Soccer’s Generation Y

Posted by on Aug 12, 2011 in Uncategorized | No Comments

First we had the Silent Generation born after 1925 – those prone to doffing their caps to their betters. Then we had the baby boomers – the post war generation and the first to enjoy heightened prosperity. Then we had Generation X, famously depicted by Douglas Coupland – those born when that burst of fertility lessened and synonymous with the uncertainties of superpower rivalry and political and societal fragmentation. Now we have the so-called Generation Y.

Generation Y, its nature and its impact, is currently a much favoured topic across the social sciences, with definitions sprouting across a range of disciplines from sociology to management. That today’s footballing caste is identifiable with this grouping seems evident given that the majority of the sport’s participants are younger than 28, but how much do the game’s young stars conform to the characteristics of this sect?

First some definitions – hotly debated of course – but upheld nonetheless. Defined by academics William Strauss and Neil Howe as those born between 1982 and 2001, Generation Y is a grouping that (like Joey Barton) has adapted to new technology, media and communications with ease (Millwall centre backs Darren Ward and Paul Robinson informed us earlier this week that their younger team-mates were watching Justin Bieber DvDs on the train down to Devon for the League Cup tie at Plymouth), gathers much of its news online and from the television (unlike ex-AFC Wimbledon man Glenn Mulcaire), is apolitical but culturally liberal, is adept at multitasking (younger players avoid David James’ issues with combining play station and goalkeeping) and has formed new social networks.
Also labelled the millennials, their emergence has coincided with a lessened role for the state and other institutions, which has thrived in an era of free trade and low cost production, has no memory of a conscripted war or communism (ask the average 22 year old sitting next to you at work about Valeriy Lobanovskiy) and favours individualism over collectivism – a process well under way during the heyday of Generation X after all. Overall, it’s perhaps in the world of business that the consequences of Generation Y’s inexorable rise are most evident – whole issues of practitioner journals are now devoted to managers’ attempts to understand and accommodate the new breed – and football is no exception.

First, expectations of career progression and increased remuneration are a given. Annoyance at being left out of the XI is nothing new of course – but examples of disquiet are increasing. In January, Stephen Warnock was said to be considering his future after Gérard Houllier left him out for a game at Chelsea and the spat between Jérôme Boateng and Mario Balotelli last winter was said to have been fuelled by a mutual lack of appreciation at being omitted. I doubt that Andy King will have been too happy to have been left out of for Leicester’s trip to Coventry last Saturday either.

Although an appealing work environment and personal development are important, clubs now need need to offer attractive terms as well and the news that Vince Grella is allegedly earning £30,000 a week underlines the rewards on offer – the clamour for increased wages, driven by agents, is now cacophonous.

Before, any opportunity to play at the highest level possible would have been snapped up; now, we have Kevin Nolan and Matthew Taylor dropping a division. The modern player is self-contained. Sure, the trophies and the prospect of taking on Kun Agüero and company are enticing, but nothing quite matches the pay packet width. The footballing world increasingly conforms to the basic mechanism of the market, chiming in equilibrium and providing little room for as old fashioned a concept as loyalty. Although less developed in football, today’s Generation Yers are prone to bookmarking sites such as glassdoor.com and the rumour mill allows stars to measure their worth in thousands of pounds.

Secondly, and related to my first point, The Terry Paines and Billy Wrights of the past are becoming lesser in number and where players stay longer at a single club, it’s more often than not amid an environment where the riches on offer cannot easily be replicated elsewhere (Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs are oft cited modern examples). Lower down the leagues, the need to move on becomes more pressing – as we have seen with Steve Morison and Danny Graham this summer. Seeking personal betterment has now become accepted and it’s only when a football league man leaves for a local rival, or behaves disrespectfully in the transition that any brouhaha results.

Thirdly, players are exhibiting one of the chief characteristics of Generation Y – a demand for empowerment and involvement in decision-making. Witness the unholy squabble that results when almost any free kick is awarded. Player power is now legion and tales of dressing rooms being “lost” all too common. If reports that the Scunthorpe United squad has already lost confidence in Alan Knill after just one game of the new season can be discounted on account of their being perpetrated by Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes, a piece from Rohan Ricketts in the pages of last October’s Sabotage Times was illuminating.

Two caveats though – the above factors would appear to add up to a whole world of selfishness, but there are positives. Individualism can lead to a brand of liberalism and there’s no doubt that there is a greater cultural openness among those born in the eighties and after – racism is less common and the preponderance of foreign players in the game can lead to refreshing attitude changes. The gap between work and leisure is also blurred and today’s footballers are usually more expressive and less hindered by the neanderthal tactics of yesteryear.
…and then there is the the suspicion that this whole Generation X, Y, Z malarkey (yes, there is a Generation Z too) is a misnomer and draws on research from marketing types who are ever and a day prone to facile demographic generalizations (surely there were always self centred people who were more difficult to manage?)
But, leaving those doubts aside, if it does exist, what will be the legacy of this Generation Y? Combined with economic turmoil and increasing disparities in wealth, and at a time when London is beset by civic strife, society is fracturing and concepts of togetherness and community are under threat like never before. Radical individualism has become ingrained and this has had its impact on football.

For it’s a new kind of sport that we are involved in these days – that a player like Jason Puncheon has represented 10 clubs by the age of 25 is telling; that fans will get to worship a player for just one full season as Watford’s did with Will Buckley will also become the norm; that Craig Mackail-Smith can jump ship despite leading his team mates to promotion goes almost unquestioned. We’ll have to get used to a more fleeting series of relationships where several whole line ups will represent our teams over the space of 3 to 5 years and where the scoring records of the likes of Simon Garner and Steve Bull will resemble Victoriana in their quaintness. There is speculation as to the nature of the generation that will succeed the current one but the dislocating influence of globalization and postmodernism is likely to be even more marked in the future. These kids rule the roost now.
Rob Langham
Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 47 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

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