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David Bouchier: Soldiers In The Paperwork War

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The day after tomorrow will be Administrative Professionals Day. In case your grasp of the English language is a bit out of date, Administrative Professionals are skilled white collar employees such as secretaries, data managers, and administrative assistants. Until the late 1990s this celebration was known as Secretary’s Day, which was criticized as being rather narrow and demeaning. But there is nothing wrong with the word “secretary.” For hundreds of years it was an important administrative position performed almost entirely by men, and even now we have Secretaries of state, treasury, and defense as the top positions in the cabinet. The Home Secretary in Britain plays an immensely important role in politics. But, she won’t be getting any flowers or chocolates this Wednesday.

I remember the first time I ever had a secretary, or at least a part share in one. This was in an editorial office and three of us young staff writers could call on the services of one unfortunate woman called Elaine. Actually she had us all well under control, being older, taller, and more knowledgeable about the work than any of us. I never dared ask her to do anything, so I did my own typing and filing. One of my more adventurous colleagues summoned up the courage to ask her out on a date, but he never did it again.

Now Elaine would be an administrative professional, and that’s fine. The impulse to recognize and upgrade occupations is good. We all need some respect in our work, and changing the name of the job may help to accomplish it. Thus sales clerks in stores are now associates, bank clerks are customer service representatives, garbage men are sanitation workers, and crane operators presumably are vertical material displacement managers. This name inflation is fairly harmless, and nobody is fooled by it. The job is what the job is.

So I’m not sure that office workers have done themselves a favor by adopting the label "professional," which is now little more than a pro forma adjective attached to any job or service performed for money. The status of professional used to imply something specific: a member of a restricted occupation with high standards of training and a rigid code of conduct. Law is a profession, lawn care is not. Medicine is a profession, mending cars is not.I know this is a lost cause. Every day I see advertisements for professional nail care, professional cesspool service, and even a professional car wash. The word has expanded and exploded beyond all reason.

The essential fact about administrative professionals, whatever we choose to call them, is that they actually do most of the real work in any office and, in my experience, they usually run the place.Imagine the chaos if hospitals were run by doctors, or universities by professors.

So Administrative Professional certainly deserve their Day as much as ground hogs or presidents do. They carry on their shoulders the great edifice of paperwork that supports what we call our civilization, and that perhaps is our civilization.  Flowers and gifts are all very well, but a few words of sincere thanks might be even better. As Gertrude Stein remarked, silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.
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