Are job titles becoming meaningless?

Research shows a huge spike in the number of entry-level roles with inflated job titles, as impatient younger workers demand fast-tracked progression opportunities.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

The current spiked rate of inflation has employees demanding salary increases amidst a fall in real wages. But businesses are being warned about another type of inflation: the danger of the over-embellished job title.

Today’s competitive jobs landscape has people switching roles at record pace, seeking out flashy adjectives like ‘chief’, ‘senior’ and ‘lead’ for email signatures. As a result, big-sounding titles are on the rise in job adverts, as recruiters attempt to snare job seekers.

According to research by staffing firm, Walters People, positions featuring ‘Lead’ or ‘Manager’ in the job title were up a combined +53% in the UK, over the last year – despite asking for a maximum of just two years’ experience.

Janine Blacksley, Director of Walters People, comments: “It used to be the case that titles like Lead, Principle, Partner and VP took years of experience and hard work. Now, professionals are being awarded such titles in the primary stages of their career.”

Youthful ambition

Like many emerging workplace trends, the rise in the number of elevated online job titles has likely been triggered by the emerging cohort of Gen Zers.

Labelled the anti-ambition generation, young workers aged 18-26 are alienating hirers by demanding above average salaries for graduate or entry-level positions.

According to a poll by Walters People, over half of Gen-Z’s expect to be promoted every 12-18 months – and if they don’t receive this they start looking elsewhere.

Most astonishingly, the same poll uncovered that a third of all Gen Zers expect to line into a C-Suite equivalent (such as Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Head of People, or even CEO) by year five of their time at a company.

That’s despite one, 10-year-long study revealing it takes, on average, 24 years to reach boss level.

As Janine explains, “young workers have cottoned on to how candidate short the market is – particularly at the junior end. If they do not get the promotion – also known as a fancy job title – from their current employer, they know it will be on offer elsewhere.

Gen Z requests are at odds with the perspectives of senior leaders. According to a report from Multiverse, seven in ten business leaders think that new graduates are underprepared for the workforce.

To an outsider, the solution is simple: don’t hire Gen Z. But labour shortages mean bosses can’t risk ignoring the demands of new talent – particularly when this group will make up 27% of the workforce by 2025.

The prospect of losing access to fresh talent is putting pressure on businesses to offer promotion opportunities far earlier than normal. In short, in the battle between Gen Z and managers, the former is winning.

Quiet hiring

Young professionals aren’t the sole drivers of inflated job titles. As Janine explains, there are numerous reasons why employers may tactically attach inflated job titles to roles. Largely, these are to do with retaining and attracting talent.

“Giving employees fancy-sounding titles which they are proud of instils a feeling of importance and value to the business, which can help to boost morale and reduce turnover,” says Janine.

The appearance of a promotion, without actually changing job responsibilities or pay packet, can also be a much cheaper way to offer junior members of staff a benefit or perk having to foot the bill.

This is an example of ‘quiet hiring’, a workplace phrase that was popularised on TikTok earlier this year. In it, the employee is given more job responsibilities without an accompanying pay rise.

The approach is not without pitfalls, however. Asking more from employees without awarding an level of remuneration could lead staff to feel overworked and more likely to look for an alternative job role.

According to Janine, Startups are most likely to fall into the trap of blowing up their business titles to feed employee egos.

In a scaling company, where budgets might be tighter than most, advertising a specialist job role such as Head of Data can be an effective tactic for poaching talent from larger corporations without needing to offer competitive compensation

When the job bubble bursts

While a dressed-up job title might bring short-term benefits to employers, business owners shouldn’t be blind to the drawbacks. An influx of senior-sounding workers entering the market without the experience or skills to match spells trouble for long-term recruitment.

Amongst the risks, job hunters may be hired for a position they aren’t qualified for, increasing the risk of managers experiencing hiring regret.

Then there are those who might be put off by a lofty-sounding job listing they feel unqualified for. According to Data People, job ads that use the title of ‘senior’ incorrectly can see a 39% decrease in applicants.

Job title inflation can also generate a sense of unfairness and inequality within the workplace. If employees think their colleagues are being unfairly rewarded over them, this will lower staff morale and invite workplace conflict.

“Job title inflation can actually damage Gen-Z’s current job satisfaction, as well as their future progression prospects,” says Janine.

For the company, this will make it difficult to know who is actually responsible for what, leading to inefficiencies which negatively impact organisational culture.

Employers must resist the temptation to bend to employees and begin slapping a ‘senior manager’ title on newly-graduated workers. Doing so will only shoot their employees, present and future, in the foot.

Instead, managers can compromise by adopting a transparent leadership style, where the promotional pipeline and rewards system is clearly laid out for all staff to understand.

By knowing what is needed to reach the next rung of the corporate ladder, mid-level and junior workers will understand the level of skill and expertise required to reach a senior position, and how they can earn the title with hard work and management support.

Inflated job titles aren’t the only problem muddling today’s recruitment teams. Learn about 7 more mistakes to avoid on job adverts in 2023.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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