Congratulations, Gen Z: You Are the New Societal Scapegoat for Longstanding and Systemic Problems
And now for something completely different, in part because I do not want to write about green bubbles again.
You read the headline, so you know what this article is going to be about and, as a member of the “Millennial” generation, I could not be more thankful. For about fifteen years, the news has been full of stories about how people about my age are killing everything because we are narcissistic, lazy, and entitled. We are “too soft” in ways that are somehow different from all the times that has been said about every preceding generation.
But now the torch — or lightning rod? — has been passed to Generation Z, which is comprised of those born between 1997 and the early 2010s. The oldest zoomers are in their mid-twenties and, so, many of them are in their first years of salaried employment. But their relative youth and inexperience has not prevented many of them from being given managerial job titles, or so claims this bad article from Aki Ito at Insider.
The headline is “How Gen Z and the Great Resignation Created a Wave of Overinflated Job Titles”, and Ito sets up the problem, as it were, in the second paragraph:
But here’s the thing about inflation: It never ends. According to a new analysis of 2.4 million job postings by Datapeople, a provider of recruiting analytics, American job titles are even more grandiose today than they were back when Furnham was grousing about the state of corporate taxonomies. Since 2019, employers have tripled their use of the word “lead” in early-career tech jobs, upped their use of “principal” by 57%, and cut their use of the word “junior” by half. […]
It appears an increasing number of job titles do not match the work performed and, in the headline, the thesis seems clear: this is the result of zoomers with an elevated level of importance, and a desperate attempt to placate staff who would otherwise leave. As is the case for most publications, I bet Ito did not pick the headline for this story, but it is what caught my attention and is worth addressing. So, why blame zoomers?
When JobSage, an employer-review site, surveyed workers last year, 58% of Gen Z respondents said they expect to be promoted every 18 months, compared with 20% of baby boomers and 27% of Gen Xers. Gen Z workers also estimated that it takes a mere three to six years to become a vice president. Boomers, by contrast, said becoming a VP requires a decade or more of experience.
Note how this is a survey of different generations on August 1, 2022, not different generations at the same point in their respective careers. There is nothing here which suggests young people today are uniquely more likely to expect more rapid career advancement than past generations did at the same age. If anything, it basically just means younger people have less life experience. This is not new: a 2008 literature analysis (PDF) questioned whether the career expectations of young people were “absurdly ambitious?” in its title, and noted similar observations of American teenagers going back as 1964.
This is the only rationalization in this article of zoomer responsibility for inflated job titles, and it is not even clear to me that employers are bending to the demands of young people. It is a weak case for the article’s headline thesis. But it is only one of four explanations offered for these job titles, and the other three are far more convincing and, in what is unlikely to be a coincidence, they are things which directly benefit employers.
In higher-paid jobs, employers are using title inflation to try to attract a higher caliber of candidates and keep employees from jumping ship. Compared with enticements like higher pay and better benefits, tacking an extra “senior” onto somebody’s job title is free.
This has nothing to do with generational differences, and it barely has anything to do with the “great resignation” as also posited by the headline. In the same JobSage survey used for the Gen Z explanation, giving employees a different title in lieu of a raise only worked for 22% of managers. When this strategy is effective, it only benefits the employer, but it is mostly not an explanation. Next reason?
Making junior and midlevel staff seem more important to external clients.
This one makes sense. Ito cites a 2012 Wall Street Journal story in which Goldman Sachs says about a third of all its employees are “vice presidents”. I have personally experienced this, too: at one job, I was asked to pick my own title, and the one I first came up with was rejected for not being impressive enough for prospective clients. Some people just want to feel like they are being doted upon by the firm’s senior management. This is entirely plausible. As with the retention explanation, it is only beneficial to employers and costs nothing. In fact, not only might it draw more business — thereby earning employers more money — it might actually save them costs over the long term. The rationale presented first in Ito’s article is the one I have saved for last because it is a doozy:
Federal law requires employers to pay workers for their overtime hours — unless they’re classified as salaried managers. So companies are exploiting the loophole by giving important-sounding titles to low-wage workers.
Ito cites a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (PDF) in which the authors found employers stiff staff at a rate of about $4 billion per year by getting creative with job titles. This figure needs context: U.S. employers paid workers $9.7 trillion in 2021, with private wages comprising about $8.3 trillion of that total. But the NBER estimates wage theft due to managerial titles amounts to a loss of over 13% of overtime pay for already low-salary jobs; its paper only looked at jobs with a weekly salary of $405 to $505, so as to examine the use of what its authors call “strategic” managerial titles. This seems like the actual headline — and, in fairness, Ito did link to Insider’s coverage this paper from when it was published in January. But, in this article, it is not — the headline unfairly blames young people for the expansion of seemingly frivolous job titles out of vanity and inflated expectations.
This is the sort of article that deeply frustrates me. It is a drop in a sea of similar stories where younger generations are scapegoated for some presumed societal ill or changing expectation; but, if you look even a little more closely, the real story is one of increasingly concentrated power and wealth in an already powerful and wealthy group. Gen Z has its own problems to confront: its members began their adult lives in the middle of a pandemic with a whiplashing economy and, in many parts of the world, an overheated market for renting or owning a home. Surveys show they want a healthier balance between their work and personal lives, and they understand developing a successful career takes time and constant learning. They do not want to be pandered to; they just want a reasonable level of respect, as with pretty much everyone else.
Stories like these are unhelpful at best, and damaging at worst. Someone skimming the Insider homepage uncritically might see this headline and chuckle at how coddled the kids are these days. That simply is not the case. The kids are alright. It is, as ever, the rich and truly powerful — the actual managerial bureaucracy — who are enriching themselves at the expense of the rest of us.