An inefficiency in the market of underemployed, educated people
April 28, 2015 12:12 PM   Subscribe

Welcome to the main artery into creative or elite work—highly pressurized, poorly recompensed, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes menial secretarial assistance.
posted by Lycaste (26 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Some of us, of course, are just highly educated people who aren't getting funneled into creative or elite work; we're just working class people who have admin gigs because that's the way the ball bounces. Some of us - by which I mean me - just about cried tears of joy when we were hired, because our - and I mean my - jobs carried benefits, regular working hours and a short commute even if they weren't high status or high paying.

In general, writing about American work assumes that working class people aren't intelligent, educated or capable and thus secretarial gigs are of interest or important only as long as they are worked temporarily by [poor, suffering, abused] elite creatives.
posted by Frowner at 12:24 PM on April 28, 2015 [47 favorites]


Although I should add that it's an interesting essay and I would gladly accept $90,000 - 110,000 a year to be the ninja of personal assistants.
posted by Frowner at 12:27 PM on April 28, 2015 [9 favorites]


In other words, the assistants I know capitalized on what is perhaps the greatest benefit provided to them by their elite universities: access. The ones who snagged assistantships—and ultimately advanced from them—were not necessarily smarter or more creative, but they were more socially competent. They excelled at chat—a skill that comes naturally to those accustomed to attending their parents’ cocktail parties, and less naturally to many a middle-class nerd who has previously had no reason to doubt the meritocracy.
posted by bilabial at 12:32 PM on April 28, 2015 [11 favorites]


Frowner, I actually would distinguish between personal assistants and secretarial assistants; personal assistants do that kind of work, yes, but they also do things like get the dry cleaning, make your dinner reservations, walk your kids home from school, etc. - more of the "personal/home" stuff on top of the typing, filing, personal appearance scheduling, etc. I mean, traditional secretaries do some of that stuff too, but not as much and only in a pinch. My current boss has asked me to do "home" stuff for him maybe like twice in the past year, and the most recent time he treated his request as if it was a huge favor I was doing him (it was just Fedexing his wife something).

I think maybe it's the whole "has to be willing to deal with the laundry" element that makes people treat it as a sort of menial-level job. ...Not that secretarial work is seen as an elite thing either, to be honest...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:43 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Assistant is just new-speak for what these folks really are: servants. Highly educated, socially adept servants.
posted by Chrischris at 12:49 PM on April 28, 2015 [29 favorites]


One problem is that the assistant’s diligence cannot lead to a promotion. Technically, promotions don’t exist. You can’t become the person you assist...

And what a sad fact that is. I'd love to think that after years of being by Robert Altman's side, he brings you into his office, asks you to sit down and tells you that he is retiring and now you, his faithful assistant of all these years, will be the next Altman.

Meanwhile, across town, a different assistant is eating Darren Aranofsky's heart, as per the scroll they found next to his ritually sacrificed body.
posted by griphus at 12:56 PM on April 28, 2015 [13 favorites]


This sounds an awful lot like the shitty churn of internships, and i was about to write some screed about that... but 90-110k a year? Holy fuck. I'd gladly be an assistant/servant forever and never move up at those rates. That's middle of the road software developer in silicon valley money.

Woe is them.
posted by emptythought at 12:59 PM on April 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


Yes, it is quite difficult to feel sorry for someone making twice the median wage (both national and NYC, before we get the can't-get-by-on-less-than-$250k-in-NYC-crowd in here).
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:11 PM on April 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Holy fuck. I'd gladly be an assistant/servant forever and never move up at those rates.

I've been one and... no, no. Sure, it would be hard to leave at that salary, but to have my life back? It would have to happen eventually. This article is very correct about the fact that eventually, your deference runs out-- it has to run out, that level of sub-dignity is just not sustainable. Being someone's professional bitch is worse than working retail or food service in some ways. Mainly, if someone screams or throws an awful (or even violent) tantrum, there is no one higher up the ladder to report them to, and your whole job is making that person feel like it's normal and OK to scream at you, and really it was your fault, and next time you'll do better or something will have to be done about you. Anything bad that happens is your fault. Their flight is delayed? Hard drive crashes? You want a personal life? Don't need their advice? Won't date their son? How dare you?!?!! Not to mention the emails and smartphone going off around the clock.

