When Michael Keach was laid off in January after five years as a senior manager in the customer-service department at Wayfair, he was tentatively optimistic. After all, Keach had been laid off before and had found work again quickly. He figured his experience at Wayfair — where hundreds of people reported to him and he launched a new communication platform — would make him a standout candidate for a new role. Plus, the broader job market seemed strong: Companies were adding hundreds of thousands of new employees. Given these prospects, Keach wasn’t prepared for what happened next: He couldn’t find a job.
In March, Keach, who is 51, described his job search on LinkedIn: “I have participated in about 20 hours of interviews, have received no job offers, ghosted by recruiters and have my fair share of rejection emails,” he wrote. He said the job hunt “has been one of the most mentally challenging experiences in my adult life” — more taxing than his 20-year career in the US Air Force.
Keach’s experience may sound extreme, but many found it relatable. Thousands of other users shared comments commiserating with how surprisingly demoralizing they’ve found their own job searches. Their anecdotes, and those of the people I’ve spoken with, suggest the world of hiring is strange right now. Economic instability, opaque hiring processes, and the destabilizing rise of technologies like generative AI have converged into an environment where it’s hard for job seekers to feel like they have even a basic sense of what is going on.
Finding a job right now isn’t only tough, it’s deeply weird.
Economic (and emotional) turbulence
While the current labor market looks strong, continued high inflation and the threat of recession are casting a dark shadow over its future. Once-hot industries are freezing over and large companies are making layoff announcements. For newly jobless workers, the hunt for a new gig is not only complicated by economic uncertainty and the always-arduous process of polishing a résumé and rusty interview skills, but also by digital phenomena that have become more advanced, widespread, and destabilizing in the years since many found themselves looking for work.
Take, for instance, “ghost jobs” — positions advertised on job sites like Indeed and Monster that float around, seemingly unmonitored, luring in hopeful applicants and then never dignifying them with a response, not even an automated “no thanks.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are just over 9.5 million job openings in the US, down from a record high of 12 million in March of 2022, but still well above the pre-pandemic average. Despite this seemingly encouraging number, it’s not clear how many of those openings reflect a real intention to hire.
“I’ve applied for at least 200 roles, and I’d say probably only about 30 of them have actually come back and said, ‘No, we’re going with someone else,'” Keach told me. “A lot of times I’m just sitting there waiting in limbo, wondering what’s going on.”
A lot of times I’m just sitting there waiting in limbo, wondering what’s going on.
The proliferation of ghost-job postings isn’t just anecdotal — a 2022 study by the small-business-loan provider Clarify Capital found that over 27% of 1,000 surveyed hiring managers admit to leaving “ghost job” postings up online for over four months, both to create the illusion of booming business and to placate overworked employees who want to see that their bosses are ostensibly looking for more help. Another study by the think tank Employ America found that listed vacancies can be misleading because online job postings make it easy for companies to advertise for an opening, even if they spend little effort actually trying to fill the role. William Warren, 52, who is currently unemployed after 20 years in sales and can’t find a job in his home state of Georgia, is familiar with ghost-job postings — he calls the tactic “fishing without a worm.”
Individually, ghost-job postings can erode both trust in the job market and the morale of job seekers who are applying to hundreds of positions and never hearing back. On a macro level, ghost-job postings contribute to a skewed sense of how many opportunities are really out there for US job seekers right now. Plus, many positions that are available are in industries that are either highly specialized, like healthcare, or ones that many find unattractive, such as manufacturing, gig work, or service and retail jobs. If you’re a worker in an industry like real estate, media, and tech — where nearly 200,000 people have been laid off so far this year — these job openings aren’t helpful.
“I’ve been applying left and right, and there’s a lot of oddness to it,” Bishoy Riad, 31, who was laid off from his remote San Francisco tech job earlier this year, told me. “I did five interviews and a full-page web-page-proposal revamp for a position, then I was told I wasn’t even shortlisted for it,” he said of his job hunt. “I believe it’s related to the fact that there’s just so much talent supply in the market in the midst of all these mass layoffs.”
AI in hiring
Even when an applicant is able to find a real job that a company is actively trying to fill, new technology is stacking the deck against all but the tech savviest. That’s because instead of hiring managers reviewing applications, today many companies have turned to automation to reduce costs and simplify the process. Job platforms — including LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter, Indeed, and Monster — also use language-processing AI tools to filter applicants. Ian Siegel, the CEO of ZipRecruiter, told The Guardian last year that AI and algorithms process at least three-quarters of all résumés submitted for jobs in the US. “The dawn of robot recruiting has come,” he said. “And people just haven’t caught up to the realization yet.”
