The 20th century was a time of major changes: city life, globalization, mass media, social advances… And these changes have had a big impact on the job search.
People don’t look for work like they used to
I’ve already explored 5 old lessons from resume history. These lessons reflect the elements of the job search which have survived the test of time. But now, let’s have a look at how things have changed. (If you want a bit of both in an infographic format, check this out.)
Most of the stuff I quote here is from the New York Times archives (which I’ve searched for words such as resume, career, jobs, cover letter, application, job search, …). I’m also presenting material from two resume books that were published in 1976.
What’s most important: resume or cover letter?
First off, let’s look at the actual documents a job seeker uses. While the resume is the core document around which today’s job search revolves, it wasn’t always the case.
In the book How to Get the Job You Want, there’s a section about common goofs, with the following question: “Did I include my résumé with my letter?”
Notice the order. Today, the goof would be to omit a cover letter… because sending your resume is the obvious part.
In that same book, the first chapter is called “Preparing the letter of application.” That’s what they begin with. It’s a priority. However, it’s not called a “cover letter” yet. That official name would come later.
And many employers find a personal letter, which highlights the relevance of the applicant’s skills to a specific job, to be much more helpful than the résumé itself. (New York Times, October 12, 1980)
Obviously, the further back we go in time, the more important letters become. And it’s not just a job seeker thing. People in the first half of the century would write letters quite often. It was a very typical way to communicate. Actually, there were very few options back then. So people wrote letters, and sometimes, it was to ask for a job.
And somewhere around the 80s, “cover letters” became the formal letter you and I know. By that point, however, it was clearer and clearer what the standard job search document would be: the resume.
Interestingly, the word “resume” (as a job search document) doesn’t appear in the New York Times until 1960, in an article called Job Seeker Gets A Proper Start With a Resume (October 27, 1960).
I haven’t found older resume books either.
Early days of the resume
The early resume wasn’t exactly what we see today. In the 1970s, it was “correct, but not absolutely necessary” to have height, weight, date of birth and marital status on your resume. Today, North American resumes have been mostly stripped of such information, to avoid potential discrimination. (But with the imposing presence of LinkedIn, these “equal opportunity” principles will have to be reviewed.) It took many years of adaptation to sort through different methods.
In the early days of the resume, they were meant for high-level positions. But it was anticipated that it would spread across the spectrum of employment.
Résumés are not usually required for clerical and skilled labor jobs, though their wider use might possibly expand… (Resume Writing: A Comprehensive How-To-Do-It Guide, 1976)
Also, there was a bit of a trend in the early 80s for the functional resume, or the skills-based resume.
Age is never mentioned, nor are dates nor chronologies from which age might be computed. ‘What we write are functional résumés designed to illustrate the value of the executive to the company. (New York Times, October 12, 1980)
This illustrates once again that people have been trying to improve the job search for a long time. (After all, people had noticed problems with job interviews back in 1948, and got computers involved in candidate selection as early as 1967!)
But that format wasn’t the right way to present most people’s experience. Today, when we talk about the functional resume we usually mean a hybrid between the chronological and skills-based resumes.
The format is another major area of change for resumes and cover letters. Since most people in the Western world today have access to computers and nice printers, it’s fairly easy to edit and print tailored documents. But it wasn’t the case back then.
Here are a few interesting excerpts of formatting advice, which will probably make you thankful for word processing software. (Various excerpts from How to Get the Job You Want.)
You need an electric typewriter with a modern typeface. Suggestion: use a carbon ribbon, with a sharp, glossy, printed look.
A bit of advice: do not use your company’s stationery to apply elsewhere.
To make copies, find a reputable printer… As of this writing, the cost will vary from $10.00 per hundred for copies made directly from your copy by offset or lithographic processing to $30.00 per hundred for type-set copies.
In another book, we learn about typewriters with “attractive, readable typefaces”: the IBM Executive and the Selectric. There’s also lots of precise editing directions: double space this, triple space and indent that, center this 5 or 6 lines below…
Approaching the job search like it’s 1955
The approach to the job search has also evolved throughout the years. For example, in articles before 1940, there was no mention of education as a criteria for employment. Your experience and reputation were pretty much all that mattered.
I thought it was very surprising to find a reference asking people to be willing to relocate for work, as early as 1955.
In the 1970s, more and more people were going to college, but it was still fairly exclusive. Check out how you could demonstrate ambition on your resume:
… even character traits can be supported… Ambition can be indicated by having worked one’s way through college. (Resume Writing, 1976)
You can’t imagine that today!
And the idea of using your network and looking for work in many places was already there. Help of relatives and friends, college placement offices, direct application, private employment agencies… (New York Times, May 8, 1955)
You could also market yourself with broadcast letters.
