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The 600-year-old history of the resume and its uncertain future

This is how everyone ended up using resumes to get a job, and whether they’ll ever die out.

The 600-year-old history of the resume and its uncertain future
[Photos: Green Chameleon/Unsplash; Francesco Ungaro/Pexels]

The next time you are adjusting your resume to add the latest skills and/or job (which experts say should be done early and often), take a moment to give thanks to Leonardo da Vinci.

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The Renaissance man is often credited with crafting the very first one, years before he began painting the masterworks he’s come to be renowned for. In 1482, around the time he was 30, Da Vinci was looking to land a job with Ludovico Sforza, then de facto ruler of Milan. Sforza wanted to hire military engineers, so Da Vinci wrote a letter to apply. Within the text, he outlined a 10-point list of his abilities that included bridge, cannon, and catapult construction, and water removal from moats, with a small mention of his artistic skills at the end.

According to Letters of Note, the document was believed to be written by a professional writer, and not Da Vinci himself. Either way, he did get hired and 10 years later, Sforza commissioned him to paint The Last Supper.

Close to 100 years later, Ralph Agas, an English land surveyor, penned a bunch of ads touting his 40 years of experience in the industry as well as his particular skills and projects.  Although Agas’s ads were the closest thing to a modern resume, the term resume wasn’t commonly used at this point.

The word itself is French and means summary. But there are several different accounts of who actually coined the term to stand for a summary of jobs skills and experience. One predates even Da Vinci, suggesting it evolved in the Middle Ages with English skilled artisan and labor guilds. Wealthy patrons could use the lists to make a targeted hire based on qualifications. Another is that a traveling English lord called his letter of introduction a resume.

1900-1950: A listing of age, weight, and heritage

Several centuries would pass before the resume became useful again. Daniel Howden posits on Workable that it was because “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.'” The aftermath of World War I and industrialization started to break down the class structure, and people could seek work beyond their social class.

“By the 1930s, a resume was almost normal, although experts warned applicants not to sell themselves for fear of appearing conceited,” Howden writes. “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.” The latter bit was presumably just for men.

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Almost as soon as it became a widespread and expected part of a job search, the humble handwritten resume was elevated alongside the prevailing technology of the times. In the 1980s, for example, while Microsoft Word and the IBM PC made it much easier to create a professional-looking resume on one’s own, the rise of VHS meant that people could add video portfolios to their resumes. That decade also saw the fax machine emerge as the most popular way to submit resumes.

1990-2010: What the internet did to the resume

Of course, everything changed with the introduction of the web and sites like Monster and CareerBuilder that pioneered the digital submission of resumes. But as technology advanced, it became the death knell for the traditional resume. Google’s former head of people Laszlo Bock famously called the resume “terrible” (and not just because the company received some 50,000 of them in a week.)

Some experts argue that LinkedIn’s debut hastened the resume’s slide into irrelevance. Since profiles on the platform often include everything you’d put on a traditional resume, it’s no surprise that 87% of recruiters use LinkedIn to vet candidates during the hiring process. And not only do resumes have to be updated very frequently, but some aspects are problematic, like job titles. “New titles are used every day that didn’t previously exist, and they don’t always give a clear picture of someone’s skill set,” says Carisa Miklusak, CEO of the algorithmic hiring platform tilr.

The future: not dead yet

But others argue that the resume isn’t dead (or even on life support), it’s just evolving alongside these platforms. “LinkedIn has made certain aspects of the resume irrelevant, including references, because LinkedIn puts such a high priority on personalized recommendations and connections,” according to Emily Gordon, strategic director of recruitment firm Seven Step RPO.

The problem is sheer volume and the fact that it’s been proven that hiring managers spend an average of six seconds on one to size up a candidate. This can lead to unconscious bias in the hiring process. No wonder a raft of startups using AI are scrambling to tackle this problem while making the recruiters’ job easier and the jobseekers’ chances of creating a worthy one much better.

Ultimately, as Howden observes, “The need exists for a summary of professional achievements, preferably verifiable and hinting at what a person might be like to work with.” Though the delivery system for this information is bound to change, he writes, “the need for it is less likely to go away.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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