In millennial China, the coolest identity today is to have more than one. The conventional road to success — an upscale office desk, business suits, and a “work your way up” linear career path — sounds so five years ago. Instead, more and more Chinese millennials have started to adopt a freelance lifestyle that enables them to have more than one job — or identity. They are called the “slasher generation (斜杠青年),” a term referring to people who enjoy having multiple work identities and the “/” symbol in their title.
This past June, the state-own Xinhua News officially adopted this term while covering the slasher phenomenon. According to a Xinhua’s report, China’s slashers have exceeded 80 million, in which the majority are highly-educated, urban-dwelling millennials.
And the media is all over the “slasher generation.” In 2016, the writer Susan Kuang published a book called “Slasher Generation,” bringing the idea of “slasher,” a term initially coined in 2007 by The New York Times columnist, Marci Alboher, to the public attention in China. Ever since, there has been an abundance of articles that cover the slasher lifestyle via social media. Popular titles include, “Guide to be a happy slasher,” “How to explain slashing to family and friends,” and “How slashing leads to a more meaningful life,” to mention a few. In March 2019, the liquor brand Rémy Martin released a music video with seven Chinese slashers singing about their self-curated identities. In May of this year, a luxury shopping mall in Xi’an, China, held a “Slasher Festival” to celebrate this emerging culture. Right now, being a slasher has never felt so cool.
Behind such a phenomenon lie a significant social change and generational culture shift. To most Chinese who are over 30-years-old, nothing is more desirable than a state office job that provides long tenure, social benefits, and stability for life. Commonly referred to as a “golden rice bowl (金饭碗),” a stable, often state-provided job represents the dream career in the Chinese social norm. For many of today’s millennials, however, purpose trumps stability. They embrace the slasher lifestyle out of the desire for choice and a customized life path, which was both foreign and unfeasible for their predecessors.
On a cultural level, the slasher phenomenon demonstrates what Chinese millennials value — individuality, flexible work hours, and self-entrepreneurship. These values, new to China’s modern history, have important implications for the country’s luxury consumption of tomorrow. Individuality, emotion, purpose, and everything about the self will increasingly matter to how Chinese millennials choose to spend, as well as to how they choose to work.
Of course, the past has been cluttered with headlines that alluded to Chinese millennials being the “me” generation. However, past reports on this topic were usually about historical contexts like young Chinese’s digital obsession, a family-provided financial cushion, or being raised as the only child. While these have indeed contributed to some Chinese millennial’s individualist persona, it’s the act of choosing to be a slasher in life that truly confirms that we have come close to an individualist era. For luxury and fashion brands, this slasher phenomenon marks a critical break in China’s consumer attitude shifts.
First of all, Chinese slashers increasingly favor niche fashion labels, rather than mainstream brands. This is not to say that a shiny Rolex watch or a classic Louis Vuitton tote will see their demand shrink. But compared to the once-rigid thinking that equated brand status to personal status, a new form of buy-what-I-like attitude is on the rise.
According to a 2019 report by Amazon China, trend-forward, not-so-mainstream brands such as Pinko, Boss, and Champion are gaining popularity among urban, high-earning Chinese women. The report also pointed out that over 80% of the women surveyed are slashers or plan to be one, while 65% agreed that being a slasher enriches themselves both professionally and personally.
Secondly, the rise of slashers has pushed society in large to redefine the notion of value. A report on “New-Age Middle-Class Insights,” issued by TalkingData has revealed that the new wave of Chinese middle class, embodied mainly by the slasher generation, has a different set of values than the conventional middle class. Rather than spending on classic wealth symbols like cars, real estate, and high-status restaurants, the new middle-class prefers to spend on new experiences, personal care, and personal development. In line with global millennial values, Chinese millennials are leaning towards experience currency rather than material ownership.
@Zhang Duoduo, a blogger/homestay host/e-commerce expert/female growth speaker/coffee shop investor, is a post-90 slasher par excellence. When asked about how slashers shop differently, she told Jing Daily that, “Slashers are decisive, intuitive shoppers. It usually takes me five minutes from walking into a shop to swiping my credit card. It took me 30 minutes to decide which car I was going to buy.” While the classic Chinese luxury consumers are known to invest a great deal of time researching and digging out the best offer, a “price is everything” attitude won’t apply as much to the slasher crowd.
“We also have an acute sense of what we want. I started to value more and more on how I feel (about the object), and I wanted the object to reflect some aspects of me. For example, I didn’t appreciate Bulgari’s bold, classic aesthetic in the past, but now I do a lot,” Zhang added. For the slashers that put individuality at the center of their lives, brands with a strong point of view and distinct style have an edge. Chinese slashers want what they buy to have a “take” on something, rather than just playing it safe and melting into the acceptable social status.
Individualist, strong-willed, and self-reliant, China’s slasher generation is a “disruptor” to the country’s relatively conservative social norms. They also represent a unique existence amidst the global gig economy. Freelancing or slashing has long existed as a career norm in the West, where the idea of personal choice isn’t as contested as it is in China. Today, with the rise of slashers, the idea of personal choice is starting to be inspirational calling to China’s ever-increasing youth. Given this, the Chinese luxury narrative could possibly shift from “I buy something because my colleagues all have it.” To “I buy something because of what it says about me.”