How do you feel about bagging your own groceries?
You do put the grocery cart back in the parking lot, right?
Pump your own gas?
Do you book your own travel?
I do all of this. And I never gave it a moment’s thought. That is until I read Craig Lambert’s new book Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. Businesses have somehow shifted the model, moving work from them to us without us even knowing. How this happened and its implications are fascinating.
I spoke with Craig about his observations about the fascinating world of what he calls “shadow work.” Craig served as a staff writer and editor at Harvard Magazine for more than two decades.
Are You Unknowingly Working for Someone Else?
Define this new term for us: shadow work.
Copyright Jim Harrison; Used by Permission
Shadow work includes all the unpaid jobs we do on behalf of businesses and organizations.
Once you define it and explain, it seems so obvious. It makes a light bulb come on. What made you aware of this concept and decide to write about it?
One night while waiting in line to check out at the supermarket, I noticed an attorney I knew slightly, about twenty feet away. She was a senior partner in a downtown firm, definitely earning a big paycheck—well into the six figures. Yet there she was, scanning and bagging groceries. She was doing this at a self-serve checkout, for her own groceries, of course. Yet she was still doing an entry-level job, one that pays around the minimum wage. And she wasn’t even getting the minimum wage; she was getting nothing at all, working for free. This was the first instance I’d noticed of what I’ve come to call “middle-class serfdom.”
I started thinking about other places where the consumer is working for free, often doing jobs that used to be done by a paid employee. I realized that there are many examples of this, most of which have appeared in recent decades. And that the phenomenon is growing. I started to see that there was a broad social trend afoot, and that “shadow work” was an apt name for it.