people you are interacting with are ten or twenty years older than you — fewer targets and more chaperones.
A solution to all of these problems is an organization whose member don’t stay around. The Young Democrats limit membership to ages 14 to 35, the Young Republicans to ages 18 to 40. Both have lasted, the Young Democrats for 91 years, Young Republicans for ninety-two.
Over that period, however, what it means to be a Republican or Democrat has changed drastically. In the years before WWII the Democrats pushed for foreign involvement, the Republicans against. In the cold war years both parties were interventionist but the Democrats contained a substantial non-interventionist faction. Today it is the Republicans who contain a substantial faction critical of foreign involvement. The same pattern of shifting support applies to trade policy and immigration. Each party has dropped some issues, introduced others, identity politics for the Democrats, school vouchers for the Republicans. The Trump Republican party is not the party of Reagan, progressives are not liberals.
There is a reason things changed. You cannot make much of a reputation as a Republican or Democratic intellectual by recycling old arguments for things your side has been supporting for twenty years; those arguments have already been made and everyone else knows them. You cannot establish yourself as a political figure by being one more politician campaigning for things the leaders of your party were campaigning for when you were in grade school. Better to find a new issue, push it, make it yours.
Change over time in party ideology is not an accident.
In the case of the Humanists and the SCA there is one other explanation of decline. When the SCA started it was, for the sort of people attracted to it, very nearly the only game in town. Fifty years later there were multiple organizations/subcultures appealing to such people, ranging from larping groups to massively multiplayer online role playing games. When the American Humanist Association was founded and for several decades thereafter, atheists in America were seen as a small minority, viewed negatively by many. Humanism provided both a religion substitute for the non-religious and a way of interacting with their fellows.
Currently, about three-in-ten U.S. adults (29%) are religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. (Pew Research Center 2021)
There are now many more people than when the humanist movement began who do not believe in any conventional religion, many fewer who feel the need for a social context where their lack of religion will be accepted.
P.S. A commenter points me at a related discussion, Narrower, Deeper, Older by Arnold Kling
The Society’s official area of interest includes the cultures of any part of the world prior to the 17th century but, although there are a few people doing recreation of classical antiquity or of cultures far from Europe, most participants are recreating the culture of Europeans and societies that interacted with them from about 600-1600.
I don’t have figures for total membership but attendance at the Pennsic War, its biggest annual event, has been reasonable stable for the past twenty years.
“over the first 40 years of the east kingdom, the median time from AoA to peerage grew by almost exactly 100 days per year. So another year of SCA activity per 3 years of time passing” (from a Discord discussion)