It all started at the grocery store one evening a few years ago, said Craig Lambert.
“I was checking out my groceries, and I looked over and saw a woman I knew slightly, who was an attorney in downtown Boston. I knew she was a senior partner in her law firm and she had to have been making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year,” Lambert continued. “And I saw her there scanning and bagging groceries.”
Then it struck him: By going through the self-checkout line, this woman was doing the work that previously had been done by a grocery store worker.
“Are there other places,” he wondered, “where we find ourselves working in this society for no pay whatsoever, very often doing a job that someone else used to do for a salary?”
Looking around, Lambert said, “I began to understand there’s a wide range of places in our lives where jobs that used to do be done by a staff person have been pushed back onto the consumer, and we’re now doing them for free — and that’s shadow work.”
It’s a topic he takes on in his new book, “Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day.” Lambert, who retired last year after 26 years as a writer and editor at Harvard Magazine, added that he sees his book as a field guide to an ever-expanding phenomenon: “I’m giving you a pair of binoculars that will help you spot shadow work in your life.”
In addition to implications for service workers and for consumers now drafted into self service, Lambert said he worries about the effect on our culture. “When these robotic kiosks come on the scene, they often take human interaction out of the equation. Instead of bantering a bit with a cashier or the guy who used to pump your gas, those people aren’t there anymore.”
Lambert will read 7 p.m. Tuesday at Harvard Book Store.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.