The Slow Death of Free Time

Author Craig Lambert offers readers a radical look at how unpaid tasks are leaving us more isolated than ever before.

SELF-SERVICE

"Shadow work" includes all the unpaid tasks we do every day, from pumping our own gas to visiting the ATM.

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In Shadow Work (Counterpoint Press, 2015), author Craig Lambert argues that even though technology and advancement promise to make life easier, an escalating "self-service" economypumping our own gas, bagging our own groceries, and assembling our own furniture—erodes our free time and makes modern life a nonstop tidal wave of off-the-clock work. In this excerpt from the book's introduction, Lambert introduces readers to the concept of "shadow work," and what it includes.

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Life has become busier. Somehow there seems to be less time in the day, although days remain indisputably twenty-four hours long. In truth, time isn’t vanishing, only free time is. How can this be? We are living in the most prosperous era in human history, and prosperity supposedly brings leisure. Yet, quietly, subtly, even furtively, new tasks have infiltrated our days, nibbling off bits of free time like the sea eroding sand from the beach. We find ourselves doing a stack of jobs we never volunteered for, chores that showed up in our lives below the scan of awareness. They are the incoming tidal wave of shadow work.

Shadow work includes all the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations. Most of us do not recognize it or realize how much of it we are doing, even as we pump our own gas, scan and bag our own groceries, execute our own stock trades, and assemble our Ikea furniture. Scores of shadow tasks have infiltrated our daily routines, settling in as habits as we drive our kids to school or make our lunch at the salad bar. We are not slaves in ancient Greece or peasants in medieval Europe, but nonetheless we are working for nothing. Shadow work has introduced a new element to the modern lifestyle: middle-class serfdom.

Where We Find Shadow Work

Shadow work is not a marginal nuisance snipping spare moments away from the edges of life. It is a fire-breathing dragon, operating 24/7 throughout the industrialized world. This very moment, millions of people are performing shadow work: It’s as common as traffic signals, Facebook, or weight-loss advice. Those ubiquitous computers smuggle in tons of shadow work, leaving us to delete spam, book travel, and manage dozens of usernames and passwords. Gift cards, which give you the job of choosing and buying a gift for yourself, come wrapped in shadow work. Punching through endless phone menus and waiting through recorded announcements—with the inevitable “Please listen carefully, as our menu has changed,” which begs for the reply, “No, your menu hasn’t changed in two years, and I’m not going to ‘listen carefully’ to this robot voice”— constitute shadow work, as does filling out your tax return.

Recycling? A sound practice, certainly, but also more shadow work. As with recycling, many of us in some cases willingly choose shadow work, but most of the time, it can feel like a raft of tasks that corporations and organizations once handled but are now pushing back onto the consumer.

Volunteering for charitable or nonprofit organizations like the Sierra Club or Disabled American Veterans isn’t shadow work, but a gift. Volunteers do unpaid work on behalf of an organization; they contribute their time to the cause just as others may donate money. Shadow work can be many things, but it is always a transaction of some sort, not a gift freely bestowed. Though volunteers may derive personal satisfaction from what they do, as with all real gifts, there is no quid pro quo: The transactional element is absent.

This is a field guide to shadow work: what it is, where it came from, how it affects your life and our world—and how to deal with it. It offers lenses that, like binoculars, will help you spot shadow work in the wild. Shadow work has many results— some useful, some troubling, others simply disruptive or annoying. Quite often, it seems like an imposition—a corporation helping itself to your free time. Yet shadow work can also enable you to control the pace and execution of some jobs, whether you are pumping gas at the filling station or booking a trip to Prague at Kayak.com. “I love booking my own travel,” says Charles, a public relations executive in Washington, D.C. “I look directly at the menu of flights available and choose exactly what I want. That’s so empowering. When our firm used a big travel agency, they always got it wrong.” Shadow work may save you time, when you scan and bag your own groceries at the supermarket, for example, or save you money, such as when you sidestep a large brokerage fee by selling your own stocks online. Some shadow work serves a social good: Recycling conserves natural resources and means less trash dumped into landfills.

Yet, unquestionably, it gives us more to do. Minor tasks like returning our supermarket shopping carts to a holding pen or busing our own Starbucks tables have become routine. “Why am I doing this?” asked Daniel, a philosophy professor in western Massachusetts, wheeling his empty shopping cart to the collection area. “What happened to those teenagers who used to collect these things? I kind of liked watching them push about twenty carts, all nested together, across the parking lot.” The routines also embrace major time hogs like chauffeuring our kids to school as unpaid school-bus drivers, or completing extensive medical histories (for the umpteenth time) when applying for health or life insurance. Shadow work is steadily lengthening the to-do lists of people whose days are already crammed. It ushers in a paradoxical twenty-first-century era in which individuals gain more autonomy while surrendering more control of their lives.

