Back in 2015, designer Frank Chimero observed on then-Twitter that almost any New Yorker cartoon could be re-captioned with a single phrase: “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.”
That canned come-on, as cold and dry as a reluctant handshake at a cash-bar, fluorescent-lit networking event, sums up most adults’ experience of the site: You feel like you have to be there, but you’d really rather be anywhere else, so you do the bare minimum and get out fast.
Younger users, though, don’t necessarily feel this way. Lately I’ve met adolescents — some who don’t yet meet the platform’s minimum-age requirement of 16 — who say LinkedIn is their happy place. From across the country and every socioeconomic background, these kids describe the platform as a zero-irony zone — a sanctuary from the angry rants, dark humor, thirst traps, and FOMO characteristic of other social-media networks.
“It’s a place for connection and a place for celebration,” says Zachary Clifton, a high-school senior and unabashed LinkedIn evangelist. “It’s such a celebratory, positive, uplifting environment. I think it’s honestly more wholesome to celebrate people’s professional or academic success on LinkedIn than to post on Facebook, which errs on the side of gossip or speculation.” (In case you need some generational translation: “Wholesome” is high praise from Gen Z.)
Gen Z’s enthusiasm may be part of the reason that while Facebook is aging and X is imploding, LinkedIn is growing. Recently, the network reported a 41 percent increase in the volume of content posted between spring 2021 and spring 2023. “Gen Z is one of the fastest-growing demographics on LinkedIn,” confirms Andrew McCaskill, whom the company identifies as a “LinkedIn Career Expert.”
Ana Homayoun is a private academic adviser and consultant in the hothouse of Silicon Valley and the author of Erasing the Finish Line, a guide to navigating hypercompetitive achievement culture. She also provides her services to low-income and first-generation students through a nonprofit. She tells me that while LinkedIn teens are still far from the majority, they’re increasingly found on both sides of the class divide: privileged kids anxious to stay on top and strivers looking to get there.
In her experience, high-schoolers are already thinking about careers because they are increasingly skeptical of the value of college, and don’t necessarily see it as an end in itself. “The increase in the cost of college and how fast the job market is changing has led to students wanting to get this info earlier. They are getting the message that they can find info about careers and life and work on LinkedIn, and build a professional network before they go to college or even instead of going to college,” she says.
Last spring, Ellery Spikes, a senior at NEST+m, an academically selective public school in New York City, interned at Morgan Stanley with about 40 other high-school students. “Maybe 20 of us already had LinkedIn,” she says. “Naturally when we were talking about résumés and getting yourself out there, [getting a LinkedIn] was always suggested by the facilitators.”
Clifton has been on LinkedIn since he was 14. Yes, that kind of makes him the 2023 version of Anthony Michael Hall’s nerd character in The Breakfast Club — the one who procured a fake ID so he could vote. Clifton uses the platform to share his academic achievements, his student-leadership work, and the opinion pieces he sometimes writes for local papers. Over the years, he has nailed the art of the humblebrag. Recently, upon receiving an award, he wrote:
“Today, as I receive this award, I extend my heartfelt gratitude to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) … my deep appreciation to the Kentucky Student Voice Team, the KY YMCA Youth Association, and The School of The New York Times … Furthermore, I would like to extend my thanks to the invaluable individuals who have offered me unwavering professional support … I must also acknowledge my incredible connections here on LinkedIn, whose daily display of professionalism and support has enriched my journey …” and so on for eight fulsome and pitch-perfect paragraphs.
LinkedIn is also where Clifton finally spotted the summer job of his dreams — as a counselor for the New York Times’ Summer Academy, a competitive program for high-school students. “I’d been searching for the application for the position for months. I had DM’d them on Instagram and they told me to email them. Email them and they told me to call them. Probably reached out five or six times over the school year and I just couldn’t get answers. It was just like a big circle. I was shocked when it came up [in my feed] and it was super easy to apply using the app. Within 48 hours, I had done my interview and received an offer letter instantly.”
Nora Ransibrahmanakul, a first-year student at Yale, joined LinkedIn at 16. “I don’t use it to stalk my parents’ co-workers or anything,” she says. “I use it to stay up to date with people doing really cool jobs, keep up on topics like AI, and talk with other people my age.” Ransibrahmanakul posted on LinkedIn in June when she participated in an invention contest held at MIT; she and her high-school team from Sacramento came up with a device meant to prevent dogs’ paws from burning on hot asphalt.
Clifton says that posting this way can neutralize jealousy. “Celebrating other people for the things that they have that you don’t have — that’s the psychological way of signaling that it’s okay and you can be happy with your own life,” he says.
But is there such a thing as too upbeat, as positivity turning into unctuousness and artifice? I ask Clifton how he feels about the fact that LinkedIn confines users to only warm reactions to a post: Like, Celebrate, Support, Funny, and so on. “We shouldn’t have posts that make people angry and make people sad,” Clifton says. “This is how social media should be.”
He points out that in the deep-red county in Kentucky where he lives, Facebook is a swamp of election denial and buff Trump memes. “That little angry-reaction emoji [on a Facebook post] to me is only evidence of misinformation, people being disenfranchised, and misguided hate and vitriol for no reason.”
Kids and adults say LinkedIn seems pretty safe, too. “We are very much not promoting social media other than LinkedIn,” says Silvia Scandar Mahan, the CEO of Cristo Rey San Jose High School. Students at her school come from low-income backgrounds and work in a corporate setting one day each week. Every junior and senior gets tasked with creating a LinkedIn profile. “The risk of exposure to content that you don’t want students exposed to is lower — not a zero risk, but lower — and the benefit is so great,” says Mahan.
“It’s the only platform where there’s not, like, anonymous trolls,” says Clifton. “It’s probably the accountability that social media needs. If you wouldn’t put your face or name on something, then you shouldn’t be posting in the first place.”
But it’s true that the risk is not zero. A couple teens shared that they’ve encountered grown men who had no qualms hitting on young girls, even with their full names and their employers visible.
Heidi Pan, a high-school senior in Edison, New Jersey, started using LinkedIn at 16 to approach interviewees for her podcast about climate change. LinkedIn was also where she spotted a social-media internship opportunity at NASA, which she just started. But, occasionally, stuff has gotten weird. “There was this one DM from someone that was like ‘Hi’ and I tentatively replied ‘hello’ and they were like ‘Are you Asian?’ I was like, okay, I don’t know if I want to see where this is going. I’m just going to mute and move to the Other category.”
Unlike other social networks, LinkedIn doesn’t have parental controls, nor has it come under the scrutiny accorded to the rest of social media for its impact on kids. Asked for comment on the issue of teens being approached inappropriately by adults, the company provided a link to its blanket harassment policy.
Regardless of the safety issues, are these precocious networkers taking apple-polishing too far? Some adults, like Homayoun, worry that joining LinkedIn is a sign kids might be putting too much pressure on themselves. “We want that access to information,” she says. “But we also don’t want students to be overwhelmed and think this is what they have to do at 15.”