If I had the 90k/yr assistant job I would sock as much of it away as possible and think of it as project-based work. Like I worked on a stressful, fantastic, highly paid project, and when burn out comes, I can leave with a nice nest egg and live a normal life again.
posted by easter queen at 1:12 PM on April 28, 2015 [11 favorites]


Highly recommended is the 1994 movie about film industry assistants Swimming With Sharks
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:16 PM on April 28, 2015 [10 favorites]


Some of us are college-educated people that for reasons wish they could get a secretarial assistance jobs and instead work retail.
posted by drezdn at 1:20 PM on April 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


"They excelled at chat—a skill that comes naturally to those accustomed to attending their parents’ cocktail parties"
Huh? Who goes to parents' parties?
The people described in the actual linked piece aren't secretaries.
(And a zillion years ago, I had a little part-time gig helping a retired gov't employee compile materials for his memoirs. One day, he offered me two tickets to his son's band. He was Mr. Copeland. His son is Stewart.)
posted by Ideefixe at 1:24 PM on April 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'd gladly be an assistant/servant forever and never move up at those rates.

You ever see Sunset Blvd.? Because I'm pretty sure that's the Platonic Form of the assistant people are looking to pay $90K/year for.
posted by griphus at 1:33 PM on April 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


(Max, not Joe.)
posted by griphus at 1:33 PM on April 28, 2015


At one placed I worked, way back around 1990, we all celebrated when the Department Secretary* announced she was leaving to become the Personal Assistant to a Hollywood celebrity with a reputation for NOT being an asshole (a rare find). She was one of the most organized persons I've ever known, and with a great attitude, tempered only by her ability to occasionally make perfectly-targeted snarky comments. I'm half surprised I've never seen her name appear as an 'up-and-coming' network or studio executive, but she really was too smart for it.

*doing 'clerical' stuff for anyone in the department above a certain level, so having multiple 'bosses', both nice and not-so-nice.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:56 PM on April 28, 2015


In general, writing about American work assumes that working class people aren't intelligent, educated or capable and thus secretarial gigs are of interest or important only as long as they are worked temporarily by [poor, suffering, abused] elite creatives.

oh god yes, this. I got stuck in the crevasse of being too wealthy on paper (family) to qualify for much financial aid, too slack and unmotivated to have gotten decent grades in high school (my fault, and I'll totally own that one) and too desperately poor once I was on my own to bother doing anything besides hustle 3 and 4 shitty service jobs at a time throughout my 20s and early 30s. I slacked along in low end gigs until I landed some scut clerical work and basically clawed my way up through the administrative ranks for 20 years into a decent earning spot here at BigPharmaco.

the problem with hustling from shit job to shit job to moderately-less-shit-job meant being juuuuuuuust out of reach of being able to afford college as the cost of tuition ballooned throughout the Aughts and beyond.

Now I'm kind of stuck making a killing as a paper herder in a QA department with fantastic benefits, but the flip side is I don't have much passion for it and the hours and desk work are hard on my lifestyle (I'd much rather be out riding my bike than watching the clock) but I literally could not find a comparable job at even 60% of my current salary anywhere else without a degree. My original gig here was a 6 week temporary fill-in.

#kellygirlz4lyfe
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:14 PM on April 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


.Not that secretarial work is seen as an elite thing either, to be honest...

Unless you have bad teeth or another visible marker of poverty/ill health that is a liability in landing these sorts of jobs. One of the (many) think pieces about poverty from the last year or so pointed this out--that to be neatly groomed and well spoken costs money.

I mean, it's not seen as an elite thing by people who are the types to have their own assistants, sure. But on the other side of it, landing any office job with regular hours is kind of a jackpot for a lot of people.
posted by witchen at 2:19 PM on April 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


oh and yeah, even as someone recently promoted out from directly under the Mean Girl in charge of the secretarial pool here, I am here to report that yes, in 2015, secretarial work is still both viewed and framed as menial servant class work that only women should be doing.
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:21 PM on April 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


ideefixe: he offered me two tickets to his son's band. He was Mr. Copeland. His son is Stewart.

Go on! The suspense is killing me!
posted by dr_dank at 5:09 PM on April 28, 2015


the hours and desk work are hard on my lifestyle (I'd much rather be out riding my bike than watching the clock)

I don't know almost anyone who gets to go take bike rides on the clock, sadly, outside of freelance work and the people I know doing that are mostly seriously scrambling in order to keep new work coming in. I'm sure it happens, because I see lots of seemingly well-off people sipping coffee or going on mid-morning training rides, but the people I know don't fit into that category.

