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.


| September 2015



SELF-SERVICE

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

Photo by Fotolia/HappyAlex

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.