Don’t Blame Gen Z, The Boomers Invented Job Title Inflation
A new piece at Insider looks at job title inflation, blaming Gen Z for wanting a special title to make themselves feel more important than they are. And while the article acknowledges there was job title inflation in the 1990s, the history of complaining about this constantly evolving linguistic game is way older than that. As it turns out, you can blame the Baby Boomers.
“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,” Insider explains, trying to pin rampant job title inflation on Gen Z.
But blaming kids for job title inflation actually started when older people of the mid-1970s saw the younger generation getting titles some thought they didn’t deserve. At the time, that “younger generation” was the Boomers.
An article published in the Washington Post in 1975 actually pinned the blame on all those pesky young people getting college degrees, which they apparently didn’t need. Even the launch of the satellite Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 was to blame, according to the author of the column, Jerry V. Willson.
“The stressing of higher education in the orbit trail of Sputnik has contributed to the phenomenon of pseudoprestigious job titles. Suddenly, the nation forgot about the values of vocational training and of craftsmanship and began to push everyone into higher education,” Willson complained.
In fact, there’s some truth to this complaint. Sputnik did contribute to a cultural push in the U.S. to get kids into higher education. There was even a campaign to make the Sunday newspaper comics more tech-heavy, with two strips launching in 1958 with the explicit goal of getting kids interested in science. The splashy color comics “Closer Than We Think” and “Our New Age” were going to inspire kids to become engineers and highly trained experts to get us to the Moon and fight the Soviet Union.
Willson went on to argue in his piece that all of this supposedly inflated importance in college meant everyone had to get a fancy title. Willson took particular issue with truck drivers getting called “professionals” during that wave of job title inflation.
“No doubt the trucking company is seeking, by fashioning its drivers ‘professionals,’ to instill in them a sense of pride in their job and their work. That is a commendable objective, but I wish they would just stress quality without the euphemism. What’s wrong with stressing competence, safe driving, delivery of goods undamaged, courteous service, high productivity, for non-professional working people,” Willson wrote.
A syndicated article in 1976 went so far as to say that job title inflation was “infesting” the business world.
“The giant Boeing Company has vice-presidents who also are presidents. A Washington, D.C., bank is top-heavy with officers, vice-presidents and senior vice-presidents. At one New York manufacturing firm, ‘junior’ account assistants are now… EXECUTIVES,” an article credited to Guy Halverson explained.
Halverson wrote that this new phenomenon of job title inflation hadn’t been extensively studied yet, but people were seeing it everywhere in 1976.
“Apparently management specialists have not yet made comprehensive overall studies of the phenomenon. But they say enough examples of exaggerated titles are being found to indicate a new trend may be under way,” Halverson said.
“Some job titles, to put it kindly, may not quite be equal to the nature of the job actually performed.”
And it wasn’t just titles that were getting inflated, according to the older generations. Baby Boomers had been getting their grades inflated, something that sounds familiar to anyone who follows the current crop of complaints about academic achievement in America.
Comedian George Carlin, a member of the Silent Generation and no fan of the Boomers himself, complained about job title inflation in his 2004 book.
“I’m not sure when job-title inflation began, but it’s been building for a while. At some point in the past thirty years secretaries become personal assistants or executive assistants. Many of them now consider those terms too common, so they call themselves administrative aides,” Carlin wrote.
Insider, it should be noted, is the media organization formerly known as Business Insider, a change that suggests its own kind of prestige inflation. Not content to be just the insider information necessary for business, Insider will give you the information vital for, well, everything.
Gen Z didn’t invent job title inflation. But you can bet they’ll be complaining 30 years from now about how every kid from Gen Infinity laying next to them in the vitamin-leeching pod insists on being called an executive sustenance vessel for the Giant Orb.