I've spent most of my working life in extremely hierarchical workplaces, so there has always been an element of needing to deal with the personalities above you and deal with some oddball requests and issues, but nothing like what I expect happens with personal assistant jobs.

That's middle of the road software developer in silicon valley money.

Really? As someone who knows very little about the tech world, I had figured that salaries there were much higher. I know plenty of skilled trades people earning that kind of money, and in way cheaper places. I would have thought that tech salaries would be multiples of that, given housing costs there and how high the stock prices and IPO valuations are.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:50 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I would have thought that tech salaries would be multiples of that, given housing costs there and how high the stock prices and IPO valuations are.

Well quite a few people have made a lot more than that off stock at IPO etc. - that's the whole gold rush thing. And good benefits (regular kind) are pretty standard not to mention all the ridiculous benefits or "benefits" you hear about. But actual salaries? Last I checked average at a Google or Apple sort of place is around 120K, entry level ~90, absolute highest probably low to mid 200s.
posted by atoxyl at 6:50 PM on April 28, 2015


I mean, it's not seen as an elite thing by people who are the types to have their own assistants, sure. But on the other side of it, landing any office job with regular hours is kind of a jackpot for a lot of people.

Oh, no, I agree, I was speaking strictly of how these jobs are perceived by managerial types when I speak of admin work in general being perceived as "non-elite". However, the managerial types couldn't function without it - and maybe that's why they're shunned by the upper-crust, because they don't want to admit it.

I've been giving occasional subsistence-level admin help to one department where I work, because I had some extra time and they had no admin in their budget, and a couple days from now I will no longer be able to. They have not yet identified who will be taking on my duties. I guarantee that within a month there will be a general revolt on the topic of "SERIOUSLY HOW DO WE ORDER TONER FOR THE COPIER".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:30 PM on April 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


From the article: "It might be the only time in their lives that art students or English majors are courted by a potential employer."

*cries*
God, I hate being a worthless human being because I'm too stupid for STEM. But...I am.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:38 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


This article is very correct about the fact that eventually, your deference runs out-- it has to run out, that level of sub-dignity is just not sustainable. Being someone's professional bitch is worse than working retail or food service in some ways. Mainly, if someone screams or throws an awful (or even violent) tantrum, there is no one higher up the ladder to report them to, and your whole job is making that person feel like it's normal and OK to scream at you, and really it was your fault, and next time you'll do better or something will have to be done about you. Anything bad that happens is your fault. Their flight is delayed? Hard drive crashes? You want a personal life? Don't need their advice? Won't date their son? How dare you?!?!! Not to mention the emails and smartphone going off around the clock.

I've worked a retail job with a crazy manager who was also the owner like this. I've also done IT for a medium sized business where i had to work directly with the owners as my bosses... and it was pretty much like this. Both of them were for less than half that much money.

So yea, i've pretty much been at that level of sub-dignity. Scrubbing blood and shit off of walls and even ceilings after junkies and prostitutes trashed bathrooms, buying my boss drugs on the clock. Hell, my coworker tutored his kids in math because he didn't want to lose his job.(he got some paltry extra cash, but still, wtf)

I've weathered the tantrums, taken the falls when it wasn't my fault. Showed up at their houses to bring them one stupid cable for their stereo or drop something off at some asinine hour. Driven their cars(or kids) across town and bused home, covered for their awful fuckups to their family, whatever.

I mean i know there's jobs that aren't like that, but it's like, meh, i was used to it. And i'd happily take that amount of money for the same level of abuse i endured for way less anyways.


On preview, i completely forgot my job as a 5-7 day a week studio assistant to a rich artist who was disabled. Pretty much all of this plus mixing paint and other gruntwork.

I wonder if i should start looking up assistant gigs on craigslist? I bet this kind of thing doesn't even really get advertised there though. That gig certainly didn't, and wouldn't.
posted by emptythought at 4:10 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


oh yeah, work at any small family-owned business (or tech startup) as an administrative worker (translation: servant/glorified waitress) and see how quickly you end up becoming the person in charge of walking / entertaining the owner's ill-tempered and poorly socialized dogs and/or toddlers on company time.

not that I am bitter about this at all... /s
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:48 PM on April 30, 2015


no, emptythought, craigslist is where you get the gigs that seem to think they can entice someone to do all of these wonderful demeaning tasks for $9/hour.
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:52 PM on April 30, 2015


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