Job Titles: What's in a name?


Job titles in the 21st Century

A delicate investigation into the historic relevancy and contemporary necessity of our obsession with naming jobs.

Job Titles - Do we really need them?

In these career obsessed times, everything seemingly revolves around the title associated with one's occupation. This traditionally relates to how corporations modeled themselves on the military in the early stages of the 20th century.


Much like the army, most corporations operate on a hierarchy basis where job structures are formed like pyramids - the lowest rungs of the organisation form the base, leading up to the top through middle managers, managers and then the head honcho sitting right at the peak: The glorious Chief Executive Officer or CEO, for those acronym aficionados out there.

Interestingly enough the root of the word "hierarchy" derives from the Ancient Greek word "hierarkhēs" which means "sacred ruler". I wonder how many CEOs or military generals are aware of the divine origin of their position, most would probably be pretty chuffed with that reality. I could name several individuals just off the top of my head who would be thrilled with this discovery. All self-aggrandising and narcissism aside, many people sitting at the top of these organisations probably already view themselves in this light, so the terminology is quite fitting.

To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.
— Mark Twain

Job titles have changed throughout history. Adding a name to a person's occupation is as old as the sun (well, not quite, but at least as old as human civilisation, whatever that term really means).

Here's a list of obsolete job titles, just for fun:

  • Ash burner (seems a superfluous task?)

  • Court dwarf (racist?)

  • Lamplighter (pretty cruisy)

  • Ninja (epic)

  • Expressman (too hectic)

  • Feeder of lice (ahem?)

  • Packetman (doubt there's a relation to the game)

  • Human computer (no way!)

Whilst some of those job titles are obvious as the occupation is literally in the name, some of them are a little more obscure. For starters, what on earth was that person doing feeding lice? Well upon closer inspection of the term, it actually starts to make a little more sense (emphasis on "a little"). During the second world war, a virology research institute in Poland employed specific people to literally feed lice their blood. The institute specialised in vaccines and was developing a specific vaccine for typhus, typically found in lice. Ahhh that makes sense now, even if it is a bit macabre. Three guesses as to who was occupying Poland during this time? Yes you got it, ze Germans.

When I get older I want to be either a Ninja, a Lamplighter or a…

Being a ninja would've been a pretty tough gig regardless of how our contemporary society tends to view these merciless mercenaries in a romantic light. The truth is their lives were hard, constantly in peril and, yes you got it, they were notoriously underpaid for the work they did. Not sure if they ever got around to forming a union, but for the most part, ninjas were employed when using the actual military would be too expensive (and loud). They were the silent assassins of the time, worked hard for little money and weren't even allowed to take lunch breaks.

But let's focus on the most intriguing term up there.

Human Computer. You whattt??

Yes, the term computer was first used in an official capacity in 1613, it referred to "one who computes," in other words a person who would perform complex mathematical equations. The term mathematician grew from that word. It was normal for scientists back then to have a team of human computers who would assist in doing more tedious calculations in their field. An example would be astronomers who employed these living, breathing computers to help map the position of planets and stars. In fact, the famed German scientist Johannes Kepler who defined the laws of planetary motion (among many, many other achievements) in the 1600s, was initially employed as a human computer until his big break.

In the late 19th century the US government employed human computers to track weather patterns. Fun!!

If you need to invoke your academic pedigree or job title for people to believe what you say, then you need a better argument.
— Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Great Labour Divide

The need for job titles becomes even more evident when considering the impact the division of specified labour had on our society. Divvying up the various tasks required to maintain a functioning society into ever more specialised and nuanced positions, began during the Agrarian revolution when our species pivoted away from the individual hunter gatherer mode of existence and into a large scale collaborative farming model.

This division was on one hand a heaven send for streamlining life as it was a bain that would manifest itself only further down the line, especially after the Industrial revolution. A period in history that changed the nature of work forever, birthing large scale production factories with 100s and 1000s of workers performing various tasks, most of them extremely repetitive.

There has always been an intricate link between job titles and the division of labour which dates back nearly 7000 years to the way society was structured by the Ancient Sumerians.

In Plato's Republic, the Greek philosopher wrote the following regarding the division of the labour force in society:

Well then, how will our state supply these needs? It will need a farmer, a builder, and a weaver, and also, I think, a shoemaker and one or two others to provide for our bodily needs. So that the minimum state would consist of four or five men...”