Pushing the Borders of Labor

I adapted this term from the 1981 book Shadow Work by Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich. For Illich, shadow work included all the unpaid labor done in a wage-based economy, such as housework. In a subsistence economy, work directly answers the needs of life: gathering food, growing crops, building shelters, tending fires. But once money and wages come into play, we encounter a whole range of tasks that do not address our basic needs. Instead, such jobs enable us to earn money to buy necessities and, if possible, luxuries.

That is paid work, not our subject here. We will identify and describe the unpaid jobs (like commuting) that an industrial economy spins off for its citizens. Such jobs go unnoticed because they take place in the wings of the theater while we are absorbed in the onstage drama of our lives. They exist in the shadows. Yet they are every bit as real as anything in the spotlight.

They also expand the realm of our work, which is already large. Let’s face it: Though love may be our highest value, the thing we spend most of our time on is work. Excepting sleep, humans devote more of their lifetimes to work than any other activity. No one spends forty, fifty, or sixty hours per week eating, exercising, having sex, or even surfing the web—at least, no sane person does. “I spend more time with the people I work with than I do with my family,” says Andrew, who manages two health clubs in suburban Michigan. “In a way, they are a second family.”

Work is the main event. It is central to our economy and our society, and it makes family life possible. It underpins our finances and our sense of purpose in life. Given work’s overriding importance, it is imperative to recognize the profound, far-reaching transformation that shadow work is having, and the way it is redefining our very notion of work. We will track down shadow work in its natural habitats, which are the familiar environments of daily life: the home and family, the office, shopping, restaurants, travel, and the digital world of computers and the Internet.

Blurring Work Time and Free Time

Shadow work has upended a number of fundamental, long-established patterns. The traditional marketplace, for example, brought together producers and consumers: Producers delivered goods and services and sold them to consumers for cash. Shadow work is rewriting this agreement. Now the customer not only pays for her purchases but also joins the seller’s team to help produce them. In the bulk-food section of a Whole Foods supermarket, for example, she handles the packaging: scooping her cherry-almond granola into a plastic bag, closing it with a twist-tie, then labeling it with an SKU (stock keeping unit) number to identify her package for the cashier.

Shadow work is erasing the distinction between work and leisure. Recently, some organizational analysts have argued that the women’s-magazine staple of “work/life balance” is already obsolete, as there is no longer any meaningful distinction between “work” and “life.” Smartphones trill and vibrate with calls or texts from the office at virtually any time, adding hours to the workday. “I was playing tennis with my son at my club around eight o’clock at night, when my boss texted me, asking me to elaborate on something in a report I’d written,” says Ron, a financial analyst in a Chicago suburb. “That was nothing unusual. It didn’t bother me, though maybe it should have.” The standard of living in modern industrialized countries easily surpasses that of any historical society. Yet, despite our unprecedented wealth, pure leisure time is, incredibly, becoming scarce, partly because shadow work often shows up uninvited, a party pooper at the cookout.

There are social and psychological effects that ripple through a society suffused with shadow work. People are becoming isolated from each other as shadow work has them flying solo on tasks that once included human contact and cooperation. When we book our European vacation on Expedia.com, we no longer banter with our travel agent about where she has been in Alsace or on the Amalfi Coast, or where she suggests going in Andalusia. “My travel agent, Nina, used to book me into these little country inns, places where she knew the owners personally,” recalls Sheila, a Toronto anesthesiologist. “She’d tell me their names and ask me to say hello. Nina’s retired now, and that kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore.” When we scan our own groceries at the supermarket, we don’t get to ask the cashier about the job offer she has after graduation. The relentless march of robotic technology not only thins out human contact but can also sideline the illiterate, the elderly, the poor, and those lacking the dexterity to deal with high technology.

The technological and corporate worlds have adopted a farm word, silo, for units isolated from each other. Shadow work is a force that can make people more self-sufficient, while at the same time sealing them off in silos. Doing something with a robot feels quite different from doing it with a fellow human, and the siloing of individuals via shadow work is having a significant and cumulative impact on the texture of community life.

Recognizing Unpaid Tasks

Shining this fresh light on your activities will identify instances of shadow work in your everyday routine and flag others you may not yet have noticed. Such recognitions put you in a position of choice—at least, when there is a choice. Take commuting. Commuting—the job of getting to the job— is an unpaid task done to serve the employer. It has become so woven into American life that we scarcely recognize it for what it is. Yet commuting is very expensive, time-consuming shadow work. The commuter must either brave crowded public transportation, or own, insure, maintain, and fuel a car—and drive it— just to make the round-trip from home to workplace. In 2005, ABC News reported that the average American commuter travels sixteen miles, one-way, to work. At current federal auto mileage reimbursement rates of 55 cents per mile, that thirty-two-mile round-trip costs $17.60 daily, or $88 per week and $4,400 per year. The average daily commute takes fifty-two minutes both ways, or about 217 hours per year—more than five forty-hour weeks of unpaid travel time. Jobs that allow employees to work from home save them thousands of dollars annually and also free up untold hours now spent on the road—time you might devote to, well, productive work.

