What is the Difference Between a Job and a Career?

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Society has the tendency to make the distinction between a job and a career. It seems to be an easy thing to do – some work comes under the heading of a job, and other work comes under the heading of a career. The only problem is that, when one is called upon to discuss our reasons for why we classify some work one way and some another, we can rarely if ever give a rational explanation. Perhaps some of it is us looking down on manual labor, however much we might want to admit it – a ‘career ‘ does sometimes seem to have more legitimacy, and more social clout (if you like) than a mere ‘job’ does. In some circumstances we may differentiate between a career and a job as simple shorthand – someone has a career when they have found a permanent workplace, while someone who has a job simply has a temporary filler while they look for employment elsewhere. Perhaps there is a distinction to be made, and one which is not simply arbitrary to suit the present conversation.

The Oxford English Dictionary (def. 1) defines a career as “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life, usually with opportunities for progress.” Right away, this definition gives us one reason for the career\job split – a career lasts for a significant amount of time, perhaps to the exclusion of other things in life. We are all familiar with the phrase ‘career woman’ – someone who has devoted herself to whatever work she is engaged in, usually at the expense of having children – does describing someone as having a “career” necessarily entail that the person in question has excluded other areas of their life to focus on said career? The opportunities for advancement that are mentioned by the dictionary, while they do tend to affirm the ‘exclusion of all else’ ideas that always seem to come attached to the idea of a ‘career-oriented person,’ also perhaps showcase our societal views in ways we hadn’t foreseen – career advancement tends to happen mostly in so-called white-collar professions, where you can move from being an office worker to a supervisor to a manager and so on and so forth, moving up the company each time.

If a career (working off the last paragraph) is something that is permanent and offers hope of advancement, then a job does not offer either of those things. Our dictionary definitions bear this line of thought out: compare the definition of the word “career” in the last paragraph with the definition of “job” given “a paid position of regular employment” (OED, def. 1). There’s no mention of advancement or things like that, which leads me to the conclusion that when we talk about a job, we mean something that does not ultimately lead anywhere. This doesn’t even necessarily have to be a bad thing – we don’t call a teenager’s paper route a “career,” after all – but I think that in light of the difference between blue-collar and white-collar work that this word choice seems to imply, our use of the words “career” and “job” could very easily be seen to imply a devaluation of the skill required in manual labor in favor of ‘knowledge workers’ (Crawford, intro.).

Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft is a look at the changing definitions of work that we use in our society, which I think is useful as a way of looking at our views on what a career is versus what a job is. If we accept that, as Crawford says, people are now being trained to be ‘knowledge workers’ (intro.) and that actual physical work is being devalued, lading people to start growing their own vegetables and knitting their own jumpers to try and reclaim the feeling of satisfaction that comes from a good job well done, then the split between a job and a career starts making more sense. Since we don’t value work done by hand – by a craftsman or tradesman – then it would make sense that we would attach less importance to a “job,” on a variety of levels, and elevate the idea of a “career” instead. If important work has come to mean not using our hands, then obviously work that does involve your hands would be relegated to employment which did not offer advancement.

The overall assumption that our workforce is shifting from a manual labor workforce to a knowledge workforce may be too presumptuous and neglect certain factors that delegate the difference between knowledge careers and manual labor jobs. First, manual labor “jobs” may also be careers. Air conditioner repair, auto-mechanic, and other similar professions do require education, training, and some even require certification or a college degree. This type of investment in a profession does render it a career goal, not just a temporary job to satisfy the bills until something better comes along. In fact, many of these types of physical labor professions actually pay higher wages or salaries than many “knowledge” careers do, while costing a fraction of the student loan debt or tuition of traditional four-year college degrees that don’t necessarily place one in any particular career focus.

So, the next question is when does a job become a career? Is it possible to start a job with the intent that it is a temporary solution, but then find that it becomes your career? This is very possible and has been for centuries. Many apprenticeships or internships begin by learning a skill or working in the family business to gain skills until one chooses their career path. Sometimes those skills become something that develops into a longer-term plan. One can begin as a cashier at McDonald's, but then years later, find themselves managing that same store. There is no shame in such a transition because the income earned by managers at McDonald's often equates to that of public-school teachers who were required to gain a four-year college degree. That college degree sets the teachers back tens of thousands of dollars whereas that work and learn as you go strategy earned a managerial position while being paid to learn.

