Are You a Shadow Worker?

I am convinced I am after reading Craig Lambert’s new book Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. The book makes the compelling argument that we are all doing unpaid work for businesses and organizations. I will add in that we also do a lot of work for the government (didn’t many of us just fill out our own tax returns and hire accountants?) but that is another long blog post for another day. Anyway, here is the the gist of the book:


With the exception of sleep, humans spend more of their lifetimes on work than any other activity. It is central to our economy, society, and the family. It underpins our finances and our sense of meaning in life. Given the overriding importance of work, we need to recognize a profound transformation in the nature of work that is significantly altering lives: the incoming tidal wave of shadow work.

Shadow work includes all the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations. It has slipped into our routines stealthily; most of us do not realize how much of it we are already doing, even as we pump our own gas, scan and bag our own groceries, execute our own stock trades, and build our own unassembled furniture. But its presence is unmistakable, and its effects far-reaching.

Fueled by the twin forces of technology and skyrocketing personnel costs, shadow work has taken a foothold in our society. Lambert terms its prevalence as “middle-class serfdom,” and examines its sources in the invasion of robotics, the democratization of expertise, and new demands on individuals at all levels of society. The end result? A more personalized form of consumption, a great social leveling (pedigrees don’t help with shadow work!), and the weakening of communities as robotics reduce daily human interaction.

I often think of all the activities I do that consume so much of my time in “shadow work.” I needed to contact my bank but no one answered the customer service line so I got online and waited three days until someone replied. I recently went to Whole Foods where I picked up my own lunch off a salad bar, and went to the gas station to pump my own gas. We have no gas station attendants anywhere in our town. I spend part of my days deleting spam emails from companies wanting sales and then the other part deleting voice mails from telemarketers. It is eating up a good part of my day.


As the author points out: “In the 1950s, tasks like pumping gas, typing letters, researching products, checking out groceries, composing salads, disposing of cans and bottles, handling bank deposits, and driving the kids to school were handled by pump jockeys, secretaries, salespeople, cashiers, waitresses, garbage men, tellers, and bus drivers. Today, you have inherited these jobs. They have become shadow work.”

Are you a shadow worker? What tasks do you do daily that eat up your time and are annoying? Which are beneficial?


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