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NEWSWIRE: 8/12/19

  • Playboy has quietly been relaunched as an ad-free quarterly, with a trio of socially conscious Millennials at the helm. The new leadership has steered the magazine in a totally different direction, with content that emphasizes gender and sexual fluidity with the goal of attracting an audience that’s 50% women. (The New York Times)
    • NH: In the rise and fall of Playboy, Inc., we can see a sort of generational panorama of postwar America.
    • Playboy was founded in 1953 using nude photos of Marilyn Monroe just two years after Time Magazine coined the term Silent Generation. Playboy's steady ascent in circulation and brand appeal coincided with the coming of age of this generation, packed as it was with early-marrying virgin brides and bridegrooms who still wondered--back in the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras--what sex was all about. Leading the way was Hugh Hefner (himself first married at age 24 in 1949) who led a sophisticated cadre of liberated "players" or "playboys" along with other assorted daddios, beats, and hipsters who would explain to his peers how much more life could offer.
    • Playboy's height of fame and profitability arrived in the late '60s and 1970s. (Their best-selling edition, featuring "Miss November" in 1972, sold over 7 million copies.) The Silent, now going through their divorce-prone midlife crisis, needed more guidance than ever. And a new generation of rebellious young Boomers launched a much more direct assault on the rules and repression of the old order. Sexual liberation wasn't just for the elite. It was for everyone. This was the era of the Hollywood Playboy mansion, the Playboy disco jet, and televised Hefner slumber parties.
    • From the 1980s on, the Playboy brand--like Thunderbird and Motorola--has been a story of long decline. Playboy's monopoly on sexy pictures was pushed aside by more explicit publications and (ultimately) by the web. Meanwhile, the whole sly, subtle, wink-wink vibe failed to resonate with a new wave of young Gen-Xers who were more into unsubtle genres like thrash metal and hip hop. As for the liberationist "Playboy Philosophy," most Xers associated that with the disintegration of their own childhood families, not a pleasant topic.
    • The coming of age of Millennials has posed even greater challenges. Today's young adults are likely to regard Playboy--if they know much about it at all--as not only anti-family, but anti-female. In the age of #MeToo, Hugh Hefner can easily be portrayed (and, at his death, was portrayed) as a sleazy patriarchal model for later sexual predators, from Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein.
    • In 1988, Hugh Hefner stepped down and let his daughter Christie Hefner run the business. In 2009, Christie stepped down. In 2011, Playboy was taken private. Today, no Hefner family member either manages or has a financial stake in the company. Most of the company's revenue comes from branded clubs and clothes in Asia, where the "Playboy" image of American male swagger still has appeal. The magazine itself, which used to lead the brand, is now regarded as a dispensable (and money-losing) appendage. Current Playboy CEO Ben Kohn has now pared the magazine back to a quarterly schedule. And to make it more relevant to young adults, he has appointed an all-Millennial managerial team.
    • We'll see if the make-over works. These Millennials certainly speak a progressive game, with frequent references to "sex positivity," "lived experience," and "intersectionality." They are starting to feature some gay, lesbian, bi, and trans-sex pix and interviews. But two big questions loom. Are Millennials as interested in sex and liberation as earlier generations? And, even if they are, do the "Playboy" and "Hefner" names conjure up just too many reactionary associations?
    • Ironically, Hugh Hefner in his time was universally regarded as a cultural revolutionary. He launched movements that today's progressives still champion--for example, in favor of equal rights for gays, a woman's right to choose, and legalization of recreational drugs like marijuana. And unlike today's progressives, he took these stands at a time when they were unpopular.
    • Yet history so often plays games with us. Again and again, the very thing one generation celebrates as bold and cutting-edge a later generation--by looking at it from a slightly different point of view--castigates as a giant step backwards. 
