"What Can I Do to Help?"--Said No Software Solution Ever

Re-hiring human beings for clerical, secretarial, and other traditional pink-collar work would create good jobs and make our offices more attuned to human needs

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Is there anyone working for a large organization who doesn’t dread the announcement of a new “technology solution?” There’s a hard truth lurking behind every cheerful email about a new platform with a perky name and great graphics. That truth is: more work that used to be done by a variety of personnel occupying secretarial, administrative, or hourly lines will now be done by—you.

When will you do that work? In all that spare time you have! People talk about platform fatigue as if it is just existential overload or a failure of imagination. In fact, it represents real fatigue: the loss of full-time clerical and mid-level management jobs leads to more work for those who remain. The platforms aren’t doing the work: they just host it.

We all know that automation of various kinds has led to job loss. Andrew Yang made it one of the central themes of an otherwise feeble campaign for president that robots and artificial intelligence (AI), not documented and undocumented immigrants, were the main culprits in stealing well-paid, working-class jobs. We tend to think of these as mostly factory and agricultural jobs. But in fact, that isn’t true: these technologies also replace white and pink-collar jobs. In 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimated that machines now did 30% of jobs formerly done by humans, and “people without the appropriate skills will be displaced and not have a home in the new environment.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend. In 2020, the WEF warned that companies seeking “to fast-track the deployment of new technologies to slash costs, enhance productivity and be less reliant on real-life people” may up this number to 50% by 2025.

But AI and robots don’t tell the whole story: it’s also software that eliminates traditional office staff, who are often the intermediaries between executive-level employees, their colleagues, and their public. Of the top ten jobs that are declining the fastest in the United States, four, as recently as the 2010s, represented the human infrastructure of any organization: typists and word processors, telephone operators, data entry personnel, and switchboard operators. Secretaries, who used to be the human glue of every office, are a major casualty. Currently, 3,638,800 secretaries are working in the United States; by 2029, the Department of Labor projects there will be at least 9% fewer of them. That’s 327,400—83.5% of whom are women.

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What makes the displacement of secretaries possible are the software solutions promoted as giving higher-level workers control over our own lives. But think about this: what this really means is that everyone but the most high-level executives is also, among other things, not just their own secretary, but their own Human Resources professional, their own telephone operator, and their own data entry person.

Software solutions have eliminated what used to be good-paying jobs with health insurance and pensions. It throws those workers into a labor market that is increasingly casualized and requires higher-order skills in—you guessed it!—technology. But they have also inexorably and imperceptibly altered the work of those who remain by creating executive speedup. For example, the days of most professional workers are filled with endless secretarial tasks performed on cumbersome (and costly) software, many of which require separate passwords and two-factor authentication. This administrative work takes hours away from the professional tasks we were originally hired to do.

Here’s what a Fair Deal for American office workers would look like if anyone in Washington were really thinking about it: moving away from technology "solutions" and investing in people instead. Growing our office space, rather than shrinking it, would also address the looming crisis in unrented urban office space.

In my own business, higher education, technology was touted early on as a gift that would connect us and help us do work more efficiently. It would improve services to students and faculty, create efficiencies, and cut costs, permitting funds and time to be redeployed to people. But, in fact, it has done none of these things: salaries have flatlined at most schools, tuition has skyrocketed, and faculty find themselves working on the weekends just to keep up.

This is because technology radically reduced the number of well-paying, mid-level, often union jobs, whose purpose was not just service but the transfer of information and personal connections that could not be replicated by technology. Unlike a software platform with drop-down menus, secretaries, telephone operators, administrative assistants, and receptionists responded to individual needs. You didn’t have to enter just the right question in the chatbox, or understand web page architecture, to access a key document, find a person, or locate a relevant policy. Pink collar workers (so-called because these jobs are largely female) provided a fabric of connection across the university, linking people to each other and to the services that supported their work.

Today, technology has pushed much of this labor onto the desks of higher-level workers. Professors who are paid to attend to a university’s educational mission now, for example, find themselves consumed by secretarial and clerical tasks that either distract from their primary tasks (teaching, advising students, curriculum, and scholarship. As a result, how to reduce hours of overwork, often done before the kids get up or after they go to bed, is one of the most prominent conversations on Academic Twitter.

The task of navigating the university has become exponentially more difficult since so many of these jobs have been eliminated. Many faculty relied on secretarial and clerical networks to teach us how to do unfamiliar tasks, help us solve problems, and untangle bureaucratic snafus. These co-workers were networks of knowledge and connection. They also represented large reservoirs of empathy: earlier in my career, as I assembled a tenure or promotion file or prepared grant applications, a staff member would reach out to lighten my load and check my work.

The Biden administration understands that human workers are infrastructure: but does it understand that the most cost-efficient ways of doing business are not always the best and most humane ways of doing business? And does it understand that part of the executive workforce’s post-pandemic reluctance to return to the office may have to do with how soulless these workplaces have become?

I don’t think it does. Asking businesses to forgo the “efficiency” of software solutions and invest in clerical, secretarial, and administrative labor would not only boost a skilled female labor economy but would also simultaneously promote workplaces that are humane for all workers.

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Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).


Short takes:

  • Last week was an excellent object lesson about Congress’s disappearing political center. Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) proposed an immigration reform bill that would offer a path to citizenship for 700,000 Dreamers—and everyone attacked it! Republicans, who basically either hate all immigrants who aren’t white, or believe they have to act that way to stay on the right side of the Former Guy, point to the proposed legislation as proof positive that there is still much ideological cleansing to do in the party. Democrats are pissed because it doesn't include those who weren’t able to access the program during the Trump administration—and because they believe they can pass something very, very big through reconciliation. But they could still do that and help 700,000 people now! Instead, they are content to leave people who came here illegally through no fault of their own twisting in the breeze. (Rebecca Beitsch and Rafael Bernal, The Hill, July 10, 2021)

  • Allen Weisselberg may be holding fast on an understandable desire not to flip on Donald J. Trump, the man who made him rich and has now made him an unemployable felon. But according to Andrew Weissmann, a legendary DOJ prosecutor, he will either testify the hard way or the easy way. Once he is prosecuted, he can be compelled to go before a grand jury regardless of the outcome. You can read about this and other threats to Weisselberg’s friends and family in an interview by Ryan Goodman at Just Security. (July 9, 2021)

  • Why did journalist Caitlin Flanagan go on a 28-day Twitter break? Because it felt like an uncontrollable habit, and she wanted to understand how the internet was ruining her life. “Twitter is a red light, blinking, blinking, blinking, destroying my ability for private thought, sucking up all my talent and wit,” she wrote in The Atlantic on July 5, 2021. “Put it out there, post it, see how it does. Instead, what pours out is an ungodly sluice of high-minded opinions, sharp rebukes, jokes, transactional compliments, and mundane bulletins from my private life (to the extent that I have one anymore).” The 28 days are over, and Flanagan, who has been battling Stage IV cancer, made a brief reappearance on the platform Saturday night to allay fears that her physical health had taken a turn for the worse.