The Reason Why Peggy Olson Would Never Get Hired Today

Thanks to up-credentialing, the ‘Mad Men’ heroine’s résumé would have been passed over.

(Photo: AMC/YouTube)

Apr 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The final episodes of Mad Men are upon us, which means rabid viewers of the hit show have a last chance to reflect on how much Don Draper and company have changed—or not. And we all get to think about how much society has evolved in the decades since the era depicted by the program.

Indeed, on Sunday night, viewers were smacked back to the sexist reality of 1970 when (spoiler alert) Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway had to grin and bear some blatant harassment during the episode. Modern pay gap issues aside, it would be pretty shocking to see that kind of situation go down in a corporate boardroom today. But a subtle confession from Peggy during a date is a reminder that while plenty has changed for the better since the ’60s and '’0s, there are some doors that society is closing.

“I didn’t go to college,” Peggy anxiously confides to her date, Stevie Wolcott, during dinner at a swanky restaurant. “I went right to work.”

Stevie, who is Peggy’s coworker Mathis’ brother-in-law, isn’t fazed by the revelation that a professional woman doesn’t have a degree. We don’t even get to hear Peggy tell Stevie about how she started out as a secretary and worked her way up at Sterling Cooper & Partners.

But throw a degree-less Peggy into the current job market, and she’d probably have a tough time getting hired.

Thanks to the trend of up-credentialing, the college degree is the new high school diploma. The Peggys of the world probably can’t get a foot in the door as an administrative assistant at a modern-day version of Sterling Cooper & Partners—or at any other high-powered business.

Indeed, a 2014 report from labor market analytics company Burning Glass found that 65 percent of job postings for executive secretaries and executive assistants list a bachelor’s degree as a requirement. It’s not just executive assistant roles that require a degree. A quick spin through listings over at Monster reveals that most general administrative assistant roles require a college diploma too.

According to one typical posting, an administrative assistant will “be responsible for calendar management, coordinating travel arrangements, and special projects.” The candidate “must be extremely detail oriented, have excellent writing skills, able to work independently and in a team environment and possess excellent communication skills.”

That sounds like what Peggy—and any number of the women hired by Sterling Cooper over the years—was able to do without a bachelor’s degree. Heck, even Don Draper, the Horatio Alger of Mad Men, is a high school dropout with only a few community college classes under his belt. However, according to this listing, a “college education, a solid work history and proficiency with MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint is required” to be hired.

As Burning Glass points out, it’s not just administrative assistant positions that are being affected by the up-credentialing trend. In plenty of other roles, “the skill sets indicated in job postings don’t include skills typically taught at the bachelor’s level, and there is little difference in skill requirements for jobs requiring a college degree from those that do not. Yet the preference for a bachelor’s degree has increased,” the report’s authors wrote. “This suggests that employers may be relying on a B.A. as a broad recruitment filter that may or may not correspond to specific capabilities needed to do the job.”

Meanwhile, two-thirds of American millennials between the ages of 25 and 32 don’t have bachelor’s degrees. No wonder a Pew Research Center report released last fall found that more than 20 percent of people in that age group are living in poverty. Their résumés won’t pass the initial key word screening, which effectively shuts this generation out of a slew of careers.

So no, Peggy hasn’t had it easy at Sterling Cooper. But without the ability to even get hired, this is a college degree–less generation that will, for the most part, never be able—like the secretary turned copy chief—to work their way up.