We all do it. Whether you are pumping your own gas, driving your children to school, booking your own flights and hotel rooms, pricking your finger for a blood-sugar test, or busing your table at Starbucks, you are engaged in “shadow work,” all the unpaid and often-ignored tasks that were once done by workers paid to do them and now consume surprisingly significant portions of our time.
As former Harvard Magazine writer and editor Craig Lambert makes abundantly clear, this phenomenon is far from benign. “Shadow work is not a marginal nuisance snipping spare moments away from the edges of life,” writes the author. “It is a fire-breathing dragon, operating 24/7 throughout the industrialized world.”
Lambert pinpoints four major forces that “underlie the flood of shadow work”: technology and robotics (think the Internet, 3-D printing, etc.), democratization of expertise (Wikipedia, YouTube how-to videos), information dragnet (Big Data), and “constantly evolving social norms” (parental overengagement).
Much of the shadow work we encounter today is a result of businesses and organizations shifting seemingly minor and mundane but necessary tasks on to the consumer (remember the last time you assembled an Ikea dresser or troubleshot the software on your PC), and it’s likely to continue in the future because it “rewards business and organizations in ways that are irresistible.”
Lambert’s straightforward, lucid writing illuminates the many obvious — but often glossed over — aspects of daily life in which shadow work is intruding. Though the author is occasionally didactic (enough with the italics for emphasis and differentiation) and has the tendency to wax poetic about the good old days, when life was less hectic and everyone knew their local filling-station attendant or travel agent, the historical context throws our current climate into sharper relief.
These days, of course, companies have “strong incentive to replace full-time employees with part-time, outsourced, overseas, or contract workers, who receive no benefits.” That much is obvious to anyone who has ever tried to negotiate a Verizon call center or parse a Comcast cable bill.
Less obvious, but just as sinister, is what the author calls “job-description creep,” in which tasks once assumed by receptionists or assistants now have been handed to another employee or even possibly shared by many or all. As he writes, “downsizing support staff doesn’t eliminate the jobs that need doing; they simply get reassigned to others.” Furthermore, shadow work is “squeezing out entry-level jobs that have launched countless careers.”
Lambert is particularly strong in his discussion of how kiosks are replacing human employees in a variety of transactions: ordering at a restaurant, checking in at the airport, printing your own pictures at the drugstore, etc. Even gift cards are complicit, as they shift the work of finding a unique gift to the giftee — not to mention the fact that many gift cards are never actually used to purchase merchandise: A study in 2011 found that the value of unredeemed gift cards totaled more than $41 billion in the previous six years. (Unfortunately, the book does not include either a notes section or a bibliography, so it is difficult to check the documentation.)
While the author is less incisive in his chapter on the proliferation of Big Data — check out Bruce Schneier’s “Data and Goliath’’ or Steve Lohr’s “Data-ism’’ for further insights on consumer data mining — he effectively weaves online considerations throughout the book, showing how endless usernames, passwords, and other online data is making us all “shadow-working nerds.”
Ultimately, Lambert is interested in how we are spending — or wasting — our time. “The innocence of leisure,” he writes, “makes it vulnerable to the predations of organized bodies . . . that have designs on our free time, something they view as a natural resource awaiting their schemes.”
Awareness is key, for “once we grasp the phenomenon [of shadow work], we may be able to steer it in productive and desirably directions.”
The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day
By Craig Lambert
Counterpoint, 304 pp., $26
Eric Liebetrau, managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.