Girl Talk Career Blog

May 15, 2010

Are Secretaries Doomed to Obscurity?

I read an article recently that truly annoyed me. It’s titled “As Job Market Shifts, Some Workers Are Left Behind” by Catherine Rampbell.  I’ve enclosed the link here for you to read and make your own judgement. I’ll tell you what’s annoying me. It’s not the unemployment Cynthia Norton is suffering, as unfortunate as that is. It’s not even the fact that there are indeed jobs that have become obsolete and will never return again. That’s progress. Not regress, progress. I can remember when we had a milkman deliver milk straight to our door when I was a kid. Since grocery stores came into being for most people milk delivery days are long over. That’s how it has always been in history with work, supply and demand. Let’s take a brief trip through history if you will.

Consider working from home for instance. A big, radical new trend nowadays right? Wrong. Working from home has been the norm for centuries upon centuries. In “olden times” when people didn’t have cars, and few could afford horses, and the streets were made of dirt so they swam in mud and horse feces when it rained, it wasn’t possible or feasible for most people to leave their homes and travel to a different locale for work. So naturally they set up shop inside their own houses or they traipsed around the corner to the farmer’s market, just a stone’s throw away. This arrangement stretches back to ancient times and all the way up to the pioneer days before this type of set-up began to change.

Consider that pioneers built their homes by hand (and oxen). Not easy. Not fun. So rather than go through the exhausting task of building another house to conduct business, the candlemaker sold candles from downstairs in his home then he went upstairs to live with his family and retire for the night. Same with the tinmaker and the medical doctor. Of course the blacksmith worked out of a stable for obvious reasons but his house was alongside the stable so he was only a few steps away from work. Hence the term cottage industry. People’s work were set up in their homes, or “cottages”.

Then the Industrial Revolution hit and all hell broke loose.  Cars were invented. Roads got paved. Factories were constructed and naturally people couldn’t remain at home and take work on an assembly line. Besides many didn’t want to work from home anymore. They needed to go where the jobs were and they wanted to separate family and work, so leaving home to go out and make a living became the norm. Now we’re seeing a trend towards working from home again and although at first it seems to be a new employment trend it is anything but.  It is merely history repeating itself.

Now when trends change in the work place there is always a socio-economic change to accompany or precede those trends. In the 18th Century it was all about industrial manufacturing. In the 21st Century we’ve gone global. It’s all about technology. That’s one reason why so many people can now afford to open their own business or take work with someone else and never leave the house to earn cash. All they need is a laptop, high speed internet and voila! They’re in business.

Amoung other things software has made booking your own travel arrangements and managing your own calendar incredibly easy to do. Companies noticed and reassigned that sort of work to their own executives and managers.  Now not all secretarial work is possible for one person to accomplish and be able to complete his or her own work in a timely manner. For example it can take hours to produce a decent PowerPoint presentation and that is valuable work time better used elsewhere when you’re a senior executive.  And consider this job advertisement seeking an Executive Assistant (a high level secretary):

Manages both partners’ schedules, maintaining a complex schedule of events, identifying potential conflicts and working collaboratively with others to resolve them. Constructs briefing materials, proposals and presentations.
Develops and maintains rapport with key stakeholders to build strong work relationships and promote business initiatives. Regularly uses own judgment to respond or delegate response to inquiries directed to the partners
Participates in the development of systems and processes to improve the overall efficiency and effectiveness of work flow. Coordinates the preparation, submission of supporting documents and ongoing tracking of expense reports and budgets. Manages document preparation and retention for the partners. Maintains the integrity of confidential information.
3 to 5 years of experience in an executive support role. Demonstrated high level administrative support to senior management and ability to work effectively with all staff levels. Detail oriented and organized, with exceptional prioritization and completion/execution skills. An ability to conduct research and prepare correspondence.
Strong communication skills including interpersonal and written, with excellent proofreading skills and typing accuracy. Ability to work effectively within a group with “team spirit” as well as independently motivated with minimal supervision. Advanced skills in MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint along with Outlook, internet and online communication tools a must.

Pretty tall order, I’d say. The secretary of the 1950’s,, 60’s, 70’s and onward until perhaps the 1990’s  is a distant memory. And this is precisely where I get annoyed. Rampell argues that Norton was downsized simply because a great deal of secretarial work can easily be handled by people who used to rely upon secretaries. However I would argue that this is not the reason why Norton has found herself suddenly without work. Norton’s description of her secretarial abilities are what has me scratching my head. 

Typing. Answering phones. The human thought process. She’s good at anticipating people’s needs. Well whoopee do.  Most people can type and answer a phone. Last time I checked lots of people could think and a few could actually anticipate needs.  Norton further insists that technology has all but replaced her yet when I read job boards and want ads I continually see a need for receptionists, secretaries, administrative assistants and EAs.  My friend “Anne” recently got hired as an Office Administrator (secretary) who assists the Executive Assistant. Can you imagine? A secretary for a secretary! And Norton insists that secretaries are becoming obsolete. What’s wrong with this picture? Probably the only secretary nowadays who can get away with typing and answering the phones and nothing else is  Maggie Gyllenhaal. However she seems to be providing another sort of …er … service.

Perhaps its more likely that Norton, who began her secretarial career at 16 and used to wear a secretary “uniform” of pale blue dress and neck scarf, is still living in that era. Maybe she has refused to learn MS Office or at least she’s refusing to go beyond the most basic software skills. Maybe the word “internet” is something she has to research in a dictionary. Perhaps when she walks into an office where she has been invited for an interview she stares at a computer and exclaims loudly “what happened to all the typewriters?”

Norton’s unemployment isn’t about becoming obsolete, at least not due to fate or any other situation beyond her own control. She has made herself redundant by resisting ongoing education in her career, refusing to embrace technology and stubbornly clinging to outdated ways of operating within an office. In short, Cynthia Norton is a dinosaur.

There is a glimmer of hope for her however. She could update her secretarial skills and like the 4.12 million Americans who work from home, she could go virtual, outsourcing herself to people who don’t have hours to make PowerPoint presentations, create financial statements and track projects. Heck she might even get a job as secretary to a secretary. That is, when she finally realizes that when you cannot beat em’ you really do have to join em’ and decides to bring 21st century software know-how into the pioneer cottage industry.


  1. […] with my on this career redundancy thing Girlfriend. My first post about this topic was Are Secretaries Doomed to Obscurity? (no). Are there any careers out there that are fast becoming obsolete? Yes. There are many, a […]

    Pingback by Jump Ship Before You Have to Build a Raft « Girl Talk Career Blog — May 15, 2010 @ 9:05 am | Reply

  2. I’m ancient enough to remember when the end of secretaries was predicted in the last millenium. Yet people crave humans to be there, somewhere, anywhere and so the humble overworked underpaid secretary remains. As an example: solicitors. If secretaries vanished they would have to stay sober longer and that just isn’t on.

    Comment by almostvoid — May 15, 2010 @ 1:10 pm | Reply

    • Very…interesting feedback void. Interesting that the end of secretaries was predicted a millenium ago. In fact secretaries have been around for at least 2 millenium that I know of, when the church was the only institution that taught scribes how to read and write….they documented everything and kept records of it….sounds like a secretary to me.

      Comment by lisalahey — May 16, 2010 @ 3:36 am | Reply

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