Why would anyone go to college if they can learn and earn as they move up the ladder? There are some professions where certified education is essential and not something that can be skipped over. It used to be that many professions, if not all, were learn as you earn. However, with the specialization of many fields, there are careers that cannot legally be obtained without having acquired said training. Even real estate agents are required to obtain licensing, which is done through examinations. There are classes offered to help them pass these exams. One could study independently and then take the exams, but for other fields, such as medicine, there is no shortcut or expense eliminator. The only way up is through the rigorous and expensive training processes.

How does one decide what is the best strategy for long-term career planning and goal setting? The most important question is to ask if the career really resonates with you or if it just seems like the right thing to do. The right thing isn’t always the best thing. Sometimes real reflection on the pros and cons must be addressed before committing extensive time and money into any career path. Sometimes it is more beneficial to gain employment experience in fields related to the assumed career goal to find out if it really is a good fit. It could be that after spending time in the field, many nuances about the career come to the fore, which may not have been noticed without having experienced it first. This information can change a long-term decision about career choice. This is a much better way than to spend thousands of dollars on education for a field that one later finds themselves detesting or not feeling the right fit.

Things to consider are time away from family if one wants to have a family in the future. Earlier in this paper, the career-minded description of someone who puts career above family was addressed. There are many who choose career and family and there is no reason why both can’t be given full value and attention. The key is to understand the demands of the career chosen and how important that is in relation to one’s desire to have a family. The whole purpose of a career isn’t just for self-gratification, but also for sustenance of self and potentially an entire family. The work should not take from the family as much as it should be providing and contributing to the family’s overall experience. This goes into the value component of the chosen career. Is it worth it?

Another question to ask is how much debt is required and is the end salary worth the debt incurred to obtain the career position desired? Some careers will nickel and dime many people who participate in the career. Some are fortunate enough to not have to endure this or to make more than enough for that aspect to not affect them as much, but the majority do not find this the case. Interviewing others in the career to get their input would be especially helpful in isolating whether this is a good career investment choice.

Experience through internships can give insight into a field without committing to it. These are often offered through partnerships with universities. It might be beneficial to find out if any of the organizations also offer non-college related internship options so that real-world experience in the field can be obtained to help gain the knowledge necessary to decide if the expense is worth it for the chosen field of study and career goal. Find out the psychological impact of the chosen career.

Find out if the stress levels are exorbitant and whether the stress is something that can be easily managed or would eventually destroy a person’s health. Do some research about the field. Find out the level of health issues related to the field. How many people suffer from heart conditions or cancer? How many of them seek the guidance of mental health practitioners? Interview people in the field to find out what they personally experience regarding the stress in the office or the field itself. How does this stress impact their families? How are their medical expenses covered? How much time off work are they needing to have in order to sustain their practice?

In summary, we seem to make the distinction between a “job” and a “career” based solely on our societal view of manual labor. That is not necessarily the best way to view the concept of career. The shift from factory work to more white-collar office work does not necessarily render manual labor trades as insignificant or less than. Current trends in education focus on passing examinations. This is not that far off from the manual labor “technical” training that has been passed down from generation to generation. The only difference is that now it has become more paper-trail oriented. More certifications and licensing are required to do specialized manual labor work. The definitions that we give in our dictionaries bear this attitude that “careers” are seen as inherently more important than “jobs,” hence they are shown in a better light, with the opportunities for advancement highlighted. This is only a small glimpse into the reality of the working and isn’t necessarily accurate when given a full-spectrum view of the entire workforce reality. At the end of the day, the value of the career to one’s life is what is most important.

Works Cited

“Career” Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 12th ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.

Crawford, Matthew. Shop Class as Soulcraft, Penguin Books, New York, 2010.

“Job” Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 12th ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.