There is abundant literature these days on what drives Chinese millennial luxury consumption, and most of it focuses on that generation’s affluent parents’ background or the country’s new financial optimism. Reports have also elaborated on millennials’ changing attitude toward luxury, which has shifted from using it as a status symbol to wearing it as a reflection of one’s personality or wielding it as social capital. But less ink has been spilled on the darker side of China’s luxury-craving youth: how they’re buying luxury as a reward for overworking.
While “millennial burnout” in the West takes many forms, from simply logging too much screen time to the stress that comes from working in the “gig economy,” in China, millennial burnout is all about working brutally long hours. In April, a national debate about the culture of overworking and “996” — a term for the 9 am to 9 pm, six-day-a-week work schedule that’s common among the nation’s young professionals — took the Chinese internet by storm. The topic got especially heated when Jack Ma, the co-founder and chairman of Alibaba, came out in support of burnout culture with a Weibo post stating, “Young people shall view working 996 as their own fortune.” The controversial statement led to a hashtag #马云谈996# (Jack Ma on 996) that quickly reached over 110 million views and 380 thousand comments since April 12th/ over the past one month, and even China’s government mouthpiece, People’s Daily, published a piece on 996 culture that advocated for a greater work-life balance.
Overworked and highly ambitious, many millennials are turning to luxury shopping as a gesture of self-reward or self-care. To better understand this worldview, Jing Daily interviewed three Chinese “996” professionals from tier 1 cities who routinely spend part of their earnings on luxury products.
Nick Zhang, 28, is from Beijing and owns a tech startup. “996 is the schedule for employees,” Zhang said. “For self-starters like me, we work 007 [meaning a non-stop schedule from midnight to midnight, 7 days a week].” Though not a fashionista, Zhang enjoys making luxury wardrobe upgrades. In March alone, he bought 12 Thom Browne shirts and several pairs of shoes from Tod’s. “I am too exhausted every morning to think of my outfit,” he said, “and I know these luxury items would help me save lots of time because they can’t go wrong.”
Maggie Chen, 25, works as a junior editor in a Shenzhen-based media company where she earns around $880 (6000RMB) a month. She recently bought herself a signature Chanel chain bag and three Tom Ford lipsticks. “In the highly competitive media industry, 996 is simply expected from someone inexperienced like me,” she said. “How can I work so hard and not reward myself?” She added that there’s also a lot of pressure to look good among her female colleagues and that she feels like she needs luxury items to be accepted around the office. “I always put aside a certain amount of my salary for luxury, because making myself look better is a worthwhile investment,” said Chen.
Tianxin Luo, 27, works as a financial analyst in the Hong Kong office of one of the world’s top-tier consulting firms. Last month was a milestone for her: She purchased her first Hermès handbag. “I am overjoyed by my first Hermès,” she exclaimed, “because this is the first real luxury I rewarded myself with for working like a machine for two years straight!” She sees Hong Kong’s competitive environment as an exercise that pushes her physical and mental limits. When asked how she feels about the 996 culture, she said, “I think Jack Ma is right. 996 is a fortune to young, ambitious people. [But] if you don’t even have the desire to spend, you won’t be motivated to advance in a career.”
Tianxin’s desire to translate her material goals into professional aspirations is emblematic of young, urban Chinese culture today. And while it’s trendy in the West for millennials to reject the “spend more, earn more” lifestyle, Chinese millennials see it as an inspiring model. In 2018, the popular TV series Women in Beijing, for instance, took this message to an extreme when the protagonist, a Sichuan girl who comes to Beijing for a better life, makes a Louis Vuitton bag her first goal to achieve in her new life.
Recent consumer data on the subject confirms that “self-reward” is a crucial factor in Chinese luxury spending. According to Nicole Yang, the CMO of the Chinese luxury e-commerce giant Secoo, nearly 60 percent of the platform’s customers in 2018 were urban working women under 30. The customers in this group often refer to themselves as “delicate piggy girls (精致的猪猪女孩)” — a euphemism for young Chinese women that are clumsy early in life but aspire to become sophisticated. Many of them are new to their careers and work 996 as a way to better themselves.
Ogilvy China’s 2019 luxury report points out that “Beauty is Power” and “My Future is My Own” are two of the six core values among this Chinese generation Put together, they create a mindset that values a luxury handbag like a badge — one symbolizing “a better me.” To these consumers, this is worth working jobs that are 996 or more. “I know this is tiring,” Tianxin confided, “but having a material goal is a positive thing. It forces me to make more money and go further.” To her and many other Chinese millennials, working grueling hours for luxury rewards is simply a technique that helps them achieve a better life in a highly competitive environment.