Notes on 'Shadow Work'

Aug 16, 2015

Notes on Craig Lambert's 'Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day'. Short: just read the article version - doesn't gain much from book length.



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. This book 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.

'Adapted' is probably the right word - the critique of self-help is a bit more fierce in in Illich's original. Illich's definition of shadow work:

I call this compliment to wage labour 'shadow work'. It comprises most housework women do in their homes and apartments, the activities connected with shopping, most of the homework of students cramming for exams, the toil expended commuting to and from the job. It includes the stress of forced consumption, the tedious and regimented surrender to therapists, compliance with bureaucrats, the preparation for work to which one is compelled, and many of the activities usually labelled 'family life'. (p 100)

The false virtue of self-reliance

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.”

A sign a few pages in that I'm not necessarily on the same wavelength. Almost the idea here that tidying up after yourself  (and this being framed as a virtue) is a con so companies don't have to pay people to clean up after you (and selfish of you because you're denying them jobs). Possible I'm just socialised into finding that odd but mechanically, it's only a short jump to the broken window fallacy.

Social Mobility

If these bankers had gone out on hundreds of mortgage appraisals like my dad did, seeing the actual houses for which they were lending money and meeting real, live borrowers, would the 2008 banking crisis have happened?

Probably? I think it's hard to argue that no bad decisions were ever made before people put their own trolleys away?

But how does an aspiring banker work his way up from the teller’s window if ATMs and shadow-working customers have displaced tellers? How does a secretary become the office manager and later an executive if shadow work eliminates support staff— so there are no secretaries?

Here we get to interesting questions about social mobility. I'll come back to this.

For those without education and skills, these low-level positions often are their careers. If such jobs vanish, a throng of unemployed young people will find themselves with little money and too much spare time. This is a dangerous development in any society. Unrest and violence throughout the Arab world have erupted from streets teeming with young men lacking jobs— angry youths who congregate online through social media. Such mobs can become unruly. In 2003, the dissolution of the Iraqi army put 400,000 young men out of work , triggering a bloody insurgency that still continues. In today’s global village, where citizens network and congregate in political flashmobs, we cannot risk creating an immense underclass of idle youth.

De-Ba'athification and self-checkouts seem like extreme companions. Is the issue of this situation no means of support (money can be exchanged for goods and services) or spare time (Victorians standardise football to attempt to control spare time, mixed results)? One is better to intervene in than the other. Are there better solutions than just maintain rubbish jobs?

House Work

Illich argues that this unpaid work is a necessary shadow component to allow wage labour to exist at all and comes back to the unpaid work of women again and again - "The amount of shadow work laid on a person today is a much better measure of discrimination than bias on the job"(p 101).  Lambert takes this to an extent, discussing medical students where female doctors in training were found to spend far more time performing household duties compared to their male counterparts but pulls back from this at the end:

There is a place for amateur work. Those domestic chores ground you in daily realities that sometimes go by the name of life. They connect you with your home, those rooms and furnishings that serve you without complaint. They bond you to your family, because the shadow work of housekeeping can be a tangible form of love. The fact that my mom cooked our meals, washed our clothes, and hung them on a clothesline to dry—even in winter— and kept our home clean and orderly, meant so much to my father, sister, brother, and me. Mom wanted us to have the conditions for a healthy and happy life. Keeping house remains the most meaningful form of shadow work. When a paid cook, laundress, nanny, or maid does household tasks, the jobs may be executed very well, but they’re done for a salary, not from love of family. Inevitably, the work of servants has a different feeling.

Lambert's version of "Shadow Work" is noticeable less biting than Illich's. If we accept that supermarkets tricking us with 'self reliance' to do our own checkout is promoting virtue as a con, it's hard to see how "[k]eeping house remains the most meaningful form of shadow work" is any less so. Shadow work that dents the prospects of men like his father to work up the ladder is bad, shadow work by women that enabled his father the time to do that is good. I don't mind a definition of shadow work where it "just is" rather than being bad (giving free labour) or good (control and privacy)  - but when so much of the tone of the book is "You didn't realise you were doing other people's jobs for them you sucker" bits like this stick out.


