A Conversation With Craig Lambert, Author of ‘Shadow Work’

How often, in an average day, do you do something that used to be someone else’s job?

Do you answer your own phone, order your own lunch, fill your own printer, pump your own gas, scan your own groceries, and deposit your own checks? When you get home, do you book your own travel, diagnose your own medical issues, and put together your own Ikea bookshelves?

Everyone has a slightly different version of which tasks they consider their responsibilities and which tasks they feel like they have been tricked into doing themselves. I never expected to have an administrative assistant who would answer my phone, for example, so I have no problem accepting that job-related administrative tasks are my responsibility. On the other hand, I always feel a little resentful that I have to deposit my own checks. That takes time away from my “real work,” right?

That’s what Craig Lambert’s Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day is all about. Lambert looks at the additional administrative work that most of us have picked up in the past few decades, from scanning and bagging our own groceries to finding our own romantic partners on OKCupid. Grocery stores used to hire people for jobs literally called “bag boy,” and communities used to naturally place us in proximity to potential mates — well, they did and they didn’t, dating services have been around at least since the classified ads, and the whole myth of “in the old days people threw cocktail parties where everyone dressed up and flirted” deserves a bit more examination.

That’s how I felt about much of Shadow Work, when I received a complimentary review copy. Yes, we are doing a lot of administrative work these days, especially since the Internet made it possible for us to book our own flights and deposit our own checks, but the idea that our lives were better, or even easier, in the old days might not necessarily be true.

I had the opportunity to interview Lambert about his book, and here are some excerpts from our conversation:

ND: I really enjoyed reading Shadow Work and I sympathized very much with it. What made you decide that this was a book that we needed to read now?

CL: There was a watershed moment one night in the grocery store in Cambridge, when I was checking out my groceries and I just looked a few feet to my left and I saw a woman I knew slightly, who I knew was a senior partner in a law firm in Boston. Clearly I knew she had to be making well into the six figures, hundreds of thousands a year, and she was scanning and bagging her own groceries!

I thought to myself: That’s a job that a cashier is going to do for an entry-level wage, but the lawyer over there isn’t even getting an entry-level wage. She’s getting nothing! What’s going on here?

I started thinking about the other places, in the society and the economy, where we work for free. Very often, we’re doing something that somebody else used to get a paycheck for doing, like pumping gasoline. We’re being our own travel agents, or our own stockbrokers, sometimes our own doctors or lawyers! It struck me that I had ahold of a phenomenon.

It also makes business sense. If you’re a business owner, who wouldn’t rather be having a customer do a job for free, instead of paying a staff person salary plus benefits? Shadow work is here to stay.

Self-scan machines have been around since I started to do my own grocery shopping, and I’ve always been expected to pump my own gas, so this type of shadow work feels normal to me. Do you see a difference between the way older and younger people approach shadow work?

Younger people, in general, are more accepting of self service, like kiosks and scanners. In fact, they prefer them. They’ve done things in England with older shoppers and grocery stores, and the majority of people over 50 or 60 prefer a live person at the checkout station.

It has to do with how your expectations were molded and what you’re used to, and for human beings change is usually difficult. Most people resist change, period. It’s hard to shift things. People of the Baby Boomer age, like myself, have an adaptation to make.

And I’m sure that there will be some new technology in the next five years that I will not want to use! I can see it coming!

The next wave [of shadow work] may feel unfamiliar to you because it is not the way you were built.

I have a bigger philosophical question about shadow work, and it has to do with the intersectional component. You wrote, for example, about your mother being the person who shouldered the homemaking responsibilities, and about the teenage boys who used to push carts at the grocery store. There’s a bit of “these jobs are supposed to be done by these people, but now they are being done by me.” I’m curious why someone might think that they shouldn’t be able to do any job there is. Why would a lawyer think “I should not have to scan my own groceries?”

There is something worth considering in the word “supposed.” That is something that you might be adding to the equation that isn’t necessarily there. There’s a thin line between “is a teenage boy supposed to bring back the shopping carts,” or is it just that we’re used to them doing that?

We get habituated to certain employees carrying out certain functions, and there’s a disjunction when that doesn’t happen anymore. One thing that happens in the office when support staff thins out or disappears is that we find we can do a lot of new things that support staff used to do. Computers enabled everyone to type their own letters, for example. When you find that you have to type your own letters and copy your own documents, and handle the postage meter, and get things mailed properly, there is a certain satisfaction in finding out that you can do them.

On the other side, if you take neoclassical economics, they’ll say “When you have an executive who is earning $160,000 a year, and that divides up into a pretty high hourly rate, is it efficient to have that person running a photocopier? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a person at a lower hourly rate do the photocopying?”

There’s another social aspect to it, and it’s that it democratizes the office. Everybody pitches in and does the grunt work, and that creates a more egalitarian office environment.

I’m also curious about the people who used to do the support duties. I’m assuming that some of them are unemployed — as you noted in your book, we have a high unemployment rate in part because these jobs have gone away — but are there people who might have been administrative assistants but found new or better opportunities because that job was no longer available to them?

If your job is made obsolete by shadow work, it’s good to look at it optimistically and see what opens up. If you take the gasoline pump example, it does eliminate the old job of teenage boys working as pump jockeys. However, the gasoline pumps are more sophisticated instruments now, and so you create jobs for people who design robotic gasoline pumps, or for the people who figure out how to shoot your credit card data to satellites in the sky so the pump can authorize your purchase. Those pumps have to be designed, installed, maintained, and upgraded, so in a sense it does make for new jobs and they tend to be jobs that require a high degree of skill.

That’s one of the things I think we have to look at, in our country: retooling our educational system to prepare people for these jobs. Schools aren’t always prepared to equip students with the technical skills they need to take on these new jobs that are opening up.

In the long run, it may be an upgrade for the labor force, but there could be some short-run disruptions that are fairly uncomfortable.

One more question, then. In your experience, has the amount of work we are required to do to make it through our lives gone up, gone down, or stayed the same? It used to be that someone had to cook every meal from scratch, for example. Now, we cook in microwaves but we buy our own plane tickets. How has that shift affected our overall daily workload?

It’s nice to look at that sort of thing historically. If you go back to colonial times in America, men, women, and children all did housework. They were busy all the time just keeping the house and farm going.

But that colonial-era work wasn’t shadow work. Shadow work, by my definition, is unpaid work that we perform in service of an institution. So when the Industrial Revolution came through and people began leaving the home to work in factories, that’s when housework became a form of shadow work. Men couldn’t go to the factories and earn money unless their wives and children were working at home to keep the house going. This housework was in service of an institution because it helped sustain the economy.

In a modern world, we aren’t raising our own food and livestock so much anymore. The basic needs of life are still similar, but we have a very different standard of living. Booking our own plane tickets wasn’t a problem in the colonial era! As the standard of living goes up, we consume much more in the way of goods and services, and we have more opportunities in terms of education and leisure as well. There’s a lot more work to do to maintain the standard of living we have now.

And we are subsidizing businesses as we do this work!

Yes. By chipping in and doing our free labor, we are making an involuntary donation to a company’s bottom line.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.