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Engaging with new generations

Mark McCrindle, BSC (Psychology), MA, QPMR, Social Researcher

Like most industrial nations, Australia is experiencing a rapid ageing of the population. In 1976, the median age of our population was 28 compared with 37 today and in a decade it will be 40 (ABS 2005a, 2005b). The impacts of this increase across society are huge, as Australia is also experiencing the biggest generational shifts in six decades.

The proportion of the population aged 15 years and under is projected to fall from 20 per cent today to around 14 per cent by 2051. Meanwhile, over the same period, those aged 65 years and over will double, increasing from 14 per cent today to more than 28 per cent in 2051. Health measures are the best they have ever been, life expectancies are increasing and people are staying younger for longer. But what implications does this have for sport?

An ageing population leads directly to an ageing group of sports coaches and officials, progressively widening the generation gap between them and the younger players. With several generations mixing in the sporting sector (that is, the Baby Boomers and Generations X, Y and Z), there is a need for coaches to understand the generational differences and get the most out of this diversity. An effective understanding of the different values and perspectives of our younger generations will better facilitate communication between coaches and their players as well as decrease the capacity for conflict. In order to achieve this, we must first acknowledge the issues that the emerging generation has brought to the fore.

Who is Generation Y?

Before we can coach and lead we must be able to understand and connect. Because the attitudes of those entering into organised sport have changed, we must alter our coaching approaches accordingly to better suit the morphing expectations of today’s youth. The challenge is that we are all a product of our times and heavily influenced by the culture, technology and social markers that were emerging during our formative years. These were different for the generation of the 1960s (Baby Boomers), the 1980s (X-ers) and today (Generations Y and Z).

Generation Y (ages 13–27) is the most educated, entertained and materially endowed generation in history. Having been raised and socialised in a highly technological world, they enjoy interaction and spontaneity but are suspicious and wary of contrived messages. Gen Ys want to be involved with passionate leaders who produce emotional experiences.

The important thing to remember with Generation Y is that they are not only at a different life stage to most coaches, but they have also been raised and educated in a very different era. Despite living through an era in competitive sport where Australia has hosted both the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games in quick succession, Gen Ys are more interested in the social aspects of sport. Furthermore, their expectations of a coach and their preferred styles of coaching have all been shaped by their times.

What do they want?

Though coaches need not react to every whim of a new generation, they cannot hold fast to old methods and expect emerging generations to conform. These new sporting participants have had two decades of cultural shaping and there is little a coach can do to change this.

The ever-present generation gap is very visible when we attempt to coach Generation Y using our old methods. Traditional leadership stresses controlling, and they want relating. We focus on structure, they are influenced by style. We think framework, they think freedom. The answer is to take the time to better understand them, and then we are well on the way to being able to engage, coach and lead this emerging generation in new and innovative ways.

Gen Y’s preferred coaching style is one that is more consensus than command, more participative than autocratic, and more flexible and organic than structured and hierarchical. Gen Ys want to create a culture where interaction can take place, where those of different ages can mix and, thus, where intergenerational perspectives are shared.

In short, Generation Y wants the 4 Cs: character, communication, cooperation, and competence. They are primarily concerned with social connection, being entertained, having fun, and being presented with life-enhancing experiences (character). Their ideal coach is someone who values the exchange of ideas and creates an environment of transparency and respect for the team (communication). They want a coach who is willing to listen to their ideas and opinions, and is happy to oblige with public displays of affirmation and positive reinforcement (cooperation). And finally, Generation Y wants someone who is experienced, friendly and who will take the time to get to know them (competence).

The stats and facts

In a 12-month period over 2005–06, two-thirds (66 per cent) of Australians aged 15 years and over reported taking part in sports and physical recreation. These participation rates were even higher for Generation Y, reaching just under 75 per cent. The age-specific rates of those who participated in sports and physical recreation up to twice a week were also highest for Generation Y (46 per cent). Furthermore, over half (55 per cent) of those aged 15–17 years participated in organised activities. This figure, however, declined to 41 per cent and 33 per cent for those aged 18–24 and 25–34 years, respectively (ABS 2007a, 2007b). So how can we keep Generation Y interested in organised sport?

Looking at the main reasons for participating, nearly half of younger Gen Ys (45 per cent) indicated enjoyment as their top priority, while one-quarter (26 per cent) were more concerned with their health and fitness. In contrast, these figures were the opposite for older Gen Ys, with just under one in three (30 per cent) citing enjoyment as their top concern while more than half were primarily interested in their health and fitness.

When asked about their motives for not participating, 40 per cent of older Gen Ys specified insufficient time due to work or study commitments, while nearly half of younger Gen Ys (47 per cent) simply reported a lack of interest. For the latter, research suggests that sports and physical recreation fail to compete for children’s time when compared with more passive activities such as watching television, reading for pleasure and playing electronic or computer games.

So in summary, when it comes to participating in organised sport, Generation Y is clearly expressing their desire to have fun, to build new and lasting friendships, and to be empowered by their coach.


Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007a, Australian Social Trends, 4102.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007b, Participation in Sports and Physical Recreation, 2005–6. 4177.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005a, Australian Social Trends, 4102.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005B, NIF-10S Model Database, 1340.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4102.0 — Australian Social Trends, 2005; Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1340.0 — NIF-10S Model Database, 2005.

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4102.0 — Australian Social Trends, 2007; Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4177.0 — Participation in Sports and Physical Recreation, Australia, 2005–06.

Source: Sports Coach Volume 30 Number 1

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