Roles—Not Jobs—Rule in the Digital Era

It’s all about jobs, right? Jobs – the process by which we exchange our effort and knowledge for something of value.
Much of our identity comes from our jobs. Our economy builds on them and the types of jobs that are in demand (and their distribution and compensation) are often a proxy for what society considers important.  
Trouble is, jobs as a term feels old—and not in the treasured, valued, or Yoda-sage way. In today’s digital, dynamic world of work, the traditional concept of a job has become too narrow, too mundane, too fixed. The word signifies an archaic structure of inflexible rote duties or hierarchy-based expectations. When people speak of their jobs, it often implies being a human widget. A job is either relatively stable and endlessly boring, or haphazard and chaotic with no chance to grow, succeed or achieve. 
This legacy understanding of jobs doesn’t serve us well in trying to design for the current and future world of work and education. For individual workers, leaders and organizations, re-thinking our concept of jobs is key to economic survival and personal enrichment.  
What’s the alternative? 
Let’s start by modifying our constant use of the jobs term and build from the idea of roles instead.  
Roles or even ‘job roles’ isn’t a new term or practice. But its time has come to take up more space in the conversation. The concept and structure of roles are more relevant to guide how we educate, recruit, develop and transition our current and future workforce. 
A role is generally defined as the way in which someone is involved in an activity or situation, what they bring, and how they impact a situational goal. Take roles in the theatre. An actor may have many roles in a career, and many different opportunities to apply, hone, and gain new skills. Few actors play one role exclusively over a career. Roles in the workplace are an association of work areas, tasks, and accomplishments that may flex and change based on needs and opportunities. Compared with jobs, roles imply a more dynamic and situational use of skills and capabilities—flexible building blocks rather than predefined widgets.
A focus on flexible roles versus rigid jobs in defining, preparing and managing work today seems much more valuable. Take Millennials, for example. Research shows that rather than having one job for life, Millennials are focused on continuous skills development. Ninety-three percent want lifelong learning and four out of five say the opportunity to learn new skills is a top factor when considering a new employer. Millennials are focused on career rather than job security, willing to play a role within an organization that gives them real opportunities to grow. Attracting Millennial talent will require organizations to pivot to a role mindset and look for employee traits like learnability and curiosity rather than a narrow set of defined “job skills.”
Retire jobs and hire roles?
It’s time to invite roles to the table. At Manpower and Right Management, we already apply roles to our thinking and use the concept as an important framework for our world of work.  In 2017, we completed a major industry applied research project to identify existing and future roles in advanced and digital manufacturing. 
We focused on the unit of roles to enable organizations to combine them or modularize them in combinations that made sense for their (changing) needs. Using roles provided the opportunity to map the work and skills required to many important elements, and to identify those that are transition targets and those that are breakout opportunities. While roles may also be actual positions (and someone’s job), they are first and foremost a combination of needed and valued skills, knowledge and outputs that can differentiate a manufacturer and serve as meaningful and well-paying careers for individuals. 
Roles work.
What do you think? The next time there is a discussion about “jobs” in your organization, would substituting a “roles” mindset serve you and your stakeholders better?