My great-nephew recently informed his father that he does not have a real job; he “just goes to work.” Six-year-old Leo reassured his dad that he might still someday find a real job: teacher, fireman, police officer, chef, garbage man, biologist – oh, and this week – paleontologist.
Although his father works long hours at his chosen profession, I appreciate Leo’s need for clear, direct job titles. In medieval times people were often identified by their occupations, a custom resulting in many modern surnames: Mason, Baker, Miller, and Fisher are easy examples.
Leo’s list of real jobs reminds me of the jobs people had when I was a kid. My father was a farmer, Mr. Shank was our principal, Mr. Shirk was our bus driver, Miss Shand was the librarian. The mailman, the milk hauler, and the bread man all made regular stops at the farm on River Road. And there were people with titles; Reverend Williams led the class preparing me to join the church, and Dr. Richards could look down my throat without making me gag.
In the 1970’s I began to notice changes to job titles during the women’s lib movement that offered “domestic engineer” as a more suitable title for housewife. Gender-neutral names became part of our language: flight attendants replaced stewardesses, mailmen became letter carriers, firemen turned into firefighters.
Somewhere along the line, however, a kind of inflation has impacted occupation names, perhaps during the upgrade of some basic job titles: bookkeeper to accounting specialist, teacher to educator, lawyer to legal counsel, principal to administrator. But then trash collectors have also been humorously called “sanitation engineers,” a term actually coined in 1939.
Leo may not be able to appreciate his father’s occupation because of its lengthy and vague title: Senior Content Strategy Consultant. Even with my decent vocabulary and writing skills, I certainly did not immediately understand that his job is to help clients redesign and organize their websites. It might be easier for Leo to aspire to a career in paleontology – despite the length and spelling of the word. I mean, what kid announces at the dinner table: “I want to be a Content Strategy Consultant when I grow up.”
Some time ago store clerks became Customer Service Representatives, and Administrative Assistants replaced secretaries. But job title inflation is currently reaching new heights – or depths. One store refers to its salespeople as Customer Experience Associates, while another company renamed the receptionist Director of First Impressions. And the kid filling orders at the local fast food restaurant may very well be a Sandwich Technician.
Why the need for all these excessively thrilling job titles? According to a couple of articles I read, human resource officers – another case in point – use such names to indicate upward progress on the corporate ladder. Others hope an elaborate title will make up for a lack of benefits or fulltime hours. I think the explanation lies in the modern syndrome of awarding trophies and medals to all participants so that no one feels bad.
But there is another aspect to Leo’s assessment of his father’s job. Firemen and chefs, for example, perform easily observable actions as they fulfill the requirements of their occupations; they may even wear recognizable uniforms. According to Marco, Leo’s wiser and slightly older brother, their father just sits at a computer all day. Lots of people sit at computers all day, at work and at home.
I understand Marco and Leo’s lack of enthusiasm for indistinguishable, run-of-the-mill work. When I visited the OEA offices in Columbus for my retirement review, I observed tiny cubicles ringing the perimeter of a cavernous, beautifully-appointed room. The consultant with whom I worked offered excellent explanations and advice. But his cubicle, stuffed with files and reference books and a computer on the desk, could have been anywhere.
I am not even sure that a carefully-delineated job description would help Leo. These lists of responsibilities can be as overblown as the job titles to which they are attached. No description can ever do justice to the real responsibilities of any position, and some employees may feel overwhelmed by the expectations listed. At the very least, they give people license to proclaim: “That’s not in my job description!”
Leo – and Marco, too – will have to wait a little longer to realize their father’s real contribution at the workplace and at home. Every person in our family seems to have followed in the footsteps of my father, who epitomized what a job or “just work” means. As a milk hauler, a soldier during war, a long-time farmer, he toiled in an “early to bed, early to rise” manner because that is what a man does for his family. At one point he left the independence and outdoor setting of the farm for a 20-year stint on the packing bench at the paper mill because that is what a man does for his family. We all learned from his lifetime example that job titles and descriptions mean little to a man who gives his all at the workplace – for his family.
It is not really so important that Leo’s father does not have a real job; Leo is more than fortunate to have a dad who just goes to work. What I do know, however, is that Leo will someday join me in understanding what a father’s work example really means.