I’ll Make You Copies. But I Have Dreams, Too.

So tell me: If I’m mostly an administrative person, what is an administrative person worth?

A photo-illustration of a woman handing an office file to a man.
Getty / The Atlantic

I recently landed a final-round interview for a dream job: senior research coordinator. Actually, I hadn’t dreamed about it, but it offered a way out of my current role—and it felt like a dream because I’d stopped being able to imagine myself doing anything so illustrious. For a few days, I pictured myself doing thankless and sharply written research. My prospective boss was famous in his field, somewhat famous outside of it, and the range of responsibilities would have included tasks as varied as grabbing lunch and ghostwriting articles.

Given the chance, I would have excelled. I saw myself finally “fulfilling my potential.”

At the interview, though, after the pleasant initial greeting, I was immediately redirected toward titles that appeared more aligned with my current “kitchen-sink” job, such as program administrator and program assistant. I was applauded for my initiative, and my would-be boss’s interest had been piqued by my writing sample, but not enough to take me seriously as a candidate.

Like millions of people, I have a LinkedIn profile, which spells out my identity in the simultaneously clear yet smudged lingo of 21st-century career talk. I have causes I care about, people I follow, and companies whose tiny thumbprint logos pop up next to the titles of the jobs I’ve held in what amounts to a concise timeline of my adult life: administrative assistant, office manager, legal assistant, administrative specialist, administrative assistant (again).

Many like to say that you’re more than your job, that someone in my position is “not just” what I do for a living but rather a person who has hobbies and history and interests, a person who is known and loved. As though being known and loved somehow overcomes the identity curated by your profession.

They aren’t entirely wrong, these people who argue that you are more than your job, but your job is most of who you are. What you do for more hours of the day than you will ever spend with your friends or your family (calling into serious doubt the value of being loved) makes its way into your identity deeper than anyone likes to admit. This is an unattractive truth to confront: Despite being a writer, trained by my education to analyze history, I am primarily an administrative person, because that is what I’ve been doing, day in and day out, for nine years.

Originally I intended this path as a way to pay my bills, but I have watched my job become inseparable from myself. I organize my life into an infinite number of Gmail folders, write poetry at work and compose stories at home about assistants who steal routing numbers. The office is making more appearances in my art than I am.

The syndrome doesn’t stop there: My job comes to mind at dinner, on dates, and in the middle of hikes. I can’t shed administrative concerns during out-of-office hours—and that’s not because of emails or calls that fall outside the 9-to-5 barriers, but because these concerns are most of my life. Telling people to check out of their professional lives in their time off is like telling parents to forget their children exist on date night. You become concerned when someone says “Okay.”

For higher-tier professions, we understand this. Lawyers think like lawyers even when they’re not billing for time, and isn’t it reassuring to have a doctor on your plane? We inherently understand that a profession bleeds its way into a person’s psyche, melding the job with their personality until they can’t separate one from the other.

But if I’m mostly an administrative person, what is an administrative person worth?

Years ago, I was a cashier and bagger at Whole Foods. Some months into my spell at a large suburban store, the management chose to cover a board by the elevator in the basement with markers delineating the total numbers of hours worked at Whole Foods by the store’s current employees: 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, and 30,000 or more. The line for 1,000 was lowest and the line for 30,000 was highest, with employees represented by stars. The stars clustered in the lower registers; only a handful reached the top. The rate of supernovas at my grocery store was high.

Ten thousand hours of applying yourself to a task is supposed to convert you into a professional. But we don’t attach this axiom to all professions, especially not for work that society undervalues. Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, many workers have been called “essential”—but in name only, not in any way rewarded by compensation or respect for the skills they require.

Service workers are typically “hourly employees,” meaning their work is measured in time rather than by skill, the idea being that anyone could do it—if they had the time. In these careers, 10,000 hours don’t make you a respected professional. All it means is that you’ve spent a lot of hours bagging groceries.

Although administrative work is considered one rung up from the labor of scanning bar codes or wiping tiny noses, it uses the same set of skills and shares the same problem: You’re paid somewhat more, but always as little as possible. The administrative-assistant-job sector is plagued by a gender imbalance, with women predominating. The position exists in a liminal space between what is considered entry-level and what requires experience. Because you as an admin are surrounded by stereotypically successful people, eventually someone will suggest that you are where you are because you have a lower IQ than they do.

Monotonous work is difficult to do well precisely because no one wants to do it. You need concentrated willpower to pay attention to small, repetitive tasks with at least a modicum of grace and accurate execution, and the ability to muster that grace under often unjustified pressure and intense boredom is the value that remains underestimated and usually undercompensated in America. This is also largely what defines me now.

Where professional development is concerned, we talk about “more.” You are worth more; you could be doing more. This more is an odd concept because it suggests the attainment of a higher level, an increase in skill. If you are worth more, you must be doing more, and this becomes a tidy explanation of why a white-collar employee, such as a software engineer for Amazon, gets paid astronomically more than a blue-collar employee, such as a warehouse worker for Amazon. The engineers are doing more not in time or effort but in terms of perceived value, because we don’t appreciate that both the higher-tier and the lower-tier workers are equally necessary to ensure economic success.

Had I gotten the dream job I interviewed for, I would not have been doing more. I would not have been worth more. I would have been getting paid more, doing something for which I already have all the skills, merely applied in different proportions. That was why I wanted the job, not because my current position—and who I effectively am—is insufficient. It is not. I have an exhaustingly demanding role that masquerades under a quiet title. An iron grip holds in place that deliberate understatement in order to divorce my pay from my worth, to keep my job cheap, and to maintain the stereotype that an admin is lesser.

Despite my low worth on paper, I use every skill I’ve ever developed in my kitchen-sink roles: how to handle the sensitivities of important people; how to read reactions to communication styles; how to move through this world without losing the trail of bureaucratic breadcrumbs. I apply the invaluable practice of writing and editing to routine interactions in our ever more disembodied world, where your only sense of other beings is their clipped clauses and phrases in email and Slack. How you construct those critical, speedy statements matters; I know this because I have been the face of those tiny notes for so long.

I understand leadership, too, because I have had to become an excellent follower. I have taken 100,000 frustrations that were not mine, and 10,000 that were, and gone home to use my spare hours to create collages to express this poignantly empty life we spend in a constant state of emergency. My fused identity—as an individual and as an employee—is complete and inseparable, and not lesser simply because my profession is considered poorer. I haven’t failed, and when I apply for jobs that lean more heavily on these soft skills, I am not overreaching in an attempt to gain respect for all that I already am.

I would have been an incredible researcher. But until I get a more valued job, I will maintain my professionalism, doing whatever it takes to feed myself and keep a roof over my head, until I reach the number of hours that makes up a lifetime and demonstrates my expertise in having learned how to live.

Ask me then whether I could have been more.