Four years ago, writer Craig Lambert was in a Cambridge, Mass., supermarket when he saw a top Boston lawyer bagging her groceries at the self-checking kiosk. He figured she was making a six-figure income yet here she was doing an entry-level, minimum wage job – for free.
That set him to watching the many other places where we handle free work for companies and other institutions, from pumping our gas, to shopping and banking online, to serving as bus drivers through the car pools taking our kids to school, to washing what used to be garbage for recycling. He calls it "shadow work," borrowed from an essay by philosopher Ivan Illich, and since it's carried out at the behest of businesses and other organizations, it raises economic questions. But it's also an issue of balance, as we squander time on these unpaid tasks that might be better spent on other aspects of our lives. "Incrementally, unconsciously and subtly, little bits of work are eating away at leisure time," he says in an interview.
Sometimes shadow work might save us time – the lawyer bagging her own groceries may have exited the supermarket faster than Mr. Lambert waiting for the cashier. Arguably, pumping our own gas is a wash when it comes to time – we have to wait for the tank to fill up either way. But a lot of shadow work siphons away precious minutes, which in the end add up. "It takes a minute or two a day to delete SPAM from our inbox but it might add up to nine hours a year. We never asked to get SPAM. But we have to deal with it," he says. You also spend a lot of time dealing with the fact secretaries have essentially disappeared from the workplace – it's the norm these days, but so is being time-starved. He argues there's a shadow work connection.
Shadow work also diminishes social interactions, an important part of our wellbeing. Your conversation at the supermarket checkout counter or with the gas jockey may not have been scintillating but it was part of the humanity of life. "It's a small thing but it adds a dimension to your life. Community depends on a lot of relationships, some not that close, which weave together a town or a city. Shadow work is removing these human relationships from our economic life and turning it from man to machine," he observes.
He mourns the loss of children's sports run by children rather than parents. He's 67 and remembers his parents telling him to go out and play. The kids would gather and make up the dimensions of the field of play – a rock in one spot and a jacket somebody placed away from it marking the goal posts, say, for soccer. There were no umpires or referees; the youngsters were the guardians of the game. "Adults have moved in and taken over and almost professionalized it, turning it into a realm of achievement, rather than a realm of play," he says. They aim to gain college scholarships or a place on a professional team, even though the odds are against it.
That's a social loss, for kids. But it also gobbles up huge chunks of parents' time, compared to the mother or father years ago who told the child to go out and play and rarely even watched. More than watching, parents must drive the youngster, particularly for "travel teams" on which the elite young athletes play. He notes that Chevrolet is sponsoring the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which he figures is fitting given the long distances involved.
"Such teams hire professional coaches, schedule practices, and set up matches with travel teams in the region. Parents pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for their child to take part, and pitch in with hours of shadow work. This latter includes countless hours at the wheel, driving children to practices and matches. It can mean a three-hour auto trip – each way – to see your daughter sit on the bench for most of a soccer game," he writes in his book Shadow Work, which he calls a field guide to the phenomenon.
What can you do? Start by noticing the shadow work you undertake – after several years of searching, he is still discovering new facets. Then ask – is it worth it? – and where it isn't you may want to pay for avoiding shadow work and regaining time. He'll pay the skycaps at airports who can get his bags processed quicker. He saved 10 hours planning a complicated vacation by hiring a travel agent.
Some of it must be endured. It's hard to find a gas station where you don't have to pump your own gas, if that's a concern. Secretaries are unlikely to return. It will continue to increase, he feels, as the world is driven by incentives and when companies, non-profits and institutions such as hospitals can replace paid staff with free labour by customers, they will grab it.
But you should be vigilant. "Guard your free time jealously. It's a treasure. Be alert to where shadow work may be taking a bite out of your weekend or week nights," he warns.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter