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Differentiating Between A Job And Meaningful Work

“What is the difference between a cucumber, a tomato and a cabbage?
These are three types of vegetables that essentially have nothing else to do with each other.”
Mikhail Kotykhov in Quora (Dec, 1, 2015)

aiche_istock-chemical-manufacturing-workersOne of the topics that I will be researching and writing about in the months to come is the changing nature of work primarily in these United States, but also around the world. This subject has been on the discussion table for some time, and was a major driver during the recent 2016 presidential election. It is also a topic that won’t be going away anytime soon.

In a recent conversation between Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and screenwriter, and NPR’s Morning Edition host Renee Montagne shortly after the November presidential election, the discussion centered around residents in Midwestern or Rust Belt states who felt that they had been left behind or forgotten about by the politicians and the broken system of government in Washington.  Russo drew a distinction between having a job and meaningful work. Here’s a few excerpt of their conversation:

Russo: Well, I’ve been thinking about the very demographic that you were talking about. And we’ve been hearing a lot of talk about jobs. But I would draw a distinction between jobs and work. I don’t have a job, but I have tons and tons of work. That work sustains me. I’m doing something that gives my life meaning, it connects me to other people.

I think when you lose a job, you have less money and you get scared. But when you lose work, which has happened to many of Donald Trump’s supporters – or they fear it is going to happen to them – you lose your dignity. Maybe you’re nobody. Maybe you don’t matter.

I think that Trump supporters have really been worried about their sense of not belonging anymore. If I blame Trump supporters for anything, it’s that if they’ve been feeling undervalued, denigrated, ignored, that’s not a new feeling. It’s just new to them, you know? Black people in America have felt that way for a long time. So have Latinos.

Russo goes on to say “… in making a distinction between jobs and work, the thing that I’m most convinced of is that in the larger sense of work, when I leave the studio here, Renee, after talking with you, I’m going to go back home and go get back to work as a writer, as a husband, as a father…My sense is that I have work to do. And I want to get back to it.”

Rene Montagne’s short interview with Richard Russo got me to thinking about the everyday words that we use to describe our jobs and the work we do.  More often than not, we use these words interchangeably, however, they don’t always mean the same thing. Some of the most common synonyms for a job are work, trade or craft, occupation, vocation or calling, and profession. Other frequently used synonyms include task, position, daily grind, and rat race.

Next, I will try to provide a definition for some of the more common descriptors that define job and work:

Job – There is no shortage of definitions for the word job. Here’s a definition that I like from the Business Dictionary:

construction-related-workersA group of homogeneous tasks related by similarity of functions. When performed by an employee in an exchange for pay, a job consists of duties, responsibilities, and tasks (performance elements) that are (1) defined and specific, and (2) can be accomplished, quantified, measured, and rated.

From a wider perspective, a job is synonymous with a role and includes the physical and social aspects of a work environment. Often, individuals identify themselves with their job or role (foreman, supervisor, engineer, etc.) and derive motivation from its uniqueness or usefulness.

Next, let’s compare occupation and profession [Ref 2]:

Occupation – refers to a kind of economic activity that is engaged in by a person regularly for earning money. When someone engages or occupies himself, most of the time, in any economic activity, that activity is known as their occupation.

Example: Drivers, shopkeepers, a government servant, clerks, accountants, etc.

An occupation does not necessarily require specialized schooling in a particular area. Whether physical or mental, both types of jobs are included in an occupation. It is divided into the following categories:

  • Business: When a person in engaged in any trade, commerce or manufacturing activities, he is said to be doing business.
  • Employment: The occupation in which a person works for others and gets a fixed and regular income is employment.
  • Profession: The occupation in which a person renders services to others, by applying his knowledge and skills is a profession.

Profession – A profession is an occupation, for which a person has to undergo specialized training or internship, for getting a high degree of education and expertise in the concerned area. The main objective of the profession is to render services to those who need them.

The profession is governed by a professional body or statute. To be called a professional, a person has to pursue higher studies and sometimes qualify for the exam conducted by the governing body. Normally, a professional is said to be an expert in his field. Ethical codes are developed by the professional body which must be followed by the professionals, to ensure uniformity in their work.

Example: Doctors, engineers, lawyers, Certified Public Accountant (CPA), etc.

Trade – A trade or craft, on the other hand, is a manual job that requires special training. Typical trades include carpenters, plumbers, auto mechanics, florists, hairstylists, butchers, bakers, etc.

Calling or Vocation – Vocation and profession indicate the career or the occupation through which an individual makes a livelihood. Vocation, however, is a much broader term than profession.

fracking-spurs-rust-belt-rebound_cnbcFirst, let’s take a look at the origin of this word. From Wikipedia, a vocation (from Latin vocātiō, meaning “a call, summons”) is an occupation to which a person is specially drawn or for which she/he is suited, trained, or qualified. Though now often used in non-religious contexts, the meanings of the term originated in Christianity.

Therefore, for some individuals, the point of reference that they speak of when they talk about vocation is God’s will – what they believe He is calling them to do with their lives, the purpose for which they were created as it relates to the salvation of  their soul and the salvation of others. So, a vocation is not something you switch out of on a whim, since it is not something you go into lightly.

Wikipedia also gives a modern usage of vocation: Since the establishment of Vocational Guidance in 1908 by the engineer, Frank Parsons, the use of the word  vocation has evolved, with emphasis shifting to an individual’s development of talents and abilities in the choice and enjoyment of a career.

While it is noble to have a calling on one’s life, be mindful that each of us does not have the same talents or skills, therefore our callings will be different.  As Parker J. Palmer writes in “Are You Listening to Your Life?”: “Vocation, I’ve learned, doesn’t come from willfulness. It comes from listening. That insight is hidden in the word vocation itself, which is rooted in the Latin for “voice.” Before I tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen for what my life wants to do with me.”

A secular vocation can be described as an occupation, business, profession or calling that comes with a strong impulse or inclination to follow a particular activity or career. That said, each of us does not experience our calling at the same time in our lives or careers, and for some, not ever.

As Palmer continues to share in her post: Accepting this birthright gift of self turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to become someone else. I’ve sometimes responded to that demand by ignoring the gift or hiding it or fleeing from it, and I don’t think I’m alone.

The reality is that it can take a long time to become yourself. However, one way that we become ourselves or the self that we have been called to be is through our work: mental or physical activities that we engage in as a means of earning income. The nature of this work is the umbrella for all of the terms that were defined earlier in this post.

may-of-the-acheivements-of-the-world-were-accomplioshed-by-tired-and-discouraged-people-who-kept-on-working-achievement-quoteIndividuals who are unemployed and not retired are looking for jobs, and some are looking for work. We already know that jobs come and go. The recent 2016 presidential election cycle included much discussion about the loss of manufacturing jobs to other countries. However, that is only partly true. More jobs have and are being lost to computerization and automation. There are many examples of companies that have fewer workers today than they did, 10, 20, or 30 years ago. These companies are also producing more products and services with fewer employees.

To those seeking employment opportunities, your short-term objective could be a job for now, and useful work in the not so distant future. A job might be part of your career or might be your vocation, but the connotation of a job is closer to getting paid for your time than for your skills.

In the year to come, let us all focus on putting more Americans back to work. For some, that will require updating and/or acquiring new skills. Why? Stated earlier, jobs come and go. However, there is always work to do!


  1. Interview with Author Richard Russo Ponders What The Presidential Election Was Really About, NPR Morning Edition with Host Renee Montagne, November 10, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/11/10/501537293/author-richard-russo-ponders-what-the-presidential-election-was-really-about
  2. Key differences between occupation and profession, http://keydifferences.com/difference-between-occupation-and-profession.html
  3. Are You Listening to Your Life? It can take a long time to become yourself, by Parker J. Palmer in the January 2001, issue of O, The Oprah Magazinehttp://www.oprah.com/spirit/what-are-you-meant-to-be-doing-find-your-calling#ixzz4SqKI0tDL

About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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