The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Aug 162010

In no sphere of social life did the brassy me-firstism of America’s Third Turning (Unraveling) manifest itself so conspicuously as in professional sports.  The Nike swoosh, the vast signing and performance bonuses, the limousine loge seats, the intimidating tattoos, the brute physicality and in-your-face attitude, even the very term “free agent”— all of these became iconic symbols, in a celebrity carnival kind of way, of a fundamental mood shift that began in the mid-1980s.  Even the Olympics, which had never before made anybody rich, began generating huge profits.  (Thanks, Peter Ueberroth, for letting McDonald’s start a nifty new game the LA games in 1984: “When the U.S. wins, you win!”)

Now, some twenty-odd years later, it seems that another attitude shift is under way, once again with some of the most interesting signals coming from professional sports.  The tide is beginning to turn on the fighting, the profanity, the performance drugs, the super-lux seats, and the renting of stadium names.  And, as this story shows, pro teams everywhere (though this story in mainly about the DC area) are starting to focus a lot more on how they can give back to the community.


“It has changed dramatically,” said Greg Johnson, executive director of the Sports Philanthropy Project, a nonprofit group that studies the impact of charity efforts in the multibillion-dollar industry. “Now it’s a central part of the business model of most franchises.”

Sure, you can say it’s hypocritical and just another way for the franchises to win the popularity of local crowds and national audiences.  But I’m sure many of the athletes and managers are sincere, and in any case why wasn’t this a formula for winning over crowds and audiences ten or twenty years ago?  You could also say it’s just the impact of the Great Recession.  People are tapped out, they don’t want to be reminded of things they can’t afford, and they are aware their communities have bigger needs but smaller public resources to handle them.  This is also true.  But it’s got to be more than that.  Nothing much changed in pro sports during the recession of 1991 or during the slow recovery thereafter.  If anything, the violence and drugs and attitude all got amped up: The overall U.S. rate of violent crime peaked in 1994, while ‘roid use kept spreading to more athletes and bad-ass black jerseys (a color proven to provoke aggression in sports and in war) kept spreading to more franchises.

What’s different, I submit, is that this recession is accompanying a shift from a Third to Fourth Turning (Crisis) mood—with palpable changes in the role the public wants pro athletes to play in their lives and in the way pro teams see themselves.

As Boomer (born 1943-1960) move into the ranks of senior managers/executives, they find it easier than the Silent (born 1925-1942) to “discover” authentic social issues and to promote their teams through involvement in passionate cause marketing.  They are also setting up many of the community foundations and philanthropic service firms that make it easy for wealthy athletes to start their own charities.  Silent executives, who were big-institution professionals, never really understood the personalization of philanthropy.

As Generation X (born 1961-1981) become the successful senior athletes and recently retired veterans, many of them are looking for ways to settle down, get serious, drop anchor in their neighborhood, and do something lasting.  For years, they’ve wanted to spend more time with their kids—and now they can, just at the ages (grade school) at which their kids most need them.  Nothing dovetails better with their rediscovery of family than wanting to spend more time with their kid’s friends, with other kids, with their families, with their friends, and so on.

Meanwhile, year by year, young Millennial (born 1982-200?) fans and players are transforming the audience-athlete interaction.  It’s not just that risk-averse Millennials are less turned-on by the violent and aggressive side of pro sports.  They are also less thrilled by the money-and-business dimension, which was big for Xers.  Millennials want to see more about athletes who can be good parents, neighbors, citizens, and good Samaritans.  Last spring, a Washington Post story about NHL player Brooks Laich (born 1983) stopping on the beltway to help a mother-with-kids change a flat tire—just an hour or so after his team had lost their final playoff game—ranked as this region’s most read and discussed sports story of the year.

Aug 082010

Looks like High School Musical has graduated to The Sound of (Yale) Music.

The Millennial (born 1982-200?) thematic and imagery here are totally over the top, with every generational trait (from the confidence, specialness, and teamwork to the wall-to-wall sheltering and trust in friendly authority figures) emphasized.

Pretty soon Google and Apple will be doing these Busby Berkeley-style musical numbers to enhance their employer brands.

Aug 052010

Very interesting essay.  I.Q. scores seem to be continually rising with each passing cohort (the “Flynn effect”).  But creativity—as measured by the Torrence score—has turned direction.  It was rising until about 1990, but then started to turn down, starting with the younger grades.  Sounds like Millennial (born 1982-200?) are the culprit, doesn’t it?

On the road, when I talk with Generation X (born 1961-1981) managers, one of their biggest disappointments with entry-level employees is their lack of professional passion and willingness to take risks and think outside the box.

Aug 022010

This piece in the WP by the “unconditional parenting” guru Alfie Kohn does attack the Twenge thesis.  But it doesn’t put any other thesis in its place, except for the suggestion that we know very little about changes in child raising over time and the implication that nothing much ever happens generationally.  But if this were true, then the substantive criticisms leveled by older people against youth would always be the same.  And of course they are not the same.  Today’s Millennial (born 1982-200?) are put down for being overly sheltered and helicopter-mommed.  But no one was saying that back in the 1970s and 1980s.  They were saying the reverse: That parents were spending no time with kids and letting them grow up on their own, producing a generation of undersocialized savages.  Back then, child psychologists and social policy experts pleaded for more parental involvement.

btw, we quoted heavily from the 1911 Atlantic Monthly letter exchange between the “older” and “younger” generations in our Atlantic cover story back in 1992.  The exchange sounded very much like conversations between Boomer (born 1943-1960) and Generation X (born 1961-1981) back in the mid-1990s… but nothing like exchanges between Xers and Millennials today.