Mackenzie, 21, a college senior from Texas, has two résumés: the public one she sends to prospective employers and the private one that nobody sees. They are both accurate descriptions of her experience. But the private résumé, which Mackenzie maintains in case she applies for a job as a community organizer, paints a clearer picture of her racial justice work on campus and in the community.
“When I applied to [corporate] jobs last summer, I didn’t include the Black voting rights group I run or my Black Lives Matter work,” said Mackenzie, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used out of concern for future employment. “I barely include my actual ethnicity, and they don’t find out I’m Black until the actual interview.”
After a surge of campus activism during the Trump years, a growing number of Gen Z job seekers are now discovering a downside to political engagement. While employers say they seek diversity and advise applicants to “bring their whole selves” to the job hunt, Mackenzie and some of her peers don’t trust them to look beyond ideology.
“With disclosure comes exposure,” said Kacheyta McClellan, director of diversity, inclusion and belonging at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. He said it has always been an “act of bravery” for job seekers of color to be transparent about community organizing when applying for a job in another field, even if the skills transfer.
“Today’s climate is different,” he said. “You’ve got an entire swath of people choosing to believe one thing and another swath choosing to believe differently. It’s polarization that’s not covert.”
So, many young partisans are playing it safe, censoring political content from their résumés or limiting job searches to politically friendly bubbles.
Censored résumés could make young job seekers look less competitive. Mackenzie knows this and isn’t happy about it. But she wants to be realistic: When she is applying to buttoned-up organizations, she’s going to submit a buttoned-up résumé.
Mackenzie can’t know for certain, but she believes scrubbing the racial justice component from her résumé worked: Last summer, she was hired to intern with a top-tier public relations firm, a steppingstone for her post-collegiate career plans.
There’s no hard evidence to show whether Gen Z résumés are becoming more overtly political, but the demographic has become much more socially and politically engaged around issues from racial justice to gun control.
A spring 2021 poll from Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that 36% of 18-to-29-year-olds consider themselves politically active, up from 24% in 2009. In 2020, 18% of young people ages 18 to 24 said they volunteered for a political campaign, compared with just 5% in 2016, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
“Hiring managers may initially gravitate toward candidates of their same gender or race due to similarity bias,” said Jill Ellingson, a professor of human resource management at the University of Kansas. “But research shows that presenting decision-makers with ‘individuating information’ like education, job experience and training overrides this bias.”
James August, 22, hopes to become a public school government teacher and believes students could benefit from his hands-on experience: two years on the executive board of the James Madison University College Republicans, as well as local and state-based campaign work for conservative politicians.
Although he hasn’t yet started applying for jobs ahead of his master’s degree graduation in 2023, he worries employers won’t see past the wall of red. “I’m very conscious of having ‘Republican’ on my résumé,” he said. “The concern is that a hiring manager will have those stereotypes: bigoted, racist, sexist, stupid.”
August believes he’d have trouble getting hired in the Northern Virginia school district where he grew up. Instead, he’s leaning toward Harrisonburg or Virginia Beach, where he thinks school boards would accept someone with his partisan background.
The concern cuts both ways. Tamir Harper, 21, a student at American University, also wants to teach public school after completing his master’s degree in education. As a Black man, he says he feels a duty to ensure that children “understand why we call Breonna Taylor’s name and George Floyd’s name.” But he knows many people who’ve sought jobs with censored résumés and he may follow in their footsteps.
“You can end up going to the Deep South of Georgia where they’re looking to ban critical race theory at the state level, and the district may not welcome you with open arms,” he said. Given his record of racial justice advocacy, he wonders: “Will the district think I’m too much of a risk?” Already, Harper’s résumé omits the term “activist.” He prefers the phrase “community engager.”
Artful and savvy curation — even censorship — has long been part of the résumé process. In the 1860s, women learned a hard lesson when they began applying to the federal civil service. “Women who said ‘I’m really good’ weren’t getting jobs, but the women who said ‘woe is me’ were,” said Jessica Ziparo, author of “This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War-Era Washington, D.C.” Over time, Ziparo said, women got wise and began presenting themselves as poor and needy, even if they weren’t.
In the 1940s and 1950s, during the McCarthy era, about a fifth of the U.S. workforce took some kind of loyalty oath or was required to submit a list of extracurricular memberships to employers.
Ellingson, the University of Kansas professor, tells students to be honest on their résumés and to apply widely. “Maybe the organization will say, ‘We want to provide a balance, so we want to hire students of different political affiliations,'” she said.