fb-pixelHow ‘shadow work’ costs us free time - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
opinion | Craig Lambert

How ‘shadow work’ costs us free time

Tasks like checking out have now become “shadow work.”AP/file 2013

THIS IS the season when many of us recall the exhilaration of the last day of the school year. Nearly three months of free time — leisure time — stretched out in front of us, an endless paradise called “summer.” Yet that paradise, and free time in general, is now threatened by the modern onslaught of “shadow work.”

“Shadow work” means all the unpaid jobs we do on behalf of businesses and organizations. Few of us realize that we are doing shadow work, even as we pump our own gas, scan and bag our own groceries, or build Ikea furniture from kits. Businesses are now handing customers many jobs that salaried staff once did. We have entered a self-serve world — one where “self-service” generally means “no service.”


To be sure, shadow work can save time. But Americans sometimes seem obsessed with “saving” time (and money) as if we all want to become fast-moving tightwads. But “saving” time is purely quantitative. It ducks the question of what we are doing with our time, or how our time feels to us.

Play, for example, feels very different from work. Play is what we do for its own sake: We do it just to be doing it, whether it’s tossing a ball with our daughter or taking a long weekend hike in the forest. In contrast, we work to reach a goal. Sure, we may enjoy our work, but unless we are workaholics, we don’t work simply to be working: We work to achieve some end.

Shadow work has been turning play into work. It’s nipping off chunks of leisure and deploying them as work — unpaid work, at that. For example, instead of viewing pictures on the Web, enjoying our hobby of, say, nature photography (play), we may spend those moments filling out a detailed survey to give feedback to our health care provider on a recent office visit (shadow work).


Consider the disappearance of sandlot sports — those games children used to play by themselves, with no adults present. Shadow-working adults moved in and took over. Now, organized leagues have crowded out those sandlot games with competitive, uniformed teams, grownup coaches and referees, sponsors, and the inevitable championship playoff modeled on professional sports (where games are definitely work).

Gung-ho parents assume that their kids’ success in Little League or Pop Warner will translate into an athletic scholarship or even a pro-sports career. Meanwhile, the adult encroachment has turned kids’ play into shadow work, as winning titles displaces the immediate, once joyful, experience of playing the game. No doubt it feels great to capture a youth basketball championship — but is that really any more fun than a pickup game of hoop among friends on a playground court?

“Free time” is an apt phrase: Real leisure is all about freedom. Leisure derives from the Latin licere, “to be permitted,” and that is exactly what leisure is — a state in which acts are permitted rather than restricted. Leisure is unstructured, unscheduled, untrammeled time, a space in which to improvise. Leisure is unorganized by definition. But innocent free-form leisure is vulnerable. Highly organized institutions have predatory designs on it; thousands of organizations are eager to monetize your leisure, to channel it into production or consumption. One easy way is to refashion free time into an occasion for shadow work.


No lobbyists in Washington, D.C., are working to protect your leisure. Leisure is a sitting duck, partly because it can be stolen so quietly that no one notices. Yet it is infinitely precious. So guard your free time jealously. You might even hang onto some of that endless paradise known as summer.

Craig Lambert (craiglambert.net) is author of “Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day.’’


Dante Ramos: Workers, what’s your online rating?

2013 | Tom Keane: Organized labor is on the ropes

Editorial series: Service Not Included

Special section: The Work Issue