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A Greying Workforce Puts Fashion’s Youth Obsession to the Test

Companies must go beyond stereotypes about Gen-Z and Baby Boomers when hiring, and think strategically about how to get the most from workers of any age, experts say.
Fashion has a reputation for equating youth with beauty, and for having a laser focus on how to sell to Gen-Z.
Fashion has a reputation for equating youth with beauty, and for having a laser focus on how to sell to Gen-Z. (Getty Images)

Key insights

  • Generational diversity, or ensuring all age groups are represented across an organisation, can help fashion companies tap into innovation, culture-building and two-way mentorship.
  • Companies should examine where older and younger employees fit within their organisational hierarchy and be weary of assumptions that older employees are strategic geniuses and younger people are social media gurus.
  • Finding a balance is key, both in the age range of employees and how experience versus a fresh perspective is valued.

Fashion recruiter Karen Harvey has built a decades-long career out of placing talent across some of the industry’s most recognisable brands — and there’s one area in particular where she sees firms dropping the ball: age.

When Harvey launched her eponymous business consultancy and executive search firm Karen Harvey Consulting Group in 2001, the executive immediately prioritised hiring talent across the age spectrum.

“It wasn’t that I was vetting for age,” she said. “I wanted incredibly smart people who were coming up in their careers, but wanted to learn as much as they wanted to contribute and have a place at the table.”

In effect, Harvey was aiming for generational diversity. Her plan was to leverage her decades of management experience while counting on younger talent to bring their breadth of cultural and social awareness — the kind of stuff that can be gleaned from social activities like visiting nightclubs and trendy restaurants or hobnobbing at late-night fashion events.

“I didn’t want to miss things,” Harvey said. “So I had a tremendous awareness that I needed that [younger] point of view.”

Fashion has a reputation for equating youth with beauty, and for having a laser focus on how to sell to Gen-Z. Labels such as Makarian and Sergio Hudson have earned praise for sending older models down the runway. But at many companies, the dynamic still holds of a C-suite packed with older executives and mostly Millennial and Gen-Z employees filling junior roles and working retail.

The average age of CEOs at companies in the S&P 500 was 53.8 in 2022, a number that barely budged from 53.7 in 2001, according to the business consultancy Spencer Stuart. The average age of employees in US clothing stores is 31-years-old, according to data from the Bureau of Labour Statistics.

All told, age hasn’t been as big a factor as gender, or race in the industry’s conversation around diversity.

But that’s starting to change. People around the world are living and working longer. Governments from France to the US to the Caribbean are engaged in polarising debates over the appropriate age for people to retire and how governments should support the elderly. A tight labour market also means companies are expanding their search to older and younger workers than they might have considered in the past.

At the same time, the oldest members of Gen-Z have entered the labour force, bringing with them their generation’s views on everything from sustainability to inclusivity. Their workplace expectations and personal values can be at odds with those of Boomers (roughly 59 to 77 years old) and Gen Xers (about 43 to 58 years old), who are pushing off retirement for longer than their predecessors.

Age alone can’t predict an employee’s abilities or their politics. Companies that apply sweeping generalities to large groups of people could forfeit business opportunities (like innovation, culture-building and two-way mentorship) that can come from inclusivity, or end up shouldering allegations of discrimination.

Finding a balance is key, both in the age range of employees and how experience versus a fresh perspective is valued.

“You actually have to have a strategic approach to balancing your leadership ranks with up-and-comers, rising stars and veterans,” said Paula Reid, president of the executive search firm Reid & Co. “You have to be intentional, and you have to balance it.”

Age Is Just a Number

Step one is to stop assuming individual employees will live up (or down) to stereotypes about their generation.

The conventional wisdom says Gen Z tends to be ambitious and pragmatic, value diversity and the environment, and are keen to set boundaries at work and in their personal lives. Boomers are known to be competitive and to equate their self-worth with career accomplishments and workplace visibility.

Organisations run into trouble when they assume every Gen-Zer is a social media whiz and all Boomers are strategic geniuses, said Kyle Rudy, senior partner at Kirk Palmer Associates.

Common assumptions about workplace attributes like “experience, leadership and runway,” can also be reframed, Rudy said.

“Experience isn’t just tenure; it could also mean experience in the world, in technology and fashion,” he said.

Youth vs Maturity

Fashion companies should examine where older and younger employees fit within their organisational hierarchy.

Harvey can recall the feedback she received a few years ago after she placed a chief digital officer who was “just over 30 years old” at a major luxury brand.

“I looked the CEO in the eye, and I said, ‘you better look out for her’ because I didn’t want her to get eaten alive by the legacy talent in the organisation,” Harvey said. “But he looked right back at me and said, ‘Karen, talent over tenure.’”

Ultimately, the young CDO “was incredibly successful in her role,” because her experience and knowledge trumped the number of years she’d been in the working world, Harvey said.

Not every mature-aged worker is suitable for the C-suite, and some younger employees may be on the fast track for management.

Companies can struggle to attract and retain early career professionals due to outdated assumptions that young people are only in the room “to inform,” Harvey said.

“They also want to engage,” she said. “[There needs to be] an appreciation for what that younger talent has to offer in terms of relevance, credibility, connectivity and bringing the important intersections of fashion, culture, music and art.”

Not every worker with decades of experience is vying for the C-suite — and companies looking to fill roles across various levels could benefit from taking a fresh look at older candidates.

“When I talk with candidates who are in their late 50s, it’s very common for them to say, ‘I just want to be able to contribute. I’m not looking to move up in the organisation,’” Reid said.

One of the benefits of this mindset, she said, is that older candidates who feel they’ve already “proven themselves in their career” are often willing to mentor younger talent without feeling threatened by them. They may also be less likely to act as gatekeepers of institutional wisdom and career advice, Reid said.

Like other forms of diversity, generational inclusivity can be a powerful tool for fashion companies to leverage, but it shouldn’t trump the other important candidate attributes for any given role, experts say.

“You can’t take off the other filters for [assessing] talent — you still need ambition, curiosity, and willingness to learn, and that applies to everyone,” Harvey said.

Further Reading

Companies are increasingly finding that the best way to sidestep deficits in knowledge and experience among recent college graduates and veteran employees is to play a more active role in the education process.



About the author
Sheena Butler-Young
Sheena Butler-Young

Sheena Butler-Young is Senior Correspondent at The Business of Fashion. She is based in New York and covers workplace, talent and issues surrounding diversity and inclusion.

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