  • The rise of the populist right in Europe defies conventional wisdom: Polls show that European voters are generally more satisfied with their lives, so why are they voting against those in power? Typically, happy voters vote for the status quo—but it could be that in a strong economy, concerns about social and cultural issues take precedence over economic ones. (The Economist)
    • NH: We know, from numerous studies, that people who are happier or more satisfied with their lives are more likely to vote for the incumbent or more established political party. We also know population-wide measures of life satisfaction have generally risen in high-income democracies over the past twenty years--and especially since the GFC in 2008-09. According to the Eurobarometer (a survey run by the EU), for example, most European nations show a high and rising overall happiness trend. The share of Germans who say they are "very" or "fairly" satisfied with life rose from 73% in 2003 to 93% in 2017. In the UK, it has risen from 88% to 93%.
    • So the puzzle: Why are these "happier" citizens increasingly voting for radical populist parties that want to buck the status quo?
    • Theories abound. Some opinion experts, whose argument is pursued at length in The Economist piece, say that the vague sort of evaluative happiness asked in Eurobarometer-type surveys ("In general, how satisfied are you with your life?") aren't as helpful as "hedonic" surveys that directly ask about mood ("How angry or happy or worried were you yesterday?"). Much less in known about the trend in hedonic happiness. Some indicators suggest it may be declining.
    • Yet even if this true, it raises a further question: Why might Europeans be feeling less happy today than (say) at the depth of the Great Recession in 2011, when income and net worth was lower and unemployment was higher?
    • One school emphasizes the role of relative deprivation across society, which is how much worse people may feel, even if they are richer, if they think other people (especially people who don't deserve it) are getting richer faster than they are. Growing inequality may generate unhappiness even when the average standard of living is rising. One group of researchers found that European voters in an income bracket that weren't growing as fast as the national average were more likely to vote for populist-right parties in recent years. Possible American examples: the growth of the KKK during the "roaring" 1920s or the growth of McCarthyism during the "affluent society" 1950s.
    • Another school emphasizes the role of relative deprivation across time. The J-curve theory of revolution (often attributed to James C. Davies) says people never revolt simply because they are miserable. Instead, they revolt after an extended era of improvement when rising popular expectations which are suddenly thwarted by corrupt or inept leadership. (The French and Russian Revolutions are frequently cited here.) In addition, radical movements rarely thrive at the bottom of an economic crisis. Movements gain force after people no longer have to worry about survival and are secure enough to engage politically. During the U.S. Great Depression, for example, radical populism did not spread until the mid- and late-1930s--after the initial financial and economic shock had passed.
    • Both of these time models have possible applications to Europe in recent years. Think of the GFC as a massive setback after decades of postwar prosperity. (In France, they call these "les trentes glorieuses," the thirty glorious years.) There's your J-curve. Yet the mobilization of populist alternatives was not likely to appear while the economy was flat on its back, but after it had started to recover. That may be what we're seeing now.
  • The calls to boycott Equinox and SoulCycle are a perfect illustration of the public’s increasingly personal approach to corporate values. This time, competitors are taking advantage of the strife and opening their doors to disgruntled members for free, with some even offering to donate to nonprofits on behalf of those who switch. (The New York Times)
    • NH: When people buy something, they like to feel good about the "experience." And in today's increasingly polarized and politically engaged America, that seems to include any ideological coloration that tints or shades the brand.
