It's amazing to me how a handful of "prophets of doom" can keep the pernicious "The Hobby is Dying" forum threads going, week after tedious week. Mostly I ignore them. Instead, I focus on my own modeling, which benefits from the greatest availability of products in the hobby ever, or on my clients' designs, which are often quite substantial undertakings that will demand the purchase of a boat-load of track components, rolling stock, electronics, etc., etc.
How can there be such different opinions of the state of the hobby? Some of it is certainly grumpy old men, reluctant to acknowledge the changing face of the hobby. Some of it may be naively optimistic current practitioners. It could be said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don't over-simplify. But at the risk of overly broad generalizations, there seem to be two major forces in this debate: let's call them the Innies and the Outties.
Many of the Innies (and they seem to be a smaller group) share some of the same characteristics. They often pride themselves on being historians of the hobby, keepers of the eternal Ellison/Allen/Westcott flame. They know the model number and manufacturing history of all the Varney, Tyco and Athearn engines, which runs of Zamac bodies corroded, etc. Because of their long standing in the hobby, they've spent much of their time focused on getting stuff to work, finding parts, and scratchbuilding. It was the only way back then. They may have only a small layout, because it was difficult to find the time to build all the pieces needed for a larger layout before ready-to-run. They may have spent a lot of time crafting the perfect freelanced railroad name. In many ways, they've spent much of their time on solitary endeavors. In fact, the very characteristics of the hobby in the past may have generally attracted detail-oriented, independent, self-contained personalities. These folks are seeing the hobby from the "inside" -- and they are sure it is fading fast.
Then there are the Outties. Many of them came to the hobby, or returned to it, much later in its history. Due to the boom in ready-to-run (enabled by manufacturers using CAD for model making, et al), the basics of a layout are much more easily available than in the past. Many of these folks are focused on building complete layouts to share with others through articles, layout tours, and operating sessions. They are also focused outwardly on real railroads, because there is so much more information available than in the past. They may actively participate in on-line forums and go to train shows (much bigger now than in the past), and actively use the Internet to shop more globally than at the local hobby shop. Some current characteristics of the hobby serve to attract those with more gregarious, people-oriented personalities. These Outties seem to think the hobby is in pretty good shape.
Perhaps these divergent views are largely a matter of personality and perspective. The scratchbuild-everything-run-only-steam-take-only-film-photos segment of the hobby is in decline. Perhaps because the scratchbuilding skills aren't necessary any longer to attain an operating layout. The segment of the hobby that's primarily interested in detailed modeling may well have become smaller -- but it's not gone. Witness Max Magliaro's amazing N scale kitbash in the November 2007 - January 2008 issues of Railroad Model Craftsman -- or any Railroad Prototype Modelers meet around the country.
On the other hand, because it's much easier to build a layout that runs well today than in the '50s, more people are entering the hobby with the primary goal of building full layouts. Many of the layouts being built today, large or small, are far more complete than many of those of the '50s or '60s. And guess what? Their owners spent a lot more on those completed layouts, by any measure, than did the majority of modelers in 1956 … or 1966 … or anytime in the past. And although I hate to be a grubby materialistic weasel, from a commercial standpoint, spending keeps a hobby alive, not craftsmanship.
On this point, a "World's Greatest Hobby" webpage estimated the US model railroading hobby population at 500,000 and their annual spending at $500 million. This suggests that, on average, we spend a thousand bucks per year on the hobby. So it may well be that there are fewer model railroaders than in some "golden era" in the past. But we may each be spending more, even adjusted for inflation. From a marketing theory standpoint, even if there are fewer buyers, if each invests more, the market can maintain itself or grow nicely. In any case, the constantly expanding roster of available models suggests a market in expansion, not decline. Or at least, that's the end result for each of us as individuals working to build a layout.
So who's right, the Innies or the Outties? The answer won't be known for decades -- and most of us won't care a bit by then! Personally, I think the best approach is to fully engage in and enjoy the abundance the hobby currently offers us. More models, more roadnames, more information, more capability than ever. Much of it made possible by the pioneers, to be sure, but we can't be so averse to change that we reject and disparage the opportunities of today. In any case, it seems to me that the endless hand-wringing and despair over the hobby doesn't serve to attract any newcomers. And it should be in everyone's interest, grousing Innie or glowing Outtie, to bring new folks to the hobby.
John Godfrey Saxe's poem from the 1800s, "The Blind Men and the Elephant" is a familiar story to most of us. In it, six blind men encounter an elephant, but since each finds a different piece of the beast and cannot see the overall animal, each has a different -- and incorrect -- view of what an elephant must be. Perhaps it’s the same when it comes to the state of the model railroading hobby. In fact, J. G. Saxe's closing stanzas may say it best:
And so these men of Hindostan,
Disputed loud and long,
Each with his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And each was partly wrong
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!