AI applicant-tracking systems filter résumés and cover letters by keywords — not necessarily by the most dynamic and interesting job candidates. A 2021 Harvard Business School study found that 88% of executives know their AI tools screen out qualified candidates but continue to use them anyway because they’re cost-effective. These days, in order to get your application seen by someone, you need to know how to optimize it for AI hiring systems by doing things like keeping your résumé short and tailoring keywords to the position. This has inspired a cottage industry of résumé-scanning tools that help optimize a résumé’s legibility to applicant-tracking systems. If applicants rely solely on the older conventional wisdom that a sparkling cover letter, straightforward CV, and plucky email introducing yourself to the boss will be enough to catch an employer’s eye, they’ll likely fall through the cracks no matter how perfect they are for the job.
The dawn of robot recruiting has come. And people just haven’t caught up to the realization yet.
And the weirdness doesn’t stop once an applicant passes the first round. The Society for Human Resource Management found that 42% of large employers (like Unilever and Deloitte, for starters) use AI hiring support, meaning job seekers may virtually interview with or be prescreened by an artificial-intelligence program such as HireVue, Harver, or Plum. After someone applies to a job at a company that uses this software, they may receive an automated survey asking them to answer inane personality-assessment questions like “Which statement describes you best? (a) I love debating academic theories or (b) I adopt a future emphasis.” An applicant could also be asked to complete a puzzle. Some companies use an automated interview: The applicant is filmed answering a series of questions while a program analyzes their speech and facial expressions — basically proving their “people skills” to a robot. No wonder that researchers at the University of Sussex Business School described the experience of being interviewed by AI as “confusing and unsettling.”
And these AI-moderated processes might not be fair, either. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, say that AI decision-making systems could have a 44% chance of being embedded with gender bias, a 26% chance of displaying both gender and race bias, and may also be prone to screening out applicants with disabilities. In one notorious case, an audit of an AI screening tool found that it prioritized candidates who played high-school lacrosse or were named “Jared.” (Some companies claim that AI has in fact led to more diversity in hiring.)
In 2022, Congress gestured toward the importance of moderating the use of these programs with the Algorithmic Accountability Act, which would have required that employers across states perform an impact assessment of AI decision-making, but the bill was never passed. Only Illinois, Maryland, and New York have state laws regarding the use of AI screening by employers in the hiring process — laws that include requiring a bias audit and telling applicants when AI is being used.
There’s no shortage of reasons why job hunting feels strange right now. In the blink of an eye, workers have gone from feeling galvanized by a hot job market and the Great Resignation to feeling acutely stressed by mass layoffs, the rising cost of living, and the widespread phasing out of remote work. And among the companies that have embraced remote work, competition for roles is especially high, since the hiring pool for these roles now stretches across the country or, in some cases, world. As a result, half of Gen Z job hunters surveyed by the career site RippleMatch this year said they were not confident they will be able to find a job that meets their standards in the coming months.
And now, generative AI tools like ChatGPT are contributing to job loss. Goldman Sachs recently predicted 300 million jobs in the US and Europe could be replaced by AI. And market research by ResumeBuilder found that 48% of 1,000 surveyed US employers said they have replaced workers since ChatGPT became available in November 2022. Plus, 63% said that ChatGPT will “definitely” or “probably” lead to workers being laid off within the next five years.
“I think there’s a great deal of hesitation for companies to make investments in people knowing that these tools are on the horizon that will reduce their need for people,” Ali Abassi, a consultant based in Vancouver, British Columbia, told me. One silver lining, though, is that AI works both ways: Job seekers can also use AI tools to help with writing their CVs, formatting their résumés, preparing for interviews, and other laborious elements of the job hunt.
Because of his concern about the growing impact of AI on employment, Abassi created a free library of advanced ChatGPT prompts called AI for Work to help workers do their jobs. “There’s a lot of fear amongst individuals as they see these new tools come out that actually replace big portions of their roles,” he said. But he added that “employees will not be replaced by an AI, they will be replaced by another person who can leverage AI to do the job.” Suddenly, knowing how to work with AI tools and resources is an important edge for job seekers to have.
Job hunters may also take small comfort in the fact that having a period of unemployment on your résumé these days isn’t as stigmatized as it once was. “So many people have been laid off that being unemployed — if you can financially afford that and look for a job — isn’t going to harm you as much as years ago when people actually were worried about why you were unemployed,” the career coach Marlo Lyons told me.
If you feel that looking for work is strange right now, you’re not alone. And as generative AI continues changing the shape of work, companies float jobs that they have no intention of filling, and layoff announcements permeate the news, discombobulation is par for the course.
Adrienne Matei is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, Canada. She writes about culture, technology, lifestyle, the environment, and more.