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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Problem With Being An Assistant

The problem with being an assistant, I suspect, lies in the title and it's rung on the ladder, not the job description. Your employer, if all you are is their 'assistant', understands you to be vaguely necessary but an entirely replaceable commodity. You are not a real human being. You are not a person. You are only the work. If your work gets done, you are worthy. If your work does not get done, you are annoying. But worse, if you create your own work, then you are a thorn in some uncomfortable, inconvenient location.

To assist someone is to assume that they are the creator and you yourself merely a helper and, as such, do not have any inherent value in and of yourself. This goes, having been an assistant now for many years to several employers, along for both your personal self and your work self. To expect that an employer care about you personally is to expect too much. To expect that they care about what you create at work is to be dillusional. No, only what you create on their behalf to their glory is of value.

I have always had, in these positions, the sneaking suspicion that I was not really 'there'. Not me personally. I mean, certainly the presence of 'someone', some body has always been acknowledged as being there, and to my credit and to my employers' (whom I don't mean to dis here, by the way) acknowledgment of work well done was always forthcoming. However, as a very wise woman once told me, you can't have someone that close and that important to the daily workings of your life and your family and not eventually get on each others' nerves.

It is true I now find. And I know this because it has been replicated in my work experience a number of times. The first year is always bliss. You are learning, they are feeling confident in your work and in their smart choice of you. The second year is hunker down and get some work done. But as the third and fourth years wear on, something else happens. Just as they are relying on you more, to do more and varied tasks they begin to resent you. It's not conscious or by any means intentional. It just happens. So just as they are giving you more responsiblilities and more freedom to control your own work they are resenting you more and more.

I have heard it likened to parent child relationship. But it is not so much so as it is teacher student, where the student is being held back for yet another year and neither he nor the teacher quite know why. Maybe there are some that can stomach it, fake it, but no soul can thrive as an assistant forever. At some point you need to move on and accomplish your own work, of your own accord without having to attribute it to someone else.

How exactly to accomplish this leap out into the open world is yet another story. I think we miss something very fundamental to human existence without the paradigm of apprenticeship. Within it is the understanding that, in the end, the daily relationship will be severed and the apprentice will be sent out on his own. Whether there is material aid given to help the apprentice in this process is not of much consequence in the long run. But the idea that there is a necessary end to a working relationship where the apprentice will have made a step forward into his own work, I think, is primary to what work stands for to the human being. We love the learning process, we love the helping process, but one cannot remain in it forever. To be an assistant is to constantly be in a position to help someone else with their work. At some point one's own knowledge must be put into practice.

For the employer, this is a necessary renewal, that can invigorate his business and himself. Who wants to be in the position of 'teaching' the same items over and over to the same class? That must be the teacher's idea of purgatory. And to be in a position of suspicion, of resentment towards your employee is not good. "Do they know too much about my family life?", "Could this come back to haunt me one day?", "Are they taking advantage of me?", "Will they leave me in the middle of all these projects that I don't know much about because they have taken the lead?" That can't be a fun dialogue to have in one's head.

I suppose the equivilant in the corporate world is promotion. But of course when that does not happen for some people, as surely statistically, it must not, then resentments can run both ways. Relying on someone else is always a precarious situation to put oneself in. But the ways and areas in life where this is necessary are numerous. This may be a large part of anxiety for us all. We all depend on the government for myriad tasks to be accomplished. We all rely on them to protect and serve us. We all want to work well and be compensated well. When this is not in balance, as I propose it currently is not in our country, then unrest in inevitable. And as we know, unrest leads to miscreant behaviour.

Logical progressions are a must to human societies and relationships. There seem to be several areas in our society anymore where these are lost. Labor is underpaid at this moment in time in numerous areas - this had led to (albeit an Administration orchestration of one) unrest and unease with immigrant labor, though it has always easily surrounded us since the beginning of time! There is an unease in the way we live caused by the methed-out youth and celebrity culture and the way it is exhibited at the moment. Who would be using credit if they didn't "just have to have" that Kate Spade bag or that bitchin' Harley? There is unease in the way our Administration is conducting our country but we have been cast as the "assistant" to it. We can only praise and encourage, if we question we are fired as insubordinate.

Gone are the logical progressions of entry level for low pay, moving on to more responsibility and more pay. Promotion and supervision in middle age with enough pay to acquire those things one might have hankered for in their youth. Experience leading to position. These things are skewed as we send the message to youth that they should be living a million dollar lifestyle on a $20,000 a year job - or less. The requirements of life are more yet the resources available are less. Open dialogue leading to considered decision making. Leaps are being made all over the place. We are expecting to go from A to P in a short time. Kids are sexual younger. Kids are in debt younger. Kids are unhappy about the future younger. And workers are stuck in roles where they are now and will remain forever assistants to someone else's life's work. Service industries are just that and that is what this country is becoming. In the service industry you are not allowed to partner alongside the company to create, you are to do what is expected and no more.

It is an uncomfortable, disheartening, anxiety producing position to be in, being an assistant over staying their apprenticeship. I suspect many more Americans than me are in this same fix.

1 comment:

demondoll said...

WGD and I had this very discussion about growth within a company. If you don't move up the ladder fast enough within a few years, the mgnt thinks something is wrong with you. Longtime employees are pressured to go elsewhere if they want true advancement. it's viscious.