A book on an often unconsidered side of employment was released this spring. Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs that Fill Your Day, by Harvard sociology Ph.D. Craig Lambert, pondered a set of activities we all have and may not have thought much about, but are consuming dramatic, and increasing, amounts of our time.
Lambert defined “shadow work” as “all the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations.” They are usually small but numerous – pumping our own gas, bussing our tables at McDonalds, assembling Ikea furniture, doing all the things in a cubicle job a secretary would have covered in generations past, and so on – and add up shoulder-high. He did not include volunteering, which he categorized as a gift, and described shadow work as “erasing the distinction between work and leisure,” with the former, per Mark Twain’s old definition, being “whatever a body is obliged to do.” He pronounced it as being truly in the shadows, as such tasks “go unnoticed because they take place in the wings of the theater while we are absorbed in the onstage drama of our lives”; when we are going on a date or to a baseball game, or even about to watch a TV show, we don’t think much about having deleted our spam beforehand.
All of the above is from the first 13 pages of Shadow Work. The rest Lambert described as “a field guide” to such activities, with long chapters on how they appear in home life, the office, personal commerce, and online. He gave many examples of these tasks which aren’t quite either paid work or leisure, and are “steadily lengthening the to-do lists of people whose days are already crammed.” He named as his first major force responsible for shadow work “technology and robotics,” which, interestingly, as the largest cause of our jobs crisis, is also reducing labor.
What can we say about shadow work as Lambert defines it? Here are four observations.
First, the bulk of shadow work comes from companies wanting to cut expenses and thereby increase their own profitability, either by widening their margins or by boosting sales through lower prices. We pump our own gas because it would cost more than most would want to pay to have it done for us. If Taco Bell cleared off our tables, it would add to their menu prices. Policing our own supermarket shopping carts means lower labor costs for businesses which already consider a net profit of one percent of sales a solid success. These beliefs about customer preferences are so entrenched that, in some industries, no companies at all make the alternative, such as big-box stores with many more employees willing to help, available even at higher prices.
Second, shadow work is usually judged as good or bad by the person doing it. Many people, such as avid online reviewers and survey-takers, don’t mind a lot of it. Older people tend to resent it more. For others it varies with the task. To name just two examples, I don’t review anything I buy on Amazon, but enthusiastically do my own travel bookings. There has never been a travel agent who would research and report the number of flight, itinerary, and lodging permutations and iterations I always go through for a week’s multidestination vacation. Even if I could articulate all the factors I use, it would be too much work for anyone paid reasonable commissions, and, after 20 years of booking my own trips, I approach professional-level speed and competence anyway. You, too, almost certainly have areas of shadow work you welcome and avoid, and your configuration is also unique.
Third, shadow work is as susceptible as other labor to Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Many people will do things, especially online, only if they have time for them. If as has been suggested many Americans are uncomfortable with true leisure, shadow work provides an outlet for doing something that may benefit them, or at least lets them express themselves.
Fourth, much shadow work is a win-win for producer and consumer. Businesses and other organizations benefit when people use ATMs instead of live tellers, walk around supermarkets with carts instead of getting their orders filled at a counter, and provide marketing-rich personal data on the likes of Facebook, but customers save time, get more choices, and cut their costs for things they want, sometimes down to zero. In the latter case it is correct that when we aren’t paying for something the real products are ourselves, but we would not enjoy Facebook if we, and more importantly our potential contacts, were dissuaded from joining by monthly charges.
What else is true about shadow work, and how can we best manage it? Those and more will follow next week.