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The Slow Death of the Secretary

A job that once gave a woman a middle-class life is fading away

Justina Mintz/AMC

Joyce Dotson has only ever wanted to be an administrative assistant, or “admin,” even since she was a kid. “When I was little, I used to play being an executive assistant,” she said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

But in October, at the age of 65, she was laid off after spending 40 years in the field. As companies slimmed down, her workload and the workloads of her fellow admins crept up. “Back in the day when you worked for a VP… you were totally exclusive to them,” she recounted. “Today you need to work for about four, the VP and about four directors.” She watched directors who worked under her executive get fired, then she was told one day that her job was being eliminated.

Dotson isn’t ready for retirement and wanted to keep working. “I love what I do and I loved my job and I thought my boss loved me and I loved him,” she said. “I told my boss many times, ‘You’re going to have to take me out of here with a walker and a cane. I’m never leaving.’” Yet she now faces an incredibly tough job market. “You look out there and you see a job search and put in for that position and see hundreds that have already put in for that position,” she said. “It’s very hard out here for any woman that’s over 50, it really is.”

The recession marked a precipitous drop in men’s unemployment, but it was the recovery that was toughest on women. In 2011, women’s job losses that originally started mostly in the public sector started to spread to all areas of the economy. A large part of that widespread loss was the shedding of one particular occupation that can be found in virtually any industry: Secretaries, or as the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls them, “office and administrative support occupations.” Women make up about three-quarters of this workforce. And while the economy had added 524,000 jobs between the end of the recession in June 2009 and June 2011, women had lost 925,000 positions in the administrative support profession.

The tide of job losses catalyzed by the crash hasn’t ebbed, however. The economy has now added more than 10 million jobs since the recovery. But between the beginning of the recession in 2007 and 2013, women have lost a total of 1.6 million administrative support jobs, according to data from the BLS. That’s nearly double the 865,000 they lost in this category in the previous six years. More than 14.6 million women worked as admins in 2007; only 4.8 million men did. But men, for their part, have lost just 95,000 of these jobs since the recession.

This phenomenon is somewhat new. Routine jobs like administrative support used to take the largest hit during recessions in the 1970s and early 1980s, but then they would experience strong gains afterward, fully recovering, according to a recent report from Third Way. But after each of the three recessions we’ve endured since 1991, employment in routine jobs fell and never bounced back. “In fact, employment in this occupational group never recovers,” the paper notes; “these occupations are disappearing.” In the middle of the 1980s, about one in three working Americans held a routine job like administrative support—but that’s dropped to one in four.

The crash took a trend that had already begun for the secretarial workforce and sped it up exponentially. “Middle management went away,” said Emily Allen, director of programs and communications for the industry group International Association of Administrative Professionals. “The administrative professionals that were left had to step up and take on some of those roles… I think the recession accelerated it.” As companies slimmed down to deal with the economic downturn, employees who kept their jobs were often asked to do more. That meant that many people who had relied on administrative assistants began taking on tasks like answering their own phones, while those who may have had one dedicated assistant now had to share with other executives.

The assistants, for their part, report that they’ve had to support more and more people. According to surveys of the membership of IAAP, more than half worked with one or two executives in 2005, while about a quarter supported three to four and 11 percent supported five to ten. Today, less than 46 percent work with one or two executives, while more than 27 percent support three to four and 15 percent work with five to ten. “That tells me that fewer people are needed to support more people,” Allen said.

Tasks have also changed. “Some of [IAAP’s membership] went from a manual typewriter to an electric typewriter to a word processor to a computer to a tablet,” Allen noted. The executives themselves now often answer phones, write correspondence, and make and collate copies, while the duties of an admin may include budgeting or project management.

At the same time, admins are now expected to come in with higher levels of education. “Every year, we’re seeing education levels inch up,” Allen said. “If [admins] want to support a high-level executive, they have to have a business degree.” In 2005, according to IAAP’s surveys, admins most commonly had taken some college courses but didn’t have a degree, while 11 percent hadn’t gotten any higher education. By 2015, they most commonly had a bachelor’s degree, while less than 17 percent had some college under their belt and less than 8 percent had just a high school diploma. More than 3 percent had a Master’s.

These jobs were once a surefire way for a woman without a college education to attain a middle class life. The average administrative support employee makes $35,530 a year—not a grand sum but enough in many places to get by. For many older women who entered the field at a time when college wasn’t a necessity, losing their jobs can be devastating. 

Honora Daly graduated from high school in 1965 and went straight into a clerk typist position with the federal government. A member of a different industry group called the Association of Executive & Administrative Professionals, Daly worked as an admin in both the public and private sector until December, when she elected to be the one laid off to preserve a job for a younger coworker with a family.

She is now trying to go back to work, given that she supports herself financially and wants to stay engaged. She is not having much luck. “I’m just a little surprised that I’m not seeing positions advertised for administrative professionals,” she said. “It looks to me like what they’re looking for are people with degrees and maybe not a two year, looks like four-year degrees.” They also want more advanced skills—one job wanted her to come in with accounting and bookkeeping credentials. “I can do basic stuff like balance my checkbook, but not what they were looking for.”

Robin Spivock understands this problem all too well. She didn’t know what to do after high school, so she went to secretarial school. “You didn’t go to college to be a secretary,” she noted. When she graduated, she got an administrative assistant job with the sheriff’s department. She has been an admin ever since, boasting more than 25 years of experience.

Spivock had lost her job from time to time before, getting laid off when various companies she worked for got bought out. “But I was always able to find a job within a month or two,” she said. “Until the recession.” She was working for a real estate company in 2007 when the housing market crashed and her employer closed its office and laid her off. This job search proved to be very different.

“I was either overqualified, having been in the business for so long, or under-qualified because I didn’t have a degree,” Spivock said. “I can’t afford to go back to school to get a degree.” She went without a full-time job for four and a half years, working temp jobs, substitute teaching, and pet sitting in the interim to get some income. She had to move out of her house and lease it out because she couldn’t afford the mortgage, moving in with her father. After he passed away a few years later, Spivock was days away from becoming homeless before her sister allowed her to move in on the condition that she pay rent. She burned through all of her savings. 

Spivock finally found a full-time job in August of 2012 with Mecklenburg County in North Carolina. She makes less than her previous job and the nature of the work is different: She was asked to start an internship program on her own, planned events, and even administers drug tests for people in a drug treatment program if the lab technician isn’t available. “Some of what I do I would not classify as being admin,” she explained. But she enjoys the job and things have definitely started looking up. Most importantly, she was able to move back into her house in November.

Dotson actually went to college for a year and a half to get advanced training for her work as an admin, but she also doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree. She recounted going to the unemployment office after she was laid off and being told by a young woman, “Ma’am, I’m going to be frank with you… I’m not saying you can’t, but it’s going to be very, very hard for you to find a job in this type of industry.”

So she went back to school, but she took that young woman’s advice to heart. This time, it was for an entirely different field: real estate. “I’m not one to sit around,” she noted. “I love working. I just want to do it until I can’t do it anymore.”