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America’s Job Listings Have Gone Off the Deep End

What even is a data-obsessed, project-juggling digital ninja?

Are you a code sensei? A customer-service rock star? Do you have a passion for sales? Will you devote your life to conference calls, leaving your family and friends behind while you camp out under your desk, ready to dial in at any time?

If the answer to all those questions is “no”—or even a nervous, hesitant smile—then hopefully you don’t need to look for a new job anytime soon. If you do, get ready to convince prospective employers that you are a success-obsessed results ninjawhatever that means.

A generation ago, American job seekers might have opened a newspaper to find want ads with perfunctory explanations of desired skills, such as carpentry or customer service. Classifieds, after all, contain little room for florid prose. But in the past two decades, a changing labor market, combined with the internet’s ability to make things functionally more efficient but existentially far worse, has dramatically transformed how American companies recruit prospective employees. The result is the obnoxious state of the modern job listing, which is often short on details and long on silly demands.

Although this trend has some roots in start-up culture, it has spread to virtually all American industries and far beyond the bounds of urban office work. Alley, a co-working space in New York, seeks a social-media and marketing manager at the company who is “one part visionary, one part online warrior, one part pop-culture guru, a dash of precocious energy, mixed with a little lyrical whimsey, and served with a shot of espresso.” A listing for an Atlanta-based “customer support hero” at the software company Autodesk wants to hear from you if you’re “a ninja with your keyboard” who has “a passion for incredible customer service.”

For some employers, even elite warrior skills aren’t enough. “If a sense of humor isn’t your sixth sense, then even certified marketing ninjas need not apply,” asserts the description for a marketing director at an upstate New York paper company.

These listings weren’t hard to find. A short scroll through a popular job board revealed thousands of results with similar keywords. More than ever, it seems, hiring managers are looking for extremists: You can’t just be willing to do the job. You must evince an all-consuming horniness for menial corporate tasks. In an American labor market where wages are stagnant and many workers feel their jobs seeping into their personal time, such demands only create even more anxiety and dread for Americans looking for a new gig.

According to Peter Cappelli, the director of the Wharton School’s Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania, modern job listings tend to perpetuate the myth that only slavishly devoted employees are valuable. But this notion often makes workplaces worse, he says: “[Hiring managers] are not thinking much about the culture of organizations. Folks are stuck in this idea of just wanting a bunch of ‘A’ players or the really great individual performers.”

Dauntingly vague language can fail to net the ultra-dedicated candidates employers are trying to attract, Cappelli notes. Asking applicants whether they’re obsessed or passionate is unlikely to extract any useful information to evaluate them. “It’s not as if someone is going to say, ‘No, I’m sorry, I really don’t care about this at all,’” he says.

Companies that use these job descriptors sometimes realize they might sound odd. But some companies contend that the language is crucial for team culture, not ignorant of it. “The ‘Customer Service Hero’ job title isn’t to stand out from other companies; it’s not clickbait for talent,” Shaya Fidel, who works in human resources at Autodesk, told me over email. “When we first created the ‘Hero’ position, we wanted the job title to reinforce that customer support is the lifeblood of everything we do.”

Samantha Intagliata, Alley’s director of marketing, told me the old way just wouldn’t be appropriate: “We believe if we went the traditional route of just listing out skills and experience, it wouldn’t represent who we are as a company or the individuals who work for us.”

If creative language is in fact a window into a company’s culture, the tireless-ninja mind-set still might hurt some workers more than others, though. “You wind up with a combination of a gender skew and an age skew when you use these fanciful terms,” says Ian Siegel, the CEO of the online job marketplace ZipRecruiter. Older, more experienced professionals are generally turned off by employers looking for extremists, as are parents. “You’re going to get mostly young men,” Siegel says.

Building a team made up exclusively of wild-eyed work fanatics isn’t exactly a sound managerial practice, either. “What research shows is that many things at the extreme are actually not good for performance,” says Connie Wanberg, an industrial and organizational psychologist at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. Extreme personalities can be difficult to manage or integrate into the varied elements of workplace culture. Applicants usually need to be good collaborators or team players in addition to skilled ninjas, Wanberg says.

Siegel points out that the hypercharged language is also poorly suited to the digital nature of most modern job searching, where 70 percent of résumés submitted via online job listings or uploaded to job boards are going to be screened by algorithms looking for keywords. “When you say ‘coding ninja,’ you’re not going to match against ‘java developer.’ If you say ‘spreadsheet guru,’ you’re going to miss the people with ‘Excel expertise.’”

These mismatches have frustrated Wanberg in her research with job seekers. “They’ll apply for jobs and go to the interview, and it has nothing to do with what the job ad was about, so they waste their time on pursuing an opportunity that’s not really right,” she explains. “That’s a waste of time for the company as well.”

To explain how job hunting got so bad for all involved, Cappelli identifies a trend that started long before the internet took over the process of looking for work: the gutting of corporate human-resources departments, which he says has been under way for about a generation. “After the Great Recession, a chimpanzee could have hired well,” he explains. “You just hinted you had a job and there was a queue of overqualified people begging you to hire them.” Now that labor supplies are more constrained, employers have to work harder to find potential employees, but many companies’ hiring processes are run by hiring managers with little HR training. The listings hang around a little bit longer and sound a little bit more desperate.

Overall, the nature of the American career has changed significantly in the past generation, Cappelli says: “In the days of the Great Corporation, about 10 percent of vacancies were filled externally, and those were mostly entry-level jobs from college recruiting. Everything after that was promotion from within. Now we fill about two-thirds of vacancies from the outside.” Hiring managers are competing in what Siegel calls a “war” for the best talent, and they’re hiring for more types of positions within their institutions than any of their predecessors ever had to.

Siegel says he understands that employers are trying to stand out by being cutesy. He advises employers to go instead with more technically precise language in their job descriptions and focus their creativity on describing the workplace itself. “It’s an opportunity to say, ‘We’re a family-oriented business, walking distance to many restaurants, a pet-friendly office,’” he says.

Of course, to brag about being a great employer, it helps to be one. Siegel sees plenty of resistance to offering things applicants might actually want—namely, money and flexibility. In a survey ZipRecruiter conducted last year, he says, most employers said they were focusing all their recruiting efforts on job listings themselves. “Instead of doing things like lowering the skills required or improving the pay, it was all about how much they were spending on more job boards or more recruiting solutions,” Siegel says. “There was a real resistance to responding to the market that was telling you that if you want to get good talent, you have to improve your offer.”

In other words, few people seem to want to do the duties of a rock star if they’re not going to get paid like one.