It used to be so much simpler. You’re introduced to your partner’s friend at a social occasion, you ask what they do, they say "I’m a lawyer", they ask you the same and then you both move on. Introduction over.
The job title did its job. It told colleagues and the wider world what you do. Now it’s not so easy. With so much jargon around it can be hard to tell your Dynamic Cross-Functional Business Ecosystem Co-ordinator (office manager) from your Chief Transformation Evangelist (the person who tells people they’re being fired).
Then there’s job title inflation, where even your local kebab-house has a Global Chief Marketing Officer and Executive Vice President EMEA (in this case, the bloke who hands out the fliers).
The biggest problem, however, is that increasingly job titles no longer adequately explain what we actually do.
"Traditional, rigidly defined jobs are giving way to more agile, project based work. The workforce is also evolving to become more dynamic and skills led, rather than being defined by the hierarchy of an organisation. The future will be for those who can solve unstructured problems, interpret and synthesise new information, and use social and communication skills," says Payal Vasudeva, MD at Accenture Strategy.
Welcome to the gig economy, where businesses evolve and mutate in a heartbeat, and where employees need to reinvent themselves continuously to survive. In this world, narrow roles are both career-limiting and less relevant to business needs.
Companies want to be agile, after all. They want to pay for work done, not time served. They need their employees to feel empowered, to have a sense of ownership, to be entrepreneurial. Rigid roles just encourage ‘not my department’ syndrome, or worse ‘more than my job’s worth’. Rigid titles just perpetuate the hierarchy.
So job titles have had their day (well maybe - to what extent the business functions we all know and love will actually disappear in a swarm of indistinct gig workers still remains to be seen. For the time being, hold onto your business cards). But what takes their place? Without them, how do you know who does what?
Vasudeva says Accenture uses an internal marketplace platform to match the right people to the right job, and this may well be the model for employers and recruiters in the future, but it doesn’t help at dinner parties or dates.
It comes down to the question, who are you? What we do is hugely important in who we are and our place in society. Indeed, many of us still bear surnames that reflect our ancestor’s job title. That’s how deep this runs.
So how do you answer that question? You can’t say "I’m a finance director for an American consumer electronics company", if you neither work for just one company nor are, technically, a finance director. "I work in finance" doesn’t exactly cut it either, as people will think you work for a bank, and your projects may well cross the functional boundaries. "I’m an accountant?" Well, yes but you are a touch more senior than that...
"Ahem, okay, bear with me. I’ve work in various business projects in a senior capacity, with particular expertise in but not limited to management finance, currency hedges and cost accounting."
Urgh. Is that what we’ve come to? Nobody’s asking for your CV, they just want a vague sense of what you spend your days doing and why you’re a valuable contributor to society.
In an ideal world, we’d just stop labelling each other, but there’s a fairly decent chance that it’s about as deeply engrained in human nature as violence, gossip or breathing. Maybe we should take a few lessons from the kids. Instead of "I’m Sam and I’m a finance director", we should just revert to "I’m Sam and I’m 51 ¾". If they want to find out any more about you, they can just ask.
Image credit: David Yeh/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images
First published in May 2017