    • Cause of the most recent outrage? Stephen Ross, chairman of a company that holds majority stakes in both Equinox and Soul Cycle, is participating in a Hamptons fundraiser for President Trump. However remote this connection (Equinox and Soul Cycle say Ross does not manage the companies, and Ross himself says simply that "Trump is an old friend"), activists on the left are organizing a boycott.
    • A few lessons are emerging from such incidents. First, they can happen on both the right or the left. Back in February, the right organized a boycott of Gillette over its "toxic masculinity" ad. (See "Consumers Boycott Brands Over Social Issues.") Second, each boycott is likely to trigger a counter-boycott from the other side. Steve Forbes, for example, says he will urge his friends to join SoulCycle. Third, managers have yet to figure out a good response to these situations: Their first instinct to stay neutral and take no sides--but in today's climate, that's likely to be regarded as craven duplicity.
    • Finally, it's unclear how often these boycotts end up really hurting their targets. The massive boycott against Chick-Fil-A failed to stop that red-zone fast-food chain from achieving industry-beating profit margins and revenue growth.
    • Yet there is a cautionary note. It matters who your customer base is. Yes, it helped Chick-Fil-A that its core was red zone. And it helped Nike--in defending its tight ties to Colin Kaepernick--that its core is blue zone. A lot of SoulCycle's earnings are generated by educated professionals living in affluent urban centers like Brooklyn, Boston, Seattle, Santa Monica, and San Francisco. This may pose a very tough PR challenge for SoulCycle. And a real opportunity for its lesser-known competitors.
  • The CDC announces that the age-adjusted mortality rate rose (again) in 2017. While the opioid epidemic gets most of the publicity, rising suicide and alcoholism rates, along with declining progress on heart disease, have also been shortening U.S. life expectancy. (The Wall Street Journal)
    • NH: The final 2017 numbers from CDC are in, and the news is as bad as I anticipated. (See my 2018 Annual Demographics Outlook.) I anticipated a final age-adjusted mortality figure of 732.1, and the actual number turned out to be 731.9. Either way, it represents the fourth year in a row of mortality increases. And you have to go back all the way to 2012 to find a higher year. This amounts to pretty much a "lost decade" in U.S. life expectancy improvement.
    • To explain this disappointing trend, much attention--deservedly so--has been given to the opioid epidemic. (See "Overdose Mortality Falling, But Fentanyl Deaths Still Rising.") Rising opioid deaths among whites has helped to close the gap in mortality rates between whites and nonwhites. (See "The Gap in Life Expectancy Between Blacks and Whites has Narrowed.") See first chart below.
    • But there's more going on. The death rate from suicide and alcohol-related diseases is rising, especially in older age brackets. (See "Middle-Age Suicide Epidemic Makes Headlines.") And the downward trend in the death rate from heart disease, which used to be a powerful force behind falling overall mortality (because heart disease is such an important cause of death), has recently stopped. Epidemiologists used to predict that heart disease and stroke death would fall beneath cancer deaths by 2020. No longer. The gap between the two is no longer narrowing. It's widening. See second chart below.
    • Why the poor performance on cardiovascular disease? Well, most of the dramatic improvement due to lower cigarette smoking and widespread use of statins had already been realized by the early 2010s. And it was also in the early 2010s that the worsening of cardiovascular disease due to higher obesity and diabetes rates among aging late-wave Boomers, Xers, and Millennials began to move to center stage. (See "Strokes Rise Among the Young.") The net result has been a cessation of improvement since the middle of this decade. See third chart below.
    • There is some good news. Based on quarterly CDC numbers, it looks likely that the final 2018 age-adjusted mortality rate should show a reduction from 2017. Credit that to the slight decline (after years of large rises) in opioid deaths. It may take several years, however, for us to get back to where our life expectancy was in 2014.