Along similar lines but perhaps more poignantly, the Tunisian scholar and historian Ibn Khaldun wrote:

The power of the individual human being is not sufficient for him to obtain (the food) he needs, and does not provide him with as much as he requires to live. Even if we assume an absolute minimum of food...that amount of food could be obtained only after much preparation...Thus, he cannot do without a combination of many powers from among his fellow beings, if he is to obtain food for himself and for them. Through cooperation, the needs of a number of persons, many times greater than their own number, can be satisfied.”

Here it becomes clear that the division of labour was born out of a necessity to make life more bearable for the individual – especially when it came to food production. However as with most things, this is not the end of the story.

Adam Smith, the bachelor Scotsman accredited with the invention of modern capitalism, was mostly a fan of specialised labour. In 1776 he wrote the book “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” in which he outlined the specific need for the division of labour particularly because he believed that it would result in an increase in productivity. He uses the example of making pins, where the company in charge of their production would routinely divide the diverse tasks between various people, where one would be responsible for the making of the head, another the body and so on.

Yet in light of this increase in production, Smith did argue somewhat in contradiction to this previous stance; for example he did also say that in certain situations:

An extreme division of labour would eventually strip workers of their motivation and livelihood due to the mundanely repetitive nature of their job.

Not that it matters, as Smith also argued that rational self-interest and competition would eventually result in the economic prosperity of any given country. Following on from this, one of his flawed premises was that the increase in wealth of a country would by default result in the increasing wealth of its citizens. He couldn't have been more wrong there. The United States of America being a case in point.

In the 20th century it became the richest country the world ever witnessed, yet today in 2019, it is the only developed nation on Earth that doesn't guarantee universal healthcare to all its citizens, over 1% of the country is incarcerated and over 25% of its children live in economic poverty. Not the exact outcome Smith had envisioned..... (wow, so boooring, that tangent should be edited out of this piece pronto - my bad).

You may wake up now…

Okay, in the off chance that by some miracle you're still awake we'll go back to job titles and their relevance. The work force is becoming younger and jobs ever more nuanced. In the last 20 years, the Internet and technology have sparked another vocational revolution.

Quirky job titles like "cyber evangelist" or "innovation alchemist" in reference to digital marketing and analytical positions, are largely created to attract web savvy millennial applicants. Naturally these jobs wouldn't involve actual alchemy or evangelising, so the trend is moving away from a job title actually referring to the job at hand, like a lamplighter lit lamps and a lice feeder literally fed lice.

Furthermore, the term "chief executive officer" is a triple redundant phrase, it would be like calling a janitor a "cleaning washing aide. Abbreviating job titles is another strangely arbitrary thing we do, further alienating us from the actual title itself to just an acronym - these acronyms could easily be replaced by numbers or even a binary code, a binary code that encodes your entire work responsibility and duties in a short string of 1s and 0s. That would be less arbitrary and make more sense. Here a mailman would become 100101001 and an uber driver 0001 etc..

So, in an era where technology, when its not actually replacing jobs, is creating its own form of specialised labour in a digital arena, where job titles are becoming increasingly irrelevant, we could be cheeky and ask the question, do we still need them?

Can I still light Lamps for a Living?

It's a pretty safe bet that lighting lamps in the streets won't stage a come back as a career opportunity any time soon. 1

Lamplighter - A redundant Job Title

If you meet someone and ask them what they do for a living and they reply with "product philosopher," you would immediately have to follow that up with "and what does that entail?"

Whereas possibly the best and most accurate reply to that question is:

"I live for a living."


By: Christopher von Roy

Creative Technical Executive (hahaha)


1 On an intriguing aside, it must be pointed out here, that there actually still are 5 registered lamplighters on the payroll in the city of London. It used to be one of the most respected professions in England, en par with doctor and way ahead of lawyer, waaay ahead.

Next Week’s article:

“The Power of Cultivating a Beginner’s Mind, in Science and in Business”

Chris Von Roy

AUTHOR | Chris Von Roy

Having identified a rare and previously unknown type of salmonella whilst analysing poo samples for the German Army, Chris now spends his time thinking fondly of sharks, rapping about Shish Kebabs, and attempting to distil Cherie's endless waves of wisdom and inspiration into digital nuggets for the world to consume.