Friday, June 26, 2015

Shadow Work – What It Is and What It Means to Us – II

Last week, I wrote about the phenomenon of what author Craig Lambert called “shadow work,” defined as things we do without pay for businesses and organizations.  What more can we say about it, and how can we best handle it?

Fifth, although Lambert counted commuting as shadow work, it doesn’t logically fit in that category.  Commuting is not necessitated by employers, but is a result of workers choosing to live farther from their jobs.  During most of my childhood, my father walked to his city employment, although many of his peers, who valued living in the suburbs more than we, did not. 

Sixth, shadow work coordinates well with the jobs crisis.  When Americans are so often priced out of work, opportunities to save money are increasingly welcome. 

Seventh, it is both a cause and a result of both social isolation and the decline of many classic forms of community.  As it tends heavily to be done without other people present, it gives people either opportunities or requirements to be alone.

Eighth, the proliferation of shadow work has masked how much more expensive American labor has become. When self-serve gas stations became the norm in the 1970s and 1980s, those that continued pump service had a price difference of only a few cents per gallon.  Now, it is a few dimes – or more.

Ninth, there is almost an infinite amount of shadow work available for those who want it, especially surveys and reviews.  It can fill up all the free time people have, if they so choose.

Tenth, shadow work is part of a well-established and still growing trend of paid labor and personal time overlapping.  One reason why we have less pure leisure time than we expected decades ago is that often we work and play simultaneously.  In many jobs in offices, and almost all at home, there is no prohibition against, for example, listening to music.  That does not mean a Microsoft position fails Mark Twain’s test of work being “whatever a body is obliged to do” and becomes voluntary recreation, but does mean those doing it are getting some leisure concurrently.  The result can be a feeling of doing something enjoyable by choice, which may make employees more willing to take on tasks from their paid jobs, such as answering emails, while they are also engaged in nonwork tasks. 

So how can we best deal with shadow work?

First, and most importantly, we need to keep realizing we have choices in what tasks we perform.  On jobs, we should consider doing things only if they meet one of four standards:  if they help you, if they help your organization, if your management requests them, or if they improve others’ perceptions of you.  If we adapt that to our nonworking lives, the second standard drops out, the first and last stay the same, and the third becomes “if someone or some group which you value requests them.”  Since we are on our own time, we can also add something about enjoyment.  Therefore, if a task which you are somehow being prodded to perform a) will not help you, b) is not being asked for by someone or some organization you value, c) does not make you look better, and d) you just plain don’t want to do, then you should not spend time or effort on it.  These rules may seem intuitive or obvious, but it is remarkable how many things consuming our resources, including money and hope as well as time and labor, don’t conform to them.  And, don’t forget, the above list is not justification in itself – not every task meeting one or more of these standards should be completed.    

Second, we should become more aware of shadow work as it appears.  What are you being asked to do, and for whom?  Is this something new, and if so, who if anyone took care of it before?  Just how much time and other resources will it require? 

Third, be aware not only of the shadow work itself, but how happy you are with doing it.  There may be alternatives.  If you can’t stand ATMs, bank tellers are available.  If you don’t want to negotiate finding your own purchases at Wal-Mart, or deciding for yourself exactly what you need at Home Depot, many smaller stores with more helpful staff are still out there.  If you don’t like the lack of forthcoming advice from your physician, others will provide it.  With so much employment endangered and getting more expensive, and the average age of others staying the same, the march of shadow work will not stop or even slow down, but most of the choices it offers are still ours to make.  

Friday, June 19, 2015

Shadow Work – What It Is and What It Means to Us - I

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.    

Friday, June 12, 2015

Six New Presidential Candidates – At Least Three Said Something on Jobs

Three weeks ago I published a post on the views of first eight declared 2016 candidates on American employment.  I was seriously discouraged, not so much about the ideas they offered, but on how many of them – Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, and Hillary Clinton – had absolutely nothing to say.  It stunned me that they, especially the Republicans, did not try to distinguish themselves from others on this national problem.  Not all are frontrunners with positions to protect, so it seems insufficient for them to opine only about the Second Amendment, abortion, and “family values,” whatever that last one really is, if their opponents are doing the same.

Since then, the flurry of further declarations has continued, with six more putting their hats in the ring.  Are they any more forthcoming on jobs than the previous batch?  This time, I will start with those giving the least information.

At the bottom of the new list is Republican George Pataki, with nothing on his website about issues at all.  He’s presumably paying people lots of money to manage his campaign, and they must think his best chance to win is by being silent.  They must also think he’s going to get his support going later, since he doesn’t have much now – if you think he will be the one elected, you can collect at 100 to 1 by betting on him at

Next least is Lindsey Graham.  He has a little about what he would do, but it’s almost all about the military, and “security through strength.”  That isn’t quite the same as what other Republicans have posted, but nothing on his site tells us what that would mean for jobs, the economy, or anything domestic at all.  He’s also available at 100 to 1.

Lincoln Chafee, a Democrat, is also lacking on plans of any kind, but mentions “beneficial social programs.”  It might be interesting to know to what new or existing programs he is referring, and how and why they are good, but he’s noncommittal too.  If you think he’ll win a year from November, you can get even better odds on him than on Pataki and Graham – 150 to 1.

