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What when Gen-Z takes over?

For generations, the fashion industry has also lived from the passion – and willingness to suffer – of its employees. That is changing, Carl Tillessen observes.

As is generally known, Generation Z refers to all those born after 1995. And consequently, some of them are already 28 years old. In this respect, their entry into the workforce does not come as a particular surprise. But in many places it comes particularly abruptly. In many fashion companies it can be observed that when key positions become vacant – especially in design and media – they jump three generations at once. This means that when a boomer retires, it is not a candidate from generations X and Y who takes over. Rather, these two generations are passed over in the line of succession, and the responsible position goes directly to a Gen Z-er. Companies are certainly encouraged to make such unconventional personnel decisions by role models such as Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer, Billie Eilish or Lorde, who have shown the world that it is possible to deliver mature performances even without a mature age.

More crucially, however, most fashion employers feel that their companies are losing touch with the exponentially accelerating digitalisation because the workforce – consisting mostly of digital immigrants – is not tackling the growing digital reform backlog with enough gumption. To ensure that the digital transformation of their company progresses more quickly in the future, they prefer to hire a digital native as their successor whenever an employee who still had his emails printed out by the assistant retires.

Of course, this also has its price. Of course, not only does additional digital competence and efficiency come into the company when old hands are replaced by newcomers. A lot of knowledge and know-how is also lost. If you turn key positions in the company into a youth research project, you suddenly find yourself working with trial-and-error again in areas in which you had actually already gained experience.

The prospect that eventually some of the glamour of this industry might fall on you was the carrot that was dangled in front of your nose and drove you to run until you were completely exhausted.

And you can see that in many collections – both negatively and positively. Because trial does not only lead to error. Unbiased trial and error and new thinking often lead to unexpected discoveries and pleasant surprises. In design in particular, it can be very refreshing when someone simply tailors something for once – without scissors in their head. Just because belly-free tops didn’t sell twenty years ago doesn’t mean that they still don’t.

There will be much more to say elsewhere about how radical Generation Z is changing the design of fashion. But even more drastic than design, it is changing a completely different aspect of our industry, namely the work culture.

The concept of work-life balance, for example, was completely alien to the fashion industry before Generation Z came along. This is because the fashion designers of previous generations usually did not distinguish between work and life at all. Their work was their life. Going into fashion meant turning one’s hobby into a profession. And those who decided to do so were aware from the outset that this was, of course, a goal that everyone had, but that only those who pursued it with maximum passion and willingness to suffer would achieve. Only by consistently working harder and longer for decades, taking fewer holidays and more overtime, earning less and putting up with more than everyone else, could one hope to one day, maybe, but just maybe, rise from unpaid intern to assistant right-hand man to the product manager for trouser tucks in a well-known fashion company. The prospect that some day a bit of the glamour of this industry might fall on you in this way was the carrot that was dangled in front of your nose and drove you to run until you were completely exhausted. The bizarre blossoms that the exploitation and self-exploitation of full-time fashion victims has driven in the meantime have been captured for posterity in films like “Prêt-À-Porter”, “Phantom Threat” and “The Devil Wears Prada”.

However, posterity will most likely have the greatest difficulty in comprehending the dependency relationships that underlie these stories. The power imbalance between employers and employees is in the process of being reversed. The retirement of the baby boomers is leaving such a widespread shortage of skilled workers that the labour market is being transformed from a demand market into a supply market.

In principle, this had been seen coming. In fact, however, the gap left by the retiring baby boomers is much larger than expected. The calculations were based on the assumption that the next generation of workers would work just as much per capita as those retiring. But that is not the case at all. The current generation has completely different priorities than the generations of their parents and grandparents. For them, their work is not their life. For them, life begins where work ends. And that is why, if she has her way, both should be in balance with each other. Ladies and gentlemen, you have just been witness to the invention of the work-life balance.

As our figures at DMI show, this work-life balance (68% agreement) is much more important to Generation Z than success at work (54% agreement). In order to have time for themselves and their own interests (70% agreement), the majority of them even want to work only part-time. So to the job interview question “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” the honest answer of most Gen Z-ers would not be: “in a management position” (only 34%), but: “in a part-time job”. Correspondingly, workers under 20 years of age already work less than half as much overtime as their colleagues over 60 years of age. All this further exacerbates the already rapidly growing labour shortage.

Already, the ratio of demand to supply of labour has shifted so much in their favour that even entry-level workers are no longer in a free-for-all situation and, for the first time in the history of fashion, can help shape their working conditions. Gritting their teeth, HR managers have to meet the demands of these graduates and grant them home office and flexible working hours, for example. Thus, demographic change is breeding a new and hitherto unknown species of completely inexperienced candidates pumped up with attention, wealth and self-confidence, which demands a complete rethink from the industry.

If young people still go into fashion now, it is not out of “passion for fashion” but to earn money. For them, working in fashion does not mean following a vocation, but a profession.

Because this new, more developed species does want a job. But they no longer want it at any price. As our figures at DMI confirm, half of all 18 to 24-year-olds would simply quit their job as soon as it no longer suited them. Freed from the existential fears of the war and post-war generations, 40 per cent of this generation would even rather be unemployed than do a job that does not suit them.

In the same way, this new, more developed species wants to work in fashion, but not at any price. For while the private preoccupation with fashion has gained in acceptance with each new generation, the professional preoccupation with fashion has lost in prestige from generation to generation. The flawless shine that once surrounded the fashion business has unfortunately received many ugly scratches due to the numerous revelations about its ecological and social downsides. If young people still go into fashion now, it is not out of “passion for fashion”, but to earn money. For them, working in fashion does not mean following a vocation, but a profession.

From her point of view, working time is basically time that one would rather spend doing something else. And in this respect, it must also be paid decently. And that from the very beginning and not perhaps at some point in the future. In contrast to previous generations, Generation Z does not immediately run when an employer or client dangles a carrot in front of them, but only starts moving when they are given an appropriate piece of the carrot.

In this respect, job interviews could soon actually be a bit like the meme where the personnel manager says, “At first you’ll earn €600, then later €1,800”, and the applicant replies, “Ok, then I’ll come later”.


Carl Tillessen is joint director of the German Fashion Institute with Gerd Müller-Thomkins. His book “Consumption” explores the question of how, where and above all why we buy.