At one point near the end of grad school at New York University, I was checking out my university’s job listings when I came across an ad seeking an “aspiring personal assistant.” That is, the ideal candidate would aspire not to the glamorous job of the prospective employer (a well-known food writer, if I remember correctly), but to an entry-level administrative position assisting such an individual. It struck me at the time as a sad commentary on the job market for humanities types. It’s one thing to be an overeducated secretary—bills have to be paid—but another, more frustrating one to have to pretend that running errands for somebody important is your dream job.
Francesca Mari’s new Dissent article, “The Assistant Economy,” sheds some light on why someone might aspire to such a position. According to Mari, “highly pressurized, poorly recompensed, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes menial secretarial assistance” has become “the main artery into creative or elite work.” This is, she claims, a new development:
From the confluence of two grand movements in American history—the continued flight of women out of the home and into the workplace, and the growing population of arts and politically oriented college graduates struggling to survive in urban epicenters that are increasingly ceded to bankers and consultants—the personal assistant is born.
Mari offers a number of apt observations: Very important people prefer having inept but young and Ivy-educated secretaries to hiring capable administrative professionals, because it flatters their vanity to feel that what they have is an acolyte rather than an assistant. (She writes that “often, an assistant is hired as much for the fawning as for the typing—whether it’s conveyed through knowledge or attentiveness or actual praise.”) Young people with fancy enough degrees know they’ll probably end up OK regardless, so they're sometimes willing to work for low pay for a few years, in exchange for a foot in the door of a creative or high-powered profession. Most crucially, she pinpoints the dynamic that makes such work so unusual—that “because of the ambitious nature of the people these assistants serve as well as the ambitious nature of the work assistants someday hope to do themselves, personal assistants are simultaneously more devoted to the job than an administrative assistant, and less.”
That said, as labor issues go, the youthful dues-paying of elite creative types seems like maybe not the most pressing and thus a strange choice for Dissent. Indeed, I had trouble figuring out what the labor concerns here consisted of. Are these positions generally paid or unpaid? Do they offer benefits? A job ad Mari quotes mentions “$90-110k/yr to start,” which sounds adequate, but this is apparently not representative. A comparison to apprenticeships offers some hints: “The average apprentice makes $33,301 per year—as much, if not more than, the average assistant.” She later writes that with assistantships, like internships, “what’s earned, if anything, is less valuable than the perceived professional benefits—the condoned voyeurism, the network of current and former assistants, the interesting email addresses, friendly introductions, free galleys, and so on.”
It’s a legitimate concern if anyone, even a prestige-seeking Harvard alum, is providing full-time service to someone else without compensation. But if it’s just that said alum could be making more had he or she gone into finance, or that it’s annoying to go from being a Harvard senior writing your own articles for student publications to picking up someone else’s dry-cleaning, these are concerns to vent about to a partner or best friend. Larger audiences are unlikely to be sympathetic.
Mari offers an autobiographical anecdote that’s interesting in what it says about the low pay even successful writers often face (and that disabuses readers of any assumptions they may have made that she herself comes from a privileged family) but that doesn’t end up shedding light on the personal-assistant question. She notes that she was a “literary assistant” at The New Republic, an editorial position at the publication that had personal-administration aspects but was a fundamentally different sort of job. She then mentions a different year when she made $14,000 as a freelancer and fact-checker—a brave confession (and a warning to the parents of English majors), but again, not related to the question of what personal assistants must live on.
The strongest part of Mari’s article is when she steps away from the question of Harvard alums and talks about CJ Gardella, a graduate of the School of Visual Arts who started out as movie director Robert Altman’s personal assistant (unpaid for “several months,” but “he loved his boss”), then assisted another director, Noah Baumbach. Then, after a period of unemployment of unspecified length, “He became an assistant to Gene Stavis, an influential film historian and one of Gardella’s former teachers at the School of Visual Arts. ‘It’s like an ever-descending spiral for you,’ Stavis joked.” No word on whether Gardella also loves his new boss. Mari notes that Gardella was unable to parlay his connections into a film career of his own.
Mari's piece reminded me of Miya Tokumitsu’s excellent Jacobin piece from last year, about how workers today are expected to “love” their jobs. “Nothing,” wrote Tokumitsu, “makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.”
It’s clear from Mari’s conclusion how that dynamic could be especially present in personal-assistant positions:
[P]erhaps the real expense of this work is how much the boss—and the idea of the boss—occupies his assistants after hours. Witnessing the behavior of a man or woman with no time for privacy only makes his or her inner life more fascinating… This mythologizing is relentless and trifling, but it fills a real need: the need to justify your job by making your boss as big and as marvelous as possible. And that, after all, is what the boss always wanted.
I can see how this “mythologizing” could be exploitative and how, in the case of Gardella, it sounds as if it was. But at other times, Mari provides an overly broad definition of exploitation. She notes that assistant-themed novels, like The Devil Wears Prada, “always end with liberation from bondage.” Bondage? The problem with unpaid work is that it doesn’t pay, not that it’s often monotonous and well-educated twentysomethings deserve better. Perhaps it’s not a terrible thing if elite college grads must endure a brief period of scut work prior to joining the assistant-hirer caste themselves—and a distinction needs to be made between the jobs that exploit and the ones that just disappoint.