With Republican Rick Perry we cross over into candidates with something to say on American jobs.  It isn’t much, but he offers that “we need to grow the economy, so that every American can find work, and that those who already have work can earn more.”  If taken as having substance, that means that he is concerned with not only how many jobs are out there but how much they pay, and at least has a general idea on how to help those things.  The only specific source he names is North American energy reserves:  “You develop that, you drive down the costs of electricity, tie that in with the lowering of the corporate tax rate… and you will have a renaissance in manufacturing in this country like we’ve never seen before.”  Hardly comprehensive, but much more right there than at least seven of his nine avowed nomination rivals.  His odds are shorter, at 60 to 1.

Rick Santorum, another Republican, also has something on employment.  He pays attention to the need for more jobs, with a section under “Rick on the Issues” titled “Fight for the American Worker.”  He refers to a “Santorum economic plan,” with “a fairer and flatter tax code that will treat everyone equally under tax law.”  There are certainly problems with that, especially if its effect would be regressive (whatever we need now, it is not vastly lower taxes on those with the most money and highest incomes), but as with Perry he’s coming from somewhere, which can be the beginning of a constructive debate.  A bet on Santorum would now pay 80 to 1.

The new candidate with the most to say about American jobs is Democrat Martin O’Malley.  We can see, maybe and I wish, why the oddsmakers have his chances better than any of the five above at 50 to 1.  He mentions a series of relevant issues he values, in particular expanding equality of opportunity (“making access to safe and affordable childcare and pre-K universal, and college debt-free for all. We should also modernize high school, empowering every student to graduate with a year of college credit, an apprenticeship, or a certificate or credential for a high-pay, high-skill job”), strengthening cities and communities (“historic investments in infrastructure and mass-transit”), and creating more employment in renewable energy.  I have concerns about what he calls doing “more to make sure that women are treated fairly and compensated equally in the workplace,” and don’t like his opposition to Obama’s trade bill or advocacy of a $15 per hour minimum wage, but if every candidate were as willing to commit, a fine debate on our employment situation could emerge. 

So with 14 candidates in, the standouts on the jobs crisis are Santorum, Perry, and Ted Cruz on the Republican side, and O’Malley and Bernie Sanders among the Democrats.  The New York Times names six more people likely to run, including heavy hitters Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, which would make 20 in the field, surely the most since I started following presidential politics in 1968.  I’m hoping for more from them on jobs – and, whether you know it or not, you are as well.  

Friday, June 5, 2015

AJSN at 18.5 Million, as Latent Demand for American Jobs Seasonally Increases

Another month of Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data, another month which exceeded expectations, another month with the usual indifferent or disturbing things behind the marquee figures.  Yet May was, overall, a winner.

The best news was fine indeed.  One prediction had 220,000 net new jobs created, but it came in at 280,000.  That is about double what is needed to cover population increase and is nothing to sneeze at.  It’s also one of the best recent months, almost as good as March’s 295,000.  Average wages were strong as well, up 8 cents per hour to $24.96, considerably above inflation for a compounded 4.4% annual gain.  

Unadjusted unemployment rose from April to May, from 5.1% to 5.3%, but that was almost certain, since consistently more people work in April.  Total joblessness accounted for most of the American Job Shortage Number (AJSN)’s increase, but a larger share came from a jump in those wanting work but not looking for at least a year – there were 567,000 more, which, estimating 80% would take a job if one were easily available, added over 450,000 to the metric.  The largest offset was from the fall of those not seeking work because of discouragement, with about 180,000 less of them, meaning that group could absorb about 173,000 fewer positions.  Perhaps an indication of better employment prospects, as well as a reminder that they are not permanently set in their view, people reporting they did not want a job plunged over 1.4 million, cutting latent demand for this group by 70,800.  Overall, the AJSN came in at just under 18.5 million, as follows:

The four most important secondary employment measures were mixed.  Labor force participation and employment-population ratio both improved by a tenth of a percent over April, to 62.9% and 59.4% respectively.  Both are staying extremely range-bound.  The count of long-term unemployed, those officially jobless for 27 weeks or more, remained 2.5 million, and those working part-time for economic reasons, or having part-time jobs but wanting and not finding full-time ones, gained 100,000 to 6.7 million.

Compared with a year before, the AJSN has improved by over 1.2 million, on fewer officially unemployed and, to lesser extents, on fewer discouraged and fewer wanting jobs but not looking for at least 12 months.  These one-year gaps continue to be large, meaning that improvement is continuing. 

In all, although official adjusted unemployment was up from 5.4% to 5.5%, May was a legitimately good month.  It wasn’t worthy of calling an end to the jobs crisis, with the secondary numbers still weak or indifferent.  Yet I see job gains as high as 280,000 as much better, if sustained, than those under 200,000, which do little more than accommodate new workforce entrants.  We would still need to go back years before the 2008-2009 recession to find worse times, but we’re clearly improving.  The turtle is still a turtle, but he is moving steadily forward.