Given these costs, some workers might try to telecommute at least a day or two per week. Others set up a flexible work schedule that shifts their commute away from rush hour traffic, saving fuel and time. Cutting back on the shadow work of commuting can enhance quality of life.

Very few commute by air, but business travelers fill the airports, and shadow work is making incursions into flying. For example, consider how the terrorist attacks of 9/11 immediately triggered greatly increased security at U.S. airports. In the fall of 2001, the United States established what amounts to a second Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). This bureaucracy handles security screening at transportation sites, including airports. Such screening lengthens travel time significantly and also hands passengers a dose of shadow work as they pass through all the hoops of security screening. These have come to include not only x-ray inspection of luggage and carry-ons but a requirement to remove shoes, jackets, and belts for security purposes, to pull out laptop computers, and to submit to metal-detector scans and even strip-searches.

Recently, the TSA launched a program called TSA Precheck to expedite this process for “low-risk travelers,” such as U.S. citizens and military members with “clean” records. Such VIPs are allowed to walk through security in a precheck line while wearing their jackets, belts, and shoes. (Membership has its privileges. No stripping!) The kicker is that to qualify for TSA Precheck on every flight (some lucky ones now get selected by chance), a traveler must pay a nonrefundable $85 application fee, make an appointment to appear in person at a TSA location to be fingerprinted, and then be cleared to receive a known traveler number (KTN). The KTN is valid for five years. Precheck has not yet existed for five years, but does anyone think the government will renew KTNs at no charge?

Understandably, after 9/11, passengers worldwide were willing to cooperate with screening to increase their safety. Before those attacks, the convenience of boarding an airplane while wearing a jacket, belt, and shoes was available to everyone, with no $85 fee for the privilege. Changing norms added shadow work—or a fee to avoid shadow work—to travelers’ routines.

Sometimes it is shadow work or nothing. In other situations you might discover an alternative—even one with a price. (After all, it’s only money.) Perhaps a friendly chat with the skycap at the airport, rounded off with a generous tip, will make for a more enjoyable flight than checking your own bag at a kiosk. Maybe you’ll delegate that 1040 form to a tax preparer. Or put your daughter on a school bus to ride with her peers instead of chauffeuring her to school. On the other hand, you might choose shadow work by selling your own house—saving the broker’s commission and learning something about the real estate market. Shadow work can both add new tasks and open up possibilities.

The Basic Factors

Four major forces underlie the flood of shadow work. The first is technology and robotics. Internet travel websites, for example, enable shadow-working consumers to do the job of travel agents by booking their own flights. Secondly, the vast expansion of publicly available information has brought about the democratization of expertise. The average person can now retrieve knowledge once monopolized by experts—and thus do shadow work such as downloading a legal template from the Internet to write a contract without a lawyer. Third, the skyrocketing value of data has given rise to an information dragnet: institutions constantly trawling to collect data in whatever way possible. The dragnet foists on consumers a whole array of shadow tasks that involve both supplying personal information and managing the reams of data that the information economy pushes into their computers and smartphones. Fourth, constantly evolving social norms affect behavior. An emergent norm like parental overengagement in children’s lives can fertilize an entire meadow of shadow work with previously nonexistent tasks.

A New Way of Viewing Life

It is quixotic to oppose the winds of change. We cannot outlaw shadow work. No government regulation will hold back a social current that the economy continues to reward. Yet shadow work is simply an evolutionary development, and like all evolutionary trends, it has many potential pathways. Becoming aware of shadow work—what it is, what it looks like, where to find it, and what its consequences are—is the first step toward mastering it. Once we grasp the phenomenon, we may be able to steer it in productive and desirable directions.

Despite its disruptive effects, we must avoid seeing shadow work simply as a problem. “Problem solving” is an intellectual trap that confines our thinking to the parameters of the perceived “problem.” Instead, we should consider the advent of shadow work as an opportunity. As robots and consumers absorb jobs, they also liberate the rest of the workforce for creative tasks not so easily mechanized or delegated—for precious jobs, in other words, that require thinking humans.

My intention here in one respect resembles Sigmund Freud’s goal for psychoanalysis: to make the unconscious conscious. This approach offers a new way to view the familiar facts of daily life. Like a telescope, binoculars, or a magnifying glass, it may reveal surprising aspects of things that have been right in front of your eyes. The narrative will explore the rewards, bonanzas, and pitfalls that stud the little-known road of shadow work. We have no choice about traveling that road; my aim is to at least provide its travelers with a map.


Copyright © 2015 by Craig Lambert from Shadow Work: The Unseen, Unpaid Jobs That Fill Your Day. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.