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Old men of the sea: surfing as the elixir of youth

Craig Sims

They say youth is wasted on the young, and it turns out the same can be said for surfing. For decades, surfing has been associated with a young demographic, defined as those aged between 14 and 24, but one of the most surprising discoveries of my research into surfing’s participation and subculture was that surfing is truly a sport for the young at heart.

Surfing has dominated my life for more than 33 years. Being born and raised in Durban, South Africa, meant I was never far from a wave and ended up becoming South African national champion, South African professional champion, South African national team captain and competing on the World Surfing League tour (back when it was called the Association of Surfing Professionals).

Going on to forge a media career as the publisher of a surfing magazine means I have a pretty strong interest in finding out what’s going on in the heads of the audiences I aim to serve. What I discovered is that there are a lot more ‘old salts’ like me out on the waves than the grommets we perceive as a dominant force.

My research found that the 45–49-year age group were more active surfers than those in the younger cohort, which lines up with similar data from Sport Australia’s national sport and physical activity participation surveys.

These figures are at odds with the common perceptions of surfing as a youth sport connected to youth culture. The findings established that surfing is actually a ‘youthful’ sport, and forms part of a youthful subculture. This distinction between youth and youthful is important when the ‘average’ surfer no longer falls into that 14-24 age bracket. It becomes less about age and more about the feeling, the sense of identity that comes with being a surfer, and the sense of youthfulness it gives participants because they are part of the subculture.

Surf magazines have long played a central role in creating this sense of identity. Way back in 1950, German-American developmental psychologist Erick Erikson determined the need for a sense of identity was a compelling driver in the life of an adolescent. Further studies over many years have shown that media, along with brands and their peers, is influential in shaping this sense of personal and group identity. My research found this was true for participants of all ages, with magazines ranked highly for ‘Identity’ across the entire group, even Gen-Z. 

Although surf magazines are seen as maintaining and promoting the values of surfing’s subculture, some still fell victim to digital media disruption. In the past five years we’ve seen some high-profile closures, most notably the two giants of American surf culture: Surfing magazine in 2017 and Surfer in 2020. 

I wanted to find out how we could keep these cultural icons alive, and ensure they continue to thrive, by better understanding what kind of content surfers want to consume, and how. This study was enthusiastically supported by Australian surf media outlets, the surf industry, and the two peak bodies in surfing because nothing like it had been done before.

What we now know is that age doesn’t factor into the sense of identity surfing gives people, but it certainly shapes their content preferences. The Gen-Z set, those born after 2000, seem to be looking to boost their skills, opting for content on equipment and technique, compared to the older age group who want to know about surf travel.

We also now know that despite being digital natives and getting most of their content from social media, Gen Z surfers still have high trust in magazines as a form of media, value their quality photography and design, and high production values. It’s why so many people consider surfing magazines as collectible – the combination of aesthetics, tactility and indulgence creates a sense of emotional attachment.

Despite massive shifts in the media landscape which have seen many industries go fully digital, their cultural icon status will help keep surfing magazines alive. It may be true that ‘only a surfer knows the feeling’ but at least now we have some insight into what they’re thinking too.

Dr Craig Sims is a Senior Teaching Fellow at Bond University and the co-founder of surf magazine White Horses.

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