Far from being lost, Generation Z, though born out of adversity and denied the opportunity to celebrate key milestones in 2020, are set to lead us into the ‘New Normal’. Fully equipped with a combination of progressive ideals and resilience, they are best positioned to take us through an impending recession. Yet, the fashion industry, whose very lifeblood relies on youth culture – from skate to hip hop – is turning its back on the very same co-hort that will be vital to its future. It is not just the numbers of young creatives who are losing their jobs that is concerning, but that it is the changemakers at entry and junior level who are at risk of being disproportionately affected when it comes to restructuring.
Businesses are essentially choosing to cut out change.
We are living through a very visceral moment in time, where a company’s values and purpose are being scrutinised in detail and a number of major players have been found wanting.
The first half of 2020 has shown how traditional communication methods are falling short, with Baby Boomer Executives creating strategies that centre around traditional family or beauty aesthetics, only truly engaging with ideas outside of the ‘norm’ when it is on-trend, such as during Pride or Black History Month.
Yet this is a time when palpable change is disrupting the industry and brands need to respond effectively.
By having an internal co-hort of young minds who think in an empathetic way due to their proximity to social change, leaders can tap into their knowledge of the right influencers, ambassadors, and initiatives to partner with to show solidarity. This will help to avoid missteps or accusations of appropriation or tokenism, which can irreparably damage a brand. Without empowered young voices, businesses will continue to make costly mistakes, as seen at Reformation and Everlane in recent weeks.
And by under-investing in a diverse workforce at the junior level, brands risk being at odds with modern society and will find themselves developing campaigns and products that don’t reflect the shift in consumers’ values that is currently taking place.
Luxury players that have spent the last decade wooing the offspring of their wealthy clients by tapping artists such as Travis Scott for collaborations and enticing hypebeasts by pivoting into streetwear focussed ranges and drop-model releases, are in effect contributing to the loss of a generation within the workplace. The industry is potentially handicapping its future consumers, that pre-pandemic, were set to make up 50% of the total market by 2025, according to Forbes. Yet on the opposite end of the scale digital pure players such as Boohoo – who has a market value of £5.2bn – pivoted seamlessly mid-pandemic from party to loungewear, by developing a strategy of leaning into their young workforce who were in-tune with what their customers wanted as digital natives themselves, by cultivating an online community through social media with a combined following of over 29m across all of its brands.
In the future brands will also find themselves having to ask for permission to connect with their consumers, as data privacy becomes an ever-more elusive commodity; facilitated by the acceleration of digital innovations that are allowing users to take back their privacy; from browsers that protect their searches, such as DuckDuckGo, to closed WhatsApp groups. Brands need to think about how they will personalise or target their market if they are unable to gather raw data.
And when privacy becomes the next luxury product how will brands connect to the next generation of consumer? First, they will have to work in new ways in order to be part of their communities, deciphering the right codes and signifiers that will resonate with this audience, who no longer wish to be defined by labels. And second, empowering those already within their businesses who can empathise with these diverse communities to lead on and test engagement strategies. This will allow first-hand access to Generation Z, including how to communicate with them in a non-intrusive way.
Businesses should also consider that, if ousted from the job market, Gen Z will use this as their opportunity to start the next wave of DTC disruptor brands, much like Glossier and Warby Parker did in the last recession. They will be able to talk to and target their peers in a way that avoids labels as they are likely to build brands from a platform of honesty, transparency, and a shared experience. Businesses should look to develop their people investment strategies to hire and retain that talent in-house, including graduate recruitment and mentorship programmes to cultivate those ideas exclusively, which will help to diversify their portfolios and build resilience into future revenue streams.
This generation can change the broken systems that have brought the industry to the point of needing to re-set, but only if they are given the opportunity to become an integral part of innovation and transformation teams.
Through divesting in young talent, by losing junior-level employees to decrease overheads, brands risk homogeneity in a market that will require a point-of-difference to give consumers a reason to buy. New ways will have to be found to engage them that go beyond the transaction. And these new ideas will come from the next generation who will shape the industry for the future, so businesses need to take a long-term view in a constantly shifting landscape and explore innovative options to hire or retain them now or expect to recruit them at a premium as consultants or prepare to bid to take over their brands in 5 years’ time.