New Woke-er Version of "Playboy"... by and for Millennials. NewsWire. - Aug 12 chart2

New Woke-er Version of "Playboy"... by and for Millennials. NewsWire. - Aug 12 chart3

New Woke-er Version of "Playboy"... by and for Millennials. NewsWire. - Aug 12 chart4

  • Starting in November, Disney plans to offer a bundle package with Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ for $12.99 a month. This bundle, which is the same price as Netflix’s most popular option, is clearly a shot at its biggest competitor and is the first to include access to multiple live sports. (Deadline)
    • NH: For years, all the major networks plus Apple, Amazon, and Hulu have been building up a huge surplus of TV content. Coming up, over the next year, nearly all of these players will try to monetize that surplus by selling streaming subscriptions. (See also "Legacy Media Companies Try to Beat Netflix.") It will be a massive contest in which scale is everything--and in which customers will be free (as they never were with cable) to switch providers in a heartbeat. A brutal price war and squeezed profit margins for all participants may well be the result.
    • Anything could happen. Even the mighty Netflix may trip up on its debt and get humbled. And it's very likely, when the dust settles, that some players will get absorbed by others and that the consolidated winners will offer multi-priced versions with ads (a concept pioneered by Hulu). That's right: If you want ad-free TV, you will have to pay for it. Desperate times will call for desperate measures.
  • The “new niceness” has overtaken reality TV, with upbeat shows like Queer Eye and The Masked Singer now the norm rather than the exception. The Marie Kondo-inspired slogan of Netflix’s unscripted content division encapsulates the switch from screaming fights to group hugs: “We say ‘spark joy’ now for everything.’” (NPR)
    • NH: Nothing could be more Millennial than a show that celebrates niceness and community--even if it leaves Xers and Boomers shaking their heads and rolling their eyes. We were among the very first to flag this trend in 2014 (see "All Aboard the Smile Train"), back when the always-cheerful Jimmy Fallon was taking over the Tonight Show and driving down the average viewership age. We did an update last year after we noticed the spread of sweeter reality shows like The Great British Bake-Off and Terrace House, a surprise import from Japan that attracted millions of U.S. Millennial viewers. (See “Kind” Reality TV Takes Off.")
    • As a genre, the classic reality show took off in popularity in the 1990s and the early 2000s. Back in that heyday, it's fair to say that reality shows reflected some of the least attractive peer personality traits of both Xers and Boomers. From Xers, the show got its vulgarity, violence, and brutal competitiveness. (Think of shows ranging from Jersey Shore to The Real World to Survivor). From Boomers, the show got its pitiless judgmentalism. Recall Anne Robinson in The Weakest Link. Or Simon Cowell in American Idol. Or Donald Trump himself in The Apprentice. I still can hear the line: You are the weakest link.... or, You're fired!
    • Sure, the brainless pleasantries on Jimmy Fallon or The Queer Eye may not be high wit. But it's hard not to call this Millennial fare an improvement over what came before.
  • To understand how to reach Homelanders, marketers are taking a closer look at their parents. In many ways, Gen Xers are passing down similar values to their kids, who are turning out to be pragmatic, more skeptical than sanguine, and focused on ensuring their own financial security. (Bloomberg)
    • NH: I've said this before. Homelanders are turning out to be a narrow-gauged generation. They are more focused on getting ahead by pleasing others, excelling within tight parameters, and latching onto secure outcomes than they are on transforming the world. As such, they fall into a familiar, alternating pattern of dominant versus recessive generations. (See "Political Cartoonist Feels for Gen X.") The G.Is, Boomers, and Millennials are dominant. The Lost, Silent, and Xers are recessive. And Homelanders? Like the generation now in midlife that's raising them, Homelanders are likely to be recessive.
    • In certain respects, successive dominant generations are very unalike because they belong to opposing archetypes. We say Boomers, for example, belong to the Prophet archetype because they want to transform the inner world (values, culture, morality), whereas their G.I. Generation parents belonged to the Hero archetype because they wanted to transform the outer world (politics, economy, infrastructure).  But both had one thing in common: They were transformers. Similarly, while pragmatic Xer parents and empathic Homelander kids show plenty of contrasts, they will probably have this in common: They will both end up reacting to--and coping with--big things that other generations do.
  • When asked what holds them back from discussing their personal finances, Millennials are most likely to say they don’t want to be seen as failures. Xers and Boomers, meanwhile, say it’s out of politeness—and Boomers are almost as likely to say it’s because they don’t want to seem like they’re bragging. (TD Ameritrade)
    • NH: What's striking in this survey is how much harder it is for Millennials to talk about their finances than older generations--and, yes, how much of this is driven by their fear of being perceived as a failure. The difference in responses is striking. (See the first chart below.) When asked why they don't like to talk about finances, 55% of Millennials cite perceptions of failure or poor performance. Only 13% of Boomers did the same.
    • Some of this is probably due to phase-of-life differences. Young adults are typically more sensitive about how they are doing economically because their prospects are still unknown and their sense of self-worth still rides on the outcome. As you get older, your future is more certain and you tend to feel more comfortable with whatever that outcome is.
    • Yet some of the difference may also be due to the relative ease with which Boomers achieved upward generational mobility over their lifetime and how much harder it is for Millennials to achieve the same thing. Take a look (see second chart below) at Raj Chetty's recent calculation of the probability, by birth year, that you will out-earn your parents by age 30 or 40.

