You can hardly heave an egg on a coin bourse these days without splattering some doom-and-gloomer dolefully declaiming that the hobby and business of numismatics has started to “circle the drain.” Baby boomers, long the backbone of the trade, are slouching off toward nursing homes, and those enigmatic Generation Xers and Millennials are not replacing the departing seventy-somethings. These young people are obsessed with their glowing screens, and care not for glittering coins. The pessimistic pundit tells us that philatelists are the canaries in the numismatic coal mine: observe stamp collectors cashing out at a loss, the shrinking membership of the APA, and youth who cannot be bothered to lick a stamp, much less collect one, and you’ll see the lamentable future of numismatics. Whether philately is truly gasping its last is debatable, but there is no doubt in my mind that numismatics, in author E. J. Dionne’s wonderful phrase, “only looks dead.” Other hobbies may falter, or even fail, but numismatics will be vital far into the future, and it will be the Gen Xers and Millennials who will make it so.
Isn’t this “irrational exuberance” on my part when hobbies everywhere are suffering? Actually, not all pastimes are. Just a few years ago, observers predicted that e-books would wipe out physical volumes and brick-and-mortar sellers alike. But on the way to the book collector’s boneyard, the corpse unexpectedly revived. E-book sales peaked in 2013, and have been stagnant ever since. Sales of actual books have risen two years in a row, and the number of independent bookstores rose 21% from 2010 to 2015. Our society’s intense and ongoing affair with the virtual has spawned an opposite reaction of craving for authentic physical experiences, as the popularity of organic food, craft brewing, and traditional handicrafts attests. Coins are joining books as part of this “return to reality.”
The pessimists will grumble that it hardly matters if some people return to reality, since tomorrow has already been lost: Gen Xers and Millennials will never become coin collectors. This is the biggest misjudgment since 1954, when Grand Ole Opry manager Jim Denny advised Elvis Presley, “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.” There are compelling reasons, both in the physical and virtual worlds, why young people will embrace coin collecting in the future.
Leading off the list of physical reasons is the extraordinary ongoing commitment among coin collectors, dealers, and hobby leaders to Young Numismatist (YN) programs. The ANA, PNG, state and local clubs, and even some specialty clubs, have supported YN programs since Methuselah was a pup, and many of today’s market makers, hobby leaders, and advanced collectors are YN program alums. Few avocations have done as much, for as long, to recruit, develop, and retain youthful participants. The impact of YN programs, however, has been consistently underestimated because of the “U-shaped curve.” YN programs are highly successful in recruiting young collectors (the left side of the U). Then comes adolescence, higher education and family formation (the bottom of the U). During these years, most YNs fall away from the hobby. Then, sure as the swallows return to Capistrano, young adult YN alums return to coin collecting (the right side of the U). Given time, these YN investments yield a spectacular return of still-youthful hobbyists.
The second physical reason is a powerful way to recruit young people currently outside of the numismatic world. The History in Your Hands Foundation (HIYHF) was founded in 2016 by Shanna Berk Schmidt in Chicago. It brings lecturers armed with coins into K-12 school classrooms to enliven lessons in history, economics and social studies. For students, holding actual coins in their hands makes learning authentic in ways that reading alone cannot, and sparks interest in coins extending beyond their studies. HIYHF plans to expand its efforts to open minds and kindle numismatic interest in coming years.
The last physical reason unites the previous two. Numismatics is blessed with a library’s worth of information on prices, die varieties, regular issues, patterns, tokens and medals, paper money, errors and dozens of other topics, invaluable to investor and collector alike. Besides such data, there are also the stories that bring the history and romance of the coins to life. No other hobby offers such extensive recruiting literature, or such detailed reference literature. There is literally a book for every collector, no matter what age or interest.
Even more important than the physical reasons are the virtual ones. To Gen Xers, and Millennials, technology is like water to fish: the stuff they have been immersed in all their lives. It allows them to connect seamlessly-often invisibly-with numismatics. Doomsayers complain that they never see young people on the bourse floor or in the auction room. But for every Gen Xer or Millennial you don’t see knocking down a lot or prowling aisle “A,” there are thousands bidding via Internet, buying coins from dealers online, or discussing coins on social media. “On the Internet,” it has been said, “no one knows you are a dog.” No one knows you are young, either. Add in those young people who are active mainly through Amazon, e-Bay, and other sites not primarily numismatic, and you have a great unseen army of youthful collectors.
The second virtual reason is that it’s all about the information. If you hoard it, Gen Xers and Millennials are repelled. If you share it freely, they will join you. A specialty club that grasps this fundamental truth is the Liberty Seated Collectors Club, which has posted vast archives of useful information on their website, gratis to all users. Not coincidentally, LSCC has a higher percentage of younger members than most specialty clubs. Information, as the early Internet age wisdom held, may “want to be free,” but one thing is certain: young people really want it to be free.
The last of the virtual reasons is also the most powerful: the Newman Numismatic Portal (NNP). As much as Gen Xers and Millennials like free web content from specialty clubs, they absolutely love NNP’s one-stop information shop. The free access to virtually every numismatic book, auction catalog, magazine, and price list ever printed makes it possible to become expert on numismatic topics quickly and easily. Google has taught young people that information should not only be free, but also fast, and they will flock to a hobby where this holds true.
So, when it comes to youth in numismatics, we only look dead. In reality, coin collecting is lively, and destined to enjoy a vibrant future. I’ll close by mentioning two YNs I recently met, both in their early teens, named Kellen and Garrett. They are already advanced collectors in their areas of interest, giving presentations at major coin shows, serving as officers of local coin clubs, and writing articles for major numismatic publications. To be sure, they are exceptionally precocious, but they are already among us, and are the vanguard of many more to follow. The lamp of numismatics will shortly be in their youthful-and very capable-hands.
BY JOEL J. OROSZ, GUEST CONTRIBUTOR