Transition. Although the disastrous 1972-78 "Improved Scouting Program" ended almost 40 years ago, the Scouting program is still going through transition and adjustment, due mainly to lowered membership in traditional Scouting programs, and to changes in our society.
Conservation. From 1910 until 1972, Scouting's outdoor program officially used a traditional "Daniel Boone" approach, with strong emphasis on heavy-impact pioneering and camping skills. With shrinking wild areas and increasingly heavy use of what wilderness is left, all organizations that promote the outdoors have been changing their approach. Starting in 1972, Scouting began a major transition toward a new (low-impact) outdoor ethic, culminating with the issue of the 10th Edition of the Boy Scout Handbook in 1990. As a result, modern Scouts use the outdoors very differently than Scouts did during Scouting's first 62+ years. Today, more Scout meals are cooked over camping stoves than on wood fires, tents have floors and mosquito netting (and are never "ditched"), packs (with frames) are lighter and much more comfortable. And the latest handbooks teach "Leave No Trace" camping techniques.
Other Adjustments. There will be other adjustments as well: as Scouting adjusts to changing social standards on the roles of men and women; as Scouting adjusts to increased competition for a boy's time; and as Scouting seeks to enroll more minority members in its programs. The BSA has had a rough time since about 2000 with its stance against gay Scouts and leaders. It opened its youth membership to gay youth in 2013, and to gay adult leaders in 2015 (although churches still have the option to deny leadership positions to gay adults). The fight over gay admission caused some Scouts and adults to leave Scouting, and now the end of the ban on gays has caused others to leave Scouting.
Measuring Success. From 1910 until 1972, the BSA measured much of its success by its ever-increasing membership statistics. Although the massive losses of the 1970s are behind us, Scouting membership is currently at the same level as the mid 1950s, nowhere near its 1972 maximum level. For the next 20 years or more, the Scout-age population is expected to remain fairly stable, and there will be increasing competition for boys' time. This adds up to a long period of stable (limited growth) membership levels. Adjusting to limited growth has been extremely difficult for the BSA, which is psychologically as well as structurally designed to equate success with growth. The minimal growth in traditional BSA programs has caused the national office to begin making changes to the traditional programs more often, and to add more non-traditional programs in an attempt to increase membership in areas not reached by traditional programs. We have already seen more program changes, more new programs, and shorter development periods since about 1985 than in all of Scouting's first 75 years.
Minorities. Scouting has always effectively reached the white middle class, but it has never been as successful with those outside the middle class or with non-whites. From its earliest days, the BSA has made many different efforts to expand its outreach, and it is likely to increase these efforts for the foreseeable future. In particular, look for a number of new, non-traditional programs designed to increase membership among minorities, especially among the rapidly expanding African American and hispanic populations.
Scouting in the Future
Boy Scouting and Varsity Scouting. Boy Scouting has changed less than either Cub Scouting or Venturing/Exploring throughout its history, and this is likely to continue. Advancement requirements will be updated and uniforms will be adjusted, but the troop of 2020 will probably not be very different from the troop of today. Varsity Scouting has not been very successful, not surprising since sports-oriented boys can get "real" sports through school and recreational programs. The programs for high school aged young men, both within the Boy Scout troop and within the Venturing Division, will continue to struggle to find the key(s) to reaching young adults of this age. Varsity Scouting will continue to be a predominantly LDS program.
Cub Scouting. Cub Scouting was a three-year program for 52 years. But in only five years, it expanded first to a four-year program, and then to a five-year program. The BSA added the first totally new Cub Scout program (Tiger Cubs) since the gradual introduction of the Webelos program began in 1941. In the 1980s, they made significant changes to the Wolf and Bear ranks, and made the most significant changes to the Webelos program in 20 years. Further significant changes were made to Cub Scouting at all levels in 2015. It is likely that such changes will continue every few years (and we predicted the full incorporation of Tiger Cubs into the Cub Scout program in the mid-1980's).
Expect further overhauling of Tiger, Wolf, and Bear. Also expect more overhauling of the two-year Webelos program (already reduced from 24 months to about 21 months). I believe that Cub Scouting is facing significant increases in its already-high dropout rate because younger boys will now have almost five years instead of three to become bored with a program that offers too much arts & crafts and almost no camping- and outdoor activities. Even the Webelos program still offers extremely limited emphasis on camping and the outdoors. I believe the 21-month Webelos program will soon experience an even higher dropout rate than the old one-year program (which was about 50%). From my bias as a Scoutmaster, I believe Cub Scouting would be more effective if it provided significantly more emphasis on camping and the outdoors than it does now. I find it instructive that Girl Scouts, Campfire, and YMCA all do more camping and outdoor activities at this age than either Cub Scouts or Webelos Scouts are allowed to do.
Cub Scouting in 2025. Some out-on-a-limb predictions by the year 2020:
Coed Scouting. Exploring (now Venturing) started the transition to a coed program in 1969, becoming more or less fully coed in 1971 (except for Eagle Scout and Order of the Arrow). Scouting in more and more western countries has gone coed at all levels since the 1960's. The BSA is unusual in holding out. My prediction: coed Cub Scouting and coed Boy Scouting will not happen in American Scouting before 2025, and probably not for many years beyond that (if ever). This is partly because the US tends to be more conservative than most other western countries, and it is certainly partly due to opposition from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon church), whose church-run units represent about one-fifth of BSA membership, giving them a powerful influence on BSA programs and policies.
Making predictions has been fun, but it has been hard to keep them current since this brief history was first written in 1984. I am pleased at the accuracy of most (but not all) of my predictions (including coed Order of the Arrow, coed adult leadership, changes in the Varsity, Cub Scout, Webelos, Tiger Cub, and Explorer programs, Scout use of camping stoves, and others). Indeed some changes have occurred much faster than I had predicted.
Watching Scouting change since I first joined has also been enjoyable, even if some of the changes in Scouting and in our society are unsettling. As it has for over 100 years, Scouting today provides a strong moral and ethical foundation that helps boys become good citizens and leaders of tomorrow. It is safe to predict that Scouting will continue to provide that same foundation.
For more information about the history of the BSA, these books were all used in preparing this brief history. Many of these are still in print. Listed by date of publication: