April 22 is Secretaries’ Day. Actually, the official title has been changed to the more politically correct “Administrative Professionals’ Day.” It seems no one wants to be known as a secretary anymore, the common view being that it is a demeaning title indicating the person has no real work skills and only “serves” the boss.
It is troubling that the notion of service has become anathema to the extent it has. Moreover, it seems doubtful that negative connotations have any place in reference to those who, whatever their title, regularly save the careers of people like me who have trouble with correspondence, note-taking, and people in general, and can turn a trip to the copy machine into a dramatic and dangerous exercise in futility. Still, I suppose I understand the desire to not be deemed a “secretary,” given that this position has been reduced in the public’s eyes to that of someone in customer service—and people in customer service seem to be people employers are trying desperately to eliminate, or at least outsource to some non-English speaking nation.
The result is not, however, the elimination of secretaries. Instead, we are all secretaries now, in the most demeaning sense of that term. Most people who work in offices now are responsible for their own letter drafting, travel arrangements, and clerical tasks. This is mostly the result of technology’s spread. The computer “enables” most of us to take care of these tasks for ourselves, if not as well or efficiently as once was the case. Thus, administrative assistants in most businesses now exist in such low numbers that they can only tend the most immediate matters, which sadly generally means taking care of mountains of paperwork decreed by increasing swarms of bean counters and other buttinskis at the central office or, more likely, some branch or other of the government.
My impression is that the near elimination of administrative help is a central cause of the increasing hours worked by so many in white-collar jobs. These are the costs of technological progress, so-called. But at least employers have to pay the price of their own mistakes when dealing with their own employees. Such seems not to be the case when it comes to governments and highly regulated industries dealing with their “customers.”
Stinting on your customers is nothing new, of course. At least one former U.S. Senator is said to have gotten on the road to fame and fortune by convincing the company for which he was interning while in college to fire everyone then working to answer complaint letters, substituting a single form letter for the lot. In a just universe that would have earned him several thousand years in purgatory. But it was only the beginning. Customer service agents hide behind telephone “decision trees” because there aren’t supposed to be many of them, and most of them are in India or some other exotic locale in any event. The expectation is that we will take care of whatever problem we have on our own if we just stop bothering the company about it. Not surprisingly, some of the worst offenders are utility and telecommunications (cable and internet) companies which exist as government-protected semi-monopolies.
And then there is the government. We all have been made into low-level drudge workers responsible for tending the needs of impersonal organizations that value us at nothing. Some of this is just a worsening of longstanding problems with an overgrown state bureaucracy—as I was reminded recently on leaving a government office without my vehicle registration because I neglected to bring with me that Social Security Card my father decades ago had been promised would never be required for identification purposes. More generally, no one expects “customer service” from the bureaucracy, but government rules increasingly put the onus on us to serve the state. With the IRS, but also with other agencies, we are guilty of whatever infraction we are charged with unless we can produce the records proving our innocence. And the hostile presumption extends to credit agencies and almost anyone we do not want to actually sue.
We all have been reminded in recent days of the burden of recordkeeping requirements in filling out our tax forms. I am not rich, but gave up years ago doing my own taxes because I am not capable of figuring out the tax man’s rules, having all I can handle in simply keeping hold of the relevant documents. “Obamacare” (or as I like to call it, “The Insurance Company Empowerment Act”) has taken this problem to an entirely new level, not just with taxes, but with the insurance companies themselves, who make a very good profit off of turning down applications for reimbursement and coverage for not including the appropriate coding, receipts, or double secret watermark. The hope clearly is that we will fail to reapply and so forfeit the benefits for which we paid.
At one level this is simply a self-indulgent bit of whining. I am not good at clerical work. That said, we should not overlook the very real costs to us in terms of time and money imposed by governments and corporations that outsource what we all used to recognize as their jobs. More important, we are being held responsible, potentially at the cost of our physical freedom, for record keeping skills most of us neither have nor desire to gain. A number of books in recent years have pointed out how easy it is for Americans to “break the law” unwittingly, given how broad and detailed those laws have become. When one adds to this the requirement that we all train ourselves at our own expense in the intricacies of clerical filing tasks, and find places to put those files where the dogs and kids will not find them, at risk of very real penalties for non-compliance, the result is an economy and a society that is much less free than in our former, “uncivilized” age.
We may not be slaves to our government and insurance and utility companies in the literal sense. But my house sometimes feels and looks like a clerical labor camp. We all know, of course, that the worst part of all this is the time wasted on the telephone. And this should provide the final warning: never, ever think that a company or government agency that promises to provide an “ombudsperson” or a “culture of customer service” is planning on doing you any favors. The goal is a rather simple one, actually, to construct another layer of bureaucracy, this time a predominantly mechanized layer intended to keep you busy until you give up and let your betters do whatever they want so long as you can just hang up the telephone.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.