It is a truth universally acknowledged that millennials are a feckless bunch who can’t get on the housing ladder because they spend all their money on avocado toast. Despite the ubiquity of this theory, it may not be entirely accurate. It has come to my attention that the real reason millennials are so poor isn’t that they are obsessed with avocados, but that they are obsessed with fancy job titles. According to a recent piece in Quartz by Ariel Schur, the CEO of an employment agency, millennials are so invested in titles that they will take a pay cut for a better one. “I’ve seen candidates trade as much as $10,000 in salary for what they consider a more valuable title,” Schur wrote.
Obviously, the plural of anecdote is not “data”; it’s not clear how many millennials are choosing to earn less money so they can be called chief numbers ninja rather than senior accountant. However, I am willing to bet my last avocado that Schur is correct. This isn’t because millennials are superficial, but because they are strategic. Social media have trained us to think about the value of our “personal brands”; as Schur notes, a fancy job title is “instant branding”. An impressive-sounding title doesn’t only make you look good online – it could also help you land a better position further down the line.
Companies seem to have cottoned on to this. A 2018 survey found that 39% of employers give promotions without a pay raise, up from 22% in 2011. Younger employees seem more likely to accept these deals: 72% of people under 34 said they would be willing to take a new title without an improved salary, compared with 53% of those over 55.
There is an existential element to this generational preoccupation with job titles, too. Millennials have been fed the idea that we ought to “follow our passion”; we have been trained to think about work as the defining aspect of our identity. Although we are often derided as lazy, we are actually workaholics who can’t unplug – a sentiment so widely felt that a BuzzFeed article calling millennials “the burnout generation” went viral in January. In this context, job titles are not just titles – they are a reflection of who we are.
If you want to go deeper into an existential void, consider the anthropologist David Graeber’s argument that our economies have become “vast engines for producing nonsense”. This has given rise to what he calls the bullshit job: “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case”.
The inflated importance of job titles goes hand in hand with Graeber’s theory about the “bullshitisation” of work: a fancy title helps us cling to the idea that our work has meaning and, ergo, that our lives have meaning. Frankly, more of us could do with help clinging to that idea: more than a third of British workers think their job is meaningless, according to a 2015 YouGov poll. On that note, I think it behooves me, the chief hopes and dreams officer of Arwa Mahdawi Inc, to wish you a very nice day at work.