The upshot is an army of young people doing full-time shadow work for months or even years, trying to break into the job market as unpaid trainees.

Say there's a good book about that...

The internship juggernaut represents a massive, widespread, institutionalized form of shadow work. The 2011 exposé Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, by Ross Perlin, offers a biting critique of the internship explosion.

Which Lambert has also read, so just go read that. Accept these are related problems but has to be a distinction between consumers taking on the work of the companies they buy from (doing work that reduces costs for free) and doing a recognisable job for free (internships). Is a definition of shadow work that encompasses both actually useful?

Servants and Service

In the United States, we feel a profound ambivalence about receiving personal service. In this respect, America differs from the Old World, where monarchs ruled for centuries. Europeans are accustomed to royalty, nobility, and aristocracies, settled in their palaces and great mansions with domestic servants. Indeed, hereditary monarchs still sit on thrones in Britain, Spain, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. Europe has long lived with an entrenched class structure that included a servant class waiting on their “betters.” Consequently, Old World cultures feel a degree of comfort with personal service.

This is at best simplistic. Lucy Lethbridge's 'Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain' has an excellent running thread on the aristocracy slowly learning to do things themselves. For a bit more historical background on how changes in available labour and funds led the upper-class to "shadow-work" read that (although "Hey what were the rich up to?" is not the point of the book). Small snippet:

Concessions were made towards slightly smaller numbers of household staff but also to a generation that had begun to enjoy some independence and was not quite as deficient in practical skills as its parents’ generation had been. Breakfasts in grand houses, for example, became increasingly self-service, the dishes arranged on the sideboard

Bringing the historical picture into it is exactly what a book on "shadow work" should do (and what Illich does at length with the rise of wage labour). Is "Removing entry level work reduces social mobility" just a modern variation of "but how will people become butlers if there are less entry level servant jobs?" If not, why not? What lessons does the decline of servants have for the decline of a service-economy?

Also Lambert's assertion that tipping is an Americanism resulting from an unease to personal service is obviously ahistorical. It's not only a European import but was resisted by Americans at the time.


This section of the book is pretty clearly padding to reach the word limit, but by extending the concept to dating it completely falls apart:

Traditionally, people met dating partners through family and friends, at work, or through hobbies and social events. Today, various businesses also facilitate linking up. Professional matchmakers introduce their clients for a fee. Printed or online personal ads, singles groups and events (not just drinking and dancing but singles yoga classes, cycling trips, and gardening clubs), and “speed dating” help make connections. The fact that these businesses exist testifies that traditional ways of meeting are no longer getting the job done.

[...]Dating-site questionnaires probe views and preferences to build personality profiles. The data archive that shadow-working customers create for free becomes (like Facebook’s content) a valuable capital asset that the sites can monetize. In one sense, providing this data is just the obvious ante: You have to pony up information to play the game. On the other hand, it’s a task that does not arise when people meet via real social networks rather than virtual ones. In this way it qualifies as shadow work, as the dating site puts it in place.

[...]Late-night OkCupid work can mean sleeping less and finding yourself increasingly fatigued by the shadow work of dating. “Typically I would send messages back and forth via the site three times before one of us would suggest exchanging cell phone numbers to arrange a meeting,” Rachel says. “Once I had someone’s number I would probably exchange another three text messages to decide on a place and time and confirm meeting up.”

This is really, really pushing it. If "talking to people" is shadow-work literally anything that involves effort is now shadow-work. Is this unpaid work that makes wage labour possible? Is it even self-servicing what used to be done by wage labour? If we accept that amateur labour (doing work that others would be paid for) counts as shadow-work, then people match-making their friends is shadow-work because they're doing work that people are paying online sites to do. The concept as Lambert uses it means absolutely nothing.

Previous Post: Truth In Elections

Next Post: Does printing crisis line numbers help or harm?