The broadcast letter is a special type of employment application letter that is widely circulated to top company executives, rather than the personnel department. Its role derives from the fact that more than 80% of available jobs are never advertised and must be tracked down by mail.
(This 80% hidden job market has gotten really small, but many experts haven’t caught up yet.)
Send out at least 100 and preferably as many as 500 broadcast letters… (Resume Writing, 1976)
Perks from the Cold War
Google employees have their own fancy bus and free gourmet food. But the Cold War era brought about an unusual perk at a British factory.
More than 2,000 persons replied to an advertisement for 250 jobs at a factory in Penzance, Cornwall, an area advertised as “safe from nuclear bombs. (New York Times, September 10, 1961)
The 1960s were a major time of social change. More and more women were college-educated. The Black community made major strides with the civil rights movement. Notice the title of the following 1961 New York Times piece, which wasn’t generally considered offensive back then.
In a time where school and bus segregation were hot topics, this article discusses opportunity: “an even more basic dilemma […] the lack of equal job opportunity.”
Valedictorian Shirley Carmon was an ‘A’ student and a leader in extracurricular activities. Two and a half years after graduation, Shirley, like nine of her classmates, is working as a maid. (New York Times, November 19, 1961)
Many Blacks were moving North, where craft and white-collar jobs were given to Black people twice as much.
Unfortunately, racial discrimination is still very present today in America. A white person looking for a low-wage job will get twice as many callbacks as a black person.
In the 1976 book Résumé Writing, the author talks about “… employment opportunities for qualified blacks… for qualified women…” Yet, in that very book, traces of sexism are fairly obvious:
A resume of this kind could be written only by a man who is supremely confident… This man creates a favorable attitude even before an interview.
But consider the following two quotes. Just 12 years apart, they give an interesting perspective on how gender issues were evolving.
1958 – College Girl Likely to Put Career First
“Tell a girl who is a good college student that soon after graduation she will marry and raise a family, and she is likely to protest.” (New York Times, November 22, 1958)
That opening sentence (and the title) were meant to catch your attention, since that state of mind was quite uncommon. The rest of the text explains how a Yale-educated young woman truly found her calling in life through motherhood, after a few years of trying to have a career. And you can picture the average reader nodding and thinking: “Of course!”
But 12 years later, the tone had changed. Here’s another catchy title:
1970 – A Women’s Liberation Approach to Solving Career Problems
“Eight women sat upright and fiercely attentive in the living room of a midtown Manhattan apartment one evening last week. They were sustained by coffee and mutual need.” (New York Times, April 11, 1970)
“Women’s Liberation.” The 70s. You gotta love that stuff.
Misunderstanding the new generation of workers
Age was also an issue, back in 1939.
No informed person can honestly sympathize with the current catch-phrase – “The lost generation,” as applied to youth…
Present youth occupy a higher place in the affairs of the world than at any time in the history of mankind. (New York Times, December 10, 1939)
Those we often call the “Greatest generation” (the parents of the Baby Boomers) were sometimes referred to as the “lost generation”, because they were starting their lives during a major recession. But this reporter doesn’t seem to believe that they have it so rough.
While the world today is very different, the Millenials are also going through early adulthood in a world of financial turmoil. (Americans who graduated in May 2016 had an average student loan debt of $37,000, with less-than-stellar employment prospects.) Yet, many people think they shouldn’t complain either. But I’m not getting into that debate… just drawing some parallels.
Something to make you smile
By going through all this material, I catched a few funny bits. Some intentional, others, not so much.
A great fashion tip for the interview, the “2 seasons ago fashion”:
When you walk in, you want your suit to proclaim “I’m with it, but not flashy; I’m modern, but not faddish; I’m conservative, but not stuffy.” All these things, all at once. (New York Times, May 6, 1973)
Now think of two hobbies that everyone is into…
Mention interesting hobbies; omit commonplace ones, except golf and tennis, which accomplish wide rapport. (Résumé Writing, 1976)
(Doesn’t that feel like a Mad Men episode?)
Staying strategic while keeping up with the trends
How does that knowledge help today’s job seeker?
Well it’s interesting to note that tools and approaches have changed much more than the strategies. Yes, the resume has many weaknesses. And yes, there are many problems related to jobseeking. On that note, Richard Bolles (of “What Color Is Your Parachute?” fame) called the process “Neanderthal” back in 1980!
But it seems that the resume has strengths by which it remains very useful. It offers a quick glimpse at a person’s experience and background, and with the right amount of accomplishments, it can help you stand out. And that hasn’t changed much since at least the 1970s.
There are trends that come and go, and you do have to keep up. For most of us, this means applying online and dealing with applicant tracking systems. It also means to leverage modern tools for networking, such as LinkedIn. I would also mention letting go of the idea of the hidden job market (networking and applying online should each get half of your energy).
But don’t get caught in the trends. Your overarching strategy is much more critical.
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