Now we are seeing some very bright under-forties moving into senior roles and larger numbers of even younger people being drawn into the industry in management roles or on the floor. Some, certainly, come from families involved in the business (no bad thing), but many are completely new.

This suggests that slowly but surely the industry is casting off its smokestack, dirty image and is being seen as a positive place to work. In turn, this supports the idea that leather retains a core of younger consumers who still see it as an appropriate, quality material. For all the negatives we hear, my latest student questionnaire a year or two ago with my students at Bath was strongly pro-leather, but I had to discount it since they all knew my own position, which must have created a bias. Perhaps it was not so far wrong after all?

It is an important moment, since this changeover looks like a major jump, like in the late sixties when, according to a 1992 article in The Atlantic, the term “generation gap” gained currency. This “gap” was indeed dramatic as the youth (a group born from 1943 to 1960, so slightly different from the regular Boomer definition) rebelled against an authoritarian and disciplinary society and started an anti-establishment rage on both sides of the Atlantic: think of police shootings in Newark, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Kent State and Paris 1968.

It showed the U.S., and to a degree the world, split on attitudes of social justice, politics and then the Vietnam War. This was a lived experience for me, as I was a student leader at the time handling issues at Leeds University. I was also in the States in 1968 doing summer work, helping sell South African wattle to East coast tanneries. 

It was the period of the Beatles, sex and drugs, pop art and Che Guevara: there was a youth culture underway that embraced music, the twist, pop art, endless slogans and phrases like “having a good time”, so at odds with the thinking of the generation born from 1901 to 1924 (the GI generation in the U.S.). While the “rebel” group was small, there was a wide-ranging opinion that the societal direction of travel needed to change.

The generation gap we are seeing today is not recognisable in waves of student movements all over the world, but the jump looks to be nearly as large. Perhaps the fact that for many of us it is invisible evidence just how hard it is. Occasionally, as in the recent Olympics where counterculture sports like skateboarding and BMX appeared, we get glimpses of changes afoot but mostly it is hidden in the depth of TikTok, WeChat, WhatsApp or Instagram with influencers and vloggers finding overnight wealth and fame.

Amidst this, students and school leavers are silent compared to the fiery graduates of school and college in the sixties. They have been battling hard with life pressures including exams and job hunting. Even worse, the last 18 months have largely deprived them of any voice at all. 

But these new generations are not without opinions, attitudes and ideas. Around the world, this wide grouping of 15–40-year-olds are starting to demonstrate this in their spending power. While the separation between our industry decision making and these younger consumers looks like an unbridgeable chasm, bringing more of them into our workforce and management will create the long-needed links of understanding (as long as they are listened to).

It looks like quite a steep learning curve. Initially, it looked as though much of Asia was escaping Covid-19 largely unscathed and actually returning to life as before with consumers we knew something about. Yet the pandemic has not rested, instead rippling back to Asia to create havoc once again. As this is written, Pou Chenab and other major footwear plants in Vietnam are closed, and the supply of shoes for the likes of Nike and Adidas is interrupted.

We must expect Covid-19 to continue through 2022 and probably to last in some form even longer, so society is going to have to learn to live with it. As a result, consumers everywhere will need constant re-evaluation. Who they are, what they want to buy, where they will buy it. In the West, forced savings for some have been augmented by government support and handouts as in the U.S. In China, there has been no such individual aid but household savings have risen. This has been uneven, as shown by a very unbalanced initial splurge in spending, but the re-emergence of Covid has slowed everything as consumers become cautious once more.

Each generation is a new people

Alex de Tocqueville said that “…each generation is a new people”. In terms of our new consumers, the arrival seems sudden, although it is not, but the change has been accelerated by the pandemic and everything around it. It would be wise to accept this and take deliberate steps to relearn from the start why and how consumers buy leather, and what their thoughts and assumptions are. For too long, we have lived on past ideas that were getting steadily outdated.

Thinking we can survive by relying on those old beliefs will undoubtedly prove to be an error. Getting close to customers, and especially to final consumers, is now a vital task for tanneries. 

Mike Redwood

August 10, 2021

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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