“Roles” versus “jobs”, or how the economic crisis has exposed an insidious corporate euphemism

My parents’ generation all had jobs. Today’s workers, lucky creatures that we are, have “roles”. At least we did – until the financial crisis hit. Because, where roles are created and offered, jobs are invariably cut and lost.

The differences extend further. A job is something you merely do for money between the hours of nine to five. Those of us who hold down jobs find our fulfilment elsewhere. Like at home. Or with our families. Or by learning the flute.

In contrast, a role is something you pursue rather than merely hold down to keep the wolf from the door. It’s something so spiritually, emotionally and intellectually inspiring that it engulfs your whole being such that you’d gladly do it for free and to the exclusion of all other activity.

In fact, so privileged do you feel to have an exciting, challenging role (for thus are they always dubbed in the recruitment ads), that you regularly find yourself putting in unpaid hours.

That’s because having a “role” makes you special. The word stems from the obsolete French “roule”, meaning “roll” and referring to the roll of paper on which the actor’s part was written. And so it calls to mind the big roles in great drama – Ibsen’s Nora or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, say. They’re complex people. Important. Special. Unique

In contrast, jobs are common. Unextraordinary. Dispensable. There’s only one Hamlet, but thousands of jobbing actors. A jobbing actor is just one who can’t get any decent roles.

Hmm, can anyone else see why employers might have an interest in stoking this insidious little piece of linguistic inflation?

Not only are you more likely to view your work as the most important thing in your life, but aren’t you easier to manipulate as an individual than if you were part of a crowd? There’s something rather unnervingly collective about people with “jobs”. Unlike roles, jobs are something unions tend to fight for.

But the economic crisis has recently exposed the great mendacity of the word “role”. You’ll have noticed it if you’ve recently been made redundant. Remember how they tempted you in with a role (singular)? And didn’t it suddenly become one of several jobs (plural) when they decided you and your colleagues were no longer economically useful?

It’s why, whenever there are mass redundancies, you never see headlines announcing “GM to cut 21,000 roles” or “4 million roles lost since Obama took office”.

The lesson? By all means put in the hours, do the best you can, and try to enjoy what you do to earn a crust.

But don’t think of your job as a “role”, because should you lose it, you’ll likely find yourself bereft of your only source of self-esteem.

Better to swap your role for a job and spend all that extra free time learning the flute.

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2 Responses to ““Roles” versus “jobs”, or how the economic crisis has exposed an insidious corporate euphemism”

  1. Chris says:

    I hadn’t thought of it this way. I’d been thinking that whilst you might have one job that employers were eager to fill it with as many roles as possible. e.g. you might have the role of ‘customer advocate’, that of ‘product evangelist’, ‘key feature promoter’ and that of ‘team leader’ whilst all the time being a ‘vital member of the customer-facing purchase environment team’. ie a sales assistant. Thanks for a nice new window onto HR’s language.

  2. Aaron says:

    The misuse of the word ‘role’ (and other words) in this way is so commonplace and passively accepted in our collective psyche, very few of us think to question it. Thanks for bringing this (what should be an obvious) point to the surface.

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