Fashion recruiter Karen Harvey has built a decades-long career placing talent at some of the industry’s most recognizable brands – and there’s one area in particular where she sees companies let down: age.
When Harvey launched her eponymous business consulting and executive search firm Karen Harvey Consulting Group in 2001, the executive immediately prioritized recruiting talent of all ages.
“It wasn’t that I was controlling the age,” she said. “I wanted incredibly smart people who were moving up in their careers, but who wanted to learn as much as they wanted to contribute and have a seat at the table.”
Indeed, Harvey was aiming for generational diversity. His plan was to leverage his decades of management experience while relying on young talent to bring their breadth of cultural and social awareness — the kind of things that can be gleaned from social activities like visiting nightclubs. and trendy restaurants or late-night fashion events. .
“I didn’t want to miss anything,” Harvey said. “So I had a huge awareness that I needed this [younger] point of view.”
Fashion has a reputation for equating youth with beauty and focusing on how to sell to Gen-Z. Labels such as Makarian and Sergio Hudson have earned praise for sending older models down the track. But in many companies, the dynamic of a C-suite filled with older executives and mostly Millennials and Gen Z employees in lower-level roles and working in retail is still relevant.
The average age of CEOs of S&P 500 companies was 53.8 in 2022, a number that barely budged from 53.7 in 2001, according to business consultancy Spencer Stuart. The average age of U.S. clothing store employees is 31, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
All told, age hasn’t been as big a factor as gender or race in the industry conversation about diversity.
But that is starting to change. All over the world, people are living and working longer. Governments from France to the United States to the Caribbean are engaged in polarizing debates over the appropriate age for retirement and how governments should support older people. A tight labor market also means companies are expanding their search for older and younger workers than they might have considered in the past.
At the same time, older members of Gen Z have entered the workforce, bringing with them their generation’s opinions on everything from sustainability to inclusivity. Their career expectations and personal values may clash with those of Baby Boomers (approximately 59 to 77) and Gen Xers (approximately 43 to 58), who are postponing retirement longer than their predecessors.
Age alone cannot predict an employee’s abilities or policy. Companies that apply broad generalities to large groups of people could lose business opportunities (like innovation, culture building, and two-way mentoring) that can come from inclusivity, or end up endorsing claims of discrimination .
Striking a balance is key, both in the age range of employees and in valuing the experience versus a new perspective.
“You actually have to take a strategic approach to balancing your leadership ranks with newcomers, rising stars and veterans,” said Paula Reid, president of executive search firm Reid & Co. “You have to be intentional. , and you have to balance.”
age is just a number
The first step is to stop assuming that individual employees will live up to (or down from) stereotypes about their generation.
Conventional wisdom says that Gen Z tends to be ambitious and pragmatic, to value diversity and the environment, and to set boundaries at work and in their personal lives. Baby boomers are known to be competitive and to associate their self-esteem with professional achievements and visibility in the workplace.
Organizations run into trouble when they assume every Gen-Zer is a social media whiz and all baby boomers are strategic geniuses, said Kyle Rudy, senior partner at Kirk Palmer Associates.
Common assumptions about workplace attributes such as “experience, leadership and track” can also be reframed, Rudy said.
“Experience is not just tenure; it could also mean experience in the world, in technology and fashion,” he said.
Youth vs Maturity
Fashion companies should consider where older and younger employees fit into their organizational hierarchy.
Harvey recalls comments she received a few years ago after placing a digital director who was “just over 30” at a major luxury brand.
“I looked the CEO in the eye and said, ‘you better watch out for her’ because I didn’t want her to get eaten up by the organization’s legacy talent,” said Harvey. “But he looked at me and said, ‘Karen, talent takes precedence over tenure.'”
Ultimately, the young CDO “was incredibly successful in her role,” because her experience and knowledge outweighed the number of years she spent in the working world, Harvey said. .
Not all mature workers are suitable for the C-suite, and some younger employees may be on the fast track to leadership.
Companies can struggle to attract and retain early-career professionals due to outdated assumptions that young people are only there to “inform,” Harvey said.
“They also want to engage,” she said. “[There needs to be] an appreciation of what this young talent has to offer in terms of relevance, credibility, connectedness and contribution from the important intersections of fashion, culture, music and art.
Not all workers with decades of experience are in the running for the C-suite — and companies looking to fill roles at different levels could benefit from a fresh look at older candidates.
“When I speak with candidates who are approaching 50, it’s very common for them to say, ‘I just want to be able to contribute. I’m not looking to grow in the organization,'” Reid said.
One benefit of this mindset, she said, is that older candidates who feel they’ve already “proven themselves in their careers” are often willing to mentor young talent without feeling threatened by them. They may also be less likely to act as guardians of institutional wisdom and career advice, Reid said.
Like other forms of diversity, generational inclusivity can be a powerful tool for fashion companies, but it shouldn’t trump other important attributes of candidates for a given role, experts say.
“You cannot remove other filters to [assessing] talent – you always need ambition, curiosity and a willingness to learn, and that applies to everyone,” Harvey said.