Gen Z and the Paradox of Luxur

A new generation of consumers challenges the old definition of luxury.

At its core, the luxury goods industry has always been defined by a simple paradox: its products—designed as a celebration of youth and beauty—are generally only accessible to customers “of a certain age” and relatively high income.

Perhaps it is the final irony of affluence in the 21st century, but it seems that today, as Gen Z’s buying power is about to increase, the luxury industry may be losing its historical ability to excite the imagination of successive generations of aspirational shoppers.

Gen Z consumers—those born between 1998 and 2016, and successors to the millennial generation—appear to be turning a deaf ear toward the traditional way luxury goods have been marketed and, perhaps more critically, on the assumptions of the industry that produces them and the values and culture that underpins many high-end brands.

For over two decades we have seen the ideas of global branding and a universal standard of beauty and fashion grow to the point that it’s hard to tell the affluent shopper from Shanghai or Dubai apart from his and her counterparts in New York City or Moscow. Beauty and glamour lost their local flavor and nuance as more and more shoppers embraced the idea of a new world standard for luxury and fashion.

Gen Z represents a break from the acceptance of this global standard of luxury as well as the multi-generational habit of equating shopping with status and self-worth. These new shoppers demand to be seen as unique, reject the very idea of universality in any activity, and demand to have their voices heard when it comes to brand identity and product development.

So the commercial issue is rapidly becoming how well luxury brands understand Gen Z and how they can communicate with a generation of shoppers apparently opposed to nearly everything they stand for.

As part of its Consumers@250 initiative, which looks at American life in 2026, A.T. Kearney conducted extensive research on Gen Z. This is a generation whose first members experienced childhood in the shadows of a global recession. The Digital Revolution was a fait accompli before the first Gen Zer was born. They assume that gay people should be allowed to marry, that gender identity is a matter of choice, and that the world owes refugees from the strife in the Middle East a safe harbor.