Die hard: the troubled history of the resume

Daniel Howden | |

It was the early 1980s, there was a former matinee idol in the White House and the fax machine had yet to disturb the peace of office life but the resume was already being written off. The cold war was far from over, the only digital thing in most people’s lives was a calculator and yet some experts in the world of work considered the demise of the resume imminent.

It was hopelessly outdated, the career Cassandras declared, and poorly suited to the needs of modern employers. Three decades later the fax machine is dead (outside of developing world bureaucracies) but the resume has proven harder to kill than almost anyone anticipated. A long list of modernizers from YouTube and social media to LinkedIn and applicant tracking systems, have all been poised to kill the resume.

And yet, the casual researcher will quickly discover that half the internet is filled with advice columns on how to write the perfect CV, while the other half is made up of postmortems for the resume. Surely something has to give?  The answer to that is no, not really.

The Da Vinci Cover

It’s popular among romantics to trace the history of the resume back to the original renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci. He wrote to Ludovico Sforza, otherwise known as the Duke of Milan, in 1482 advertising some of his inventions for a little local military campaigning. He opened the missive as follows:

“Most Illustrious Lord, Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavor, without prejudice to any one else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments on all those things which, in part, shall be briefly noted below.”

While it’s a barnstormer of an opening sentence (and he invented an absurd amount of other things), it’s quite clearly not a resume. It’s a cover letter. Others have have attempted to pass off the letters of introduction carried by 16th century British aristocrats as proto-resumes. They were clearly reference letters.

CV versus Resume

Let’s get something straight at this point. Historically the CV and the resume haven’t always been the same thing. Yes, they’re often taken as European versus American ways of describing the same thing. But as any worthy pedant knows, they also referred to entirely different formats. The resume was traditionally a one-pager whereas a CV, especially in academia, could run to more than 10 pages. The same pedants roll out the Latin meaning of curriculum vitae (course of life) and contrast it with the French origins of resume (summary). Regardless, we shall say they’re simply two names for the same thing.

Prior to the turn of the last century there wasn’t much need for resumes. Most societies were stratified enough that a career (or the lack of one) was largely dictated by birth and people were meant, in British parlance, to “know their place”.

Industrialization, wars and technology upended this lack of mobility during the first half of the 20th century. By the 1930s a resume was almost normal, although experts warned applicants not to sell themselves for fear of appearing conceited. As recently as 1950 your age, weight and the origin of your parents were considered essential elements of the CV, along with a photo of yourself wearing a suit.

From VHS to YouTube

In the 1960s the dread of the typo on your resume (which some tyrants still insist should mean instant disqualification) was partly responsible for the popularity of the new-fangled IBM Selectric typewriter. Then as now errors were common.

By 1980 VHS has arrived and some intrepid candidates start mailing video portfolios. Meanwhile, the resume writing industry had taken off, with hundreds of breathless guides promising CV perfection. In 1987 the fax machine came along and was put to use spamming companies with resumes, just as email was nearly a decade later.

To anyone who has never had to write or read one it would be legitimate to ask why so many people want the resume to die. There are oft-quoted statistics that more than half of resumes contain lies and that recruiters in any case look at them for 20 seconds each. Kevin Grossman, the author of Tech Job Hunt Handbook, captures the animosity well when he writes that “the resume is a self-serving piece of inconsistently formatted and fudged professional drivel.”

Gaming the parsers

Along came LinkedIn in 2003, which despite its unloved interface, persuaded the bulk of professionals everywhere to create profiles containing most of the details we include in our resumes. We were told that LinkedIn was the death knell for the resume. Similarly grandiose pronouncements were made about the first efforts at video bios on Youtube.

When popular job boards and online applications saw the volume of resumes arriving at HR get a little out of control companies turned to resume parsing technology to extract the relevant information from the babel of formatting. The aim was to weed out some unqualified applications. So a new industry sprung up claiming to teach candidates how to game applicant tracking systems.

As more of our lives became visible online, it became popular to argue that the need for a resume has diminished. There is much talk of storytelling replacing resumes for creatives among others. This is all true and reasonable. But there is considerable confusion between content and delivery system. The need exists for a summary of professional achievements, preferably verifiable and hinting at what a person might be like to work with. The delivery system for this information is bound to change, the need for it is less likely to go away.

And talk of the medium ignores the real struggle that has kept the resume on life support. The resume, and the cover letter for that matter, may be no fun to write but they do represent a candidate’s best chance to frame the first impression. They’re unlikely to give it up easily. Most employers know which they would rather have from these two options presented by management writer, Victor Lipman: “A lot of information about a candidate where I do the filtering, or a little information about a candidate where they do the filtering?”

All that’s relatively safe to say is that the paper resume is dying. But then again… Even at Workable, a hiring software company that champions one-click job applications, resume parsing and standardized data on candidates, we occasionally get a lovingly-printed paper resume!

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Daniel Howden

Daniel Howden is the former VP of Comms at Workable. He writes about the ideas shaping the world of work. He was formerly with the Economist and Guardian. He tweets @daniel_howden.

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