How Gen Z and the Great Resignation created a wave of overinflated job titles
Way back in 1993, the Financial Times ran a column bemoaning the grandiose job titles that were popping up in the US and the UK. "Monetary inflation may be under control in Britain, but the same cannot be said for job titles," wrote Adrian Furnham, a professor at University College London. "Nearly all Americans over the age of 23 seem to have the title 'executive vice-president' embossed on their business cards."
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 was shocking to me how dramatic it's been," says Maryam Jahanshahi, the head of R&D at Datapeople. "It's rampant in lots of different types of jobs."
So what's driving companies to hand out ever-fancier titles? There are four factors fueling the rampant title inflation:
- Screwing employees out of overtime wages. 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. In a study published in January, researchers at Harvard and the University of Texas at Dallas found that some front-desk assistants are now "directors of first impressions," while carpet cleaners have been transformed into "shampoo managers." The savings add up: The study estimates that employers are using job titles to cheat employees out of $4 billion a year in overtime pay.
- Recruiting and retaining professionals. 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. The practice has become especially common during the Great Resignation, which has made it tough for companies to hang on to employees. "Because the market is so tight," says Michelle Reisdorf, a district director at the staffing firm Robert Half, "a lot of hiring managers are definitely being creative in every method they can to attract top talent."
- Making junior and midlevel staff seem more important to external clients. That's why investment banks hand out the title of vice president to virtually everyone — to lend an air of authority to green-behind-the-ear bankers whose clients are typically much older. Goldman Sachs once disclosed that it employs nearly 12,000 vice presidents — a third of its entire workforce. Last year, the accounting firm EY gave its associate partners in the UK the title of "partner," hoping it would help them win more business. (The new title didn't come with a raise or a share in the firm's profits.) I've even heard of some companies that keep a database of two titles for each employee: a normal one for internal purposes and an inflated one that sales reps — sorry, business-development managers — use in their calls to clients. A recent marketing study found the tactic works — even when it's deployed by artificial intelligence. When a chatbot introduced itself as a "customer-service manager" rather than a "customer-service representative," people rated it as more likable, trustworthy, and knowledgeable.
- Satisfying the expectations of Gen Z. Over the years, as titles have grown more bloated, younger employees have come to expect fancy titles far earlier than previous generations did. They also expect to get promoted more frequently, which inflates titles even faster. 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.
The title inflation has gotten so bad that companies are running out of lofty new words to bestow on their employees. Some are mashing together a bunch of old words, resulting in monstrosities like "senior executive vice president" — not to be confused with senior vice presidents and executive vice presidents. Others are trying to confer new authority to words that aren't senior-sounding at all. At big tech companies, for example, staff engineers typically sit above senior engineers, and the highest-ranking engineers are called fellows — the title many companies use for interns.
But the biggest problem with title inflation isn't confusion — it's that puffed-up titles don't actually attract better talent. In one analysis, Datapeople found that attaching the word "senior" to positions that are actually junior financial analysts results in 39% fewer qualified applicants. That's because junior-level candidates see the fancy title and think they're unqualified for the position, while senior-level applicants read the job description and realize they're overqualified. "It makes for a very inefficient recruiting process," Jahanshahi says. "People feel bait-and-switched." Even worse, the deception leads to a 27% plunge in the number of female candidates, making it harder for companies to diversify their workforces.
There are dangers for employees as well. Instead of making you look impressive, having a bunch of grandiose titles on your résumé can actually lead to missed opportunities. "Sometimes these elevated titles might take you out of the running for a job," says Reisdorf, the Robert Half executive. "Someone looks at your big fancy title and says, 'Well, you're overqualified,' or 'This job won't satisfy you.'"
Still, despite the downsides of title inflation, I think there are some redeeming qualities to the state of things today. I used to admire the egalitarian ethos at Bloomberg, where most of my fellow reporters and I were called reporters, regardless of our level of experience. But since joining Insider, I've come to appreciate the way its more transparent hierarchy, with six titles ranging from junior reporter to chief correspondent, offers writers a clearer and more equitable path for career advancement and pay bumps.
There are even advantages to the kind of creative titles we've come to ridicule. In one study, the renowned organizational psychologist Adam Grant found that giving employees the chance to craft their own titles led to less burnout. The titles adopted by employees at one organization seemed particularly absurd — "minister of dollars and sense" (COO), "goddess of greetings" (administrative assistant), and "magic messenger" (PR manager) — until you realized that they worked for the nonprofit Make-A-Wish Foundation, which fulfills the dreams of dying children. If including a whimsical title in their email signatures helps these employees cope with an emotionally challenging job, who are we to laugh?
It goes to show how our job titles aren't just a summary of our day-to-day responsibilities or an indicator of our place in the org chart. They also shape our identities as human beings. It means something to us for the world to call us by a name that reflects how we see ourselves. But the goddess-of-greetings study contained one other important detail: The employees who gave themselves wacky job titles also kept their normal boring ones. It's one thing to call someone a magic messenger at work. It's another thing to post it as a job on ZipRecruiter.
"If you want to call someone a chief happiness officer internally, by all means," Jahanshahi says. "But externally to the world, you've got to use industry-specific titles that match the seniority of the role. Otherwise no one's going to find that job — unless someone on Twitter decides to make it a meme."
Aki Ito is a senior correspondent at Insider.
Juliana Kaplan contributed reporting.
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