    New Woke-er Version of "Playboy"... by and for Millennials. NewsWire. - Aug 12 chart5

    New Woke-er Version of "Playboy"... by and for Millennials. NewsWire. - Aug 12 chart6

    • The title of a recent op-ed by writer Ericka Andersen poses a provocative question: “Is God the Answer to the Suicide Epidemic?” The decline of churchgoing among Americans, she contends, has left many vulnerable, isolated people without a sense of community or purpose that other institutions can replicate. (The Wall Street Journal)
      • NH: Emile Durkheim famously concluded that a society's suicide rate is a good proxy for how well it functions. (See "America's Suicide Rate--Up One-Third Since 1999.") Ever since, many have taken this "functionalist" perspective as a basis for offering remedies. Sebastian Junger, in his recent best-seller Tribe, says the root of the problem is America's lack of community. There certainly may be truth to that. (See "All the Lonely People.")
      • Another suggestion is offered here by Ms. Andersen, who cites a recent study in JAMA Psychiatry, which surveyed 90,000 women over four years, showing that those who go to church are much less likely to commit suicide. Specifically, women who go to church weekly are only one-fifth as likely to commit suicide as those who never go to church.
      • All the usual caveats are in order: Causation is not correlation, et cetera. It may be that the kind of person who goes to church every day is the kind of person (say, due to personality endowment) who is unlikely to kill themselves. Or it may be that emotionally disturbed people often stop going to church. All this is possible.
      • Still, the magnitude of the difference is arresting. And it may account for Americans' rising interest in purely functionalist accounts--framed in terms of evolution or biology--of the role of religion in people's lives.
    • The rapid shrinking of Japan’s rural population has opened the door to a new type of resident: wild animals. Fewer people and aging hunters and farmers mean that many villages are now regularly visited by bears, boars, and deer, who are thriving in an increasingly untouched wilderness. (The Economist)
      • NH: This "re-wilding" is not unique to Japan. It's happening in much of the United States and Europe as well. Population growth is slowing down. People are congregating in urban centers. And rural regions are reforesting.
      • Reforesting? That's right. Forests are spreading, not shrinking, across the earth's surface. That's not a fact that exactly jumps out when you read a media summary of the latest IPCC report. But it's true. The most comprehensive study of satellite imagery data, published last year, concludes that the earth's total forested area grew by 7.1% between 1982 and 2016. That's nearly one million square miles--or about the area of Alaska and Texas combined. 
      • While tropical rain forests (especially in Brazil) have suffered a net decline, that decline was more than made up for by large gains in North America, Asia, and Europe. Much of this gain is driven by declining agricultural acreage (thanks to much higher agricultural productivity) and to vigorous reforestation campaigns in countries like South Korea and China. Also, increases in agricultural acreage in India has come increasingly at the expense of bare ground. And yes, bare ground on the planet actually shrunk by a net 3.1% over this period.
      • More controversial is the claim that global warming may actually be enhancing vegetation spread--in everywhere from sub-Arctic Canada to the sub-Saharan Sahel. Hey, it happened during the Holocene Maximum at the dawn of civilization. Why not today as well, at what the hard green movement likes to call the sunset of civilization if not the end of humanity itself? 


    When Infidelity Becomes inFidelity. Although the majority of Americans from all generations express strong support for sexual fidelity and report that they are faithful in real life, younger Americans are more likely to push the boundaries of unfaithful sexual or emotional behavior online, according to the 2019 State of Our Unions report. Fully 18% of Millennials and 16% of Gen Xers, for instance, have engaged in sexual talk with someone besides their partner online, compared to only 6% of Boomers and 3% of Silent. When asked what constitutes cheating, Millennials and Gen Xers were more lenient than their elders about all the online behaviors named as examples, including sexting, cybersex, or having a secret emotional relationship. Worryingly, however, those who push these boundaries have markedly worse relationships: Married or cohabiting Americans who engaged in 3 or more of these behaviors were 26 percentage points less likely than those who pushed no boundaries to say that they are very happy in their relationship.