Marks54's Reviews > Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day

Shadow Work by Craig Lambert
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it was ok

This book tries to do a lot and stretch the motivating idea far beyond its useful range. As a result, the book takes on a sense of crabbing about the changes that have been brought about by automation, digitization, globalization, and a host of other economic and technological "zations" of various sorts. I had heard some good things about the book, but I ended up frustrated and let down. Below, I will try to explain.

The focal idea of the book - shadow work - seems to refer to work that we all do that is not part of our regular jobs but is also not part of our normal lives. It is work that used to be done by someone (paid) on our behalf but is now left to us as customers and users to do for ourselves. People in old time general stores used to get products off the shelf and hand them to us for payment. Now we are forced to walk around the store with a cart or basket and collect the products for ourselves and then take them to check out. We used to go to theaters where we bought our tickets, got food from the stand, were usered to our seats, and then watched the movies we came for. Now we are forced to download the movie from the Internet or even use a DVD and then watch the movie at home with only our family and friends around, and get our own snacks from the fridge or the cabinet. (Oh the horror!). We used to have our gas pumped for us at the station by some attendant. Now we have to do it ourselves and then actually pay for it using some card reader. We used to have to travel to a bookstore and then look around for a book to purchase, purchase it, and then bring it home. Now, increasingly numbers of us are forced to have the books brought to our homes or even downloaded on the computer. At restaurants, we often serve ourseves, make our own salads, pour our own drinks, and do without table service, so that everything the waiters used to do for us, we now must do for ourselves - without receiving any tips!

You get the idea? Lambert shows how for a variety of activities, we now have to do without pay what used to be down by someone else for pay. The result is an intrusion on our time, a blurring of the distinctions between work and home life. While Lambert at times suggests that this development of creeping shadow work is not without positive features, the tone is very clearly a negative one of intrusion and impoverishment because of all of this unpaid and unrewarding work that we are being forced to put up with.

Let me stop here and say that this is not factually incorrect, in that his examples refer to activities that were once indeed part of people's jobs in an earlier time but are not now, since the nature of the jobs in question have changed due to automation, globalization, and other changes in technology and social institutions.

The line of argument that Mr. Lambert draws from these observations, however, strikes me as so much nonsense, in my opinion. Lambert is noting that the division of labor from products and services changes over time as a result of changes in markets and market size, technology, population, social norms, and other factors. The trouble is that this change is always occurring within modern economies - always. So the division of labor that we see at a given time (or that we grow up with) will of necessity change and the factors supporting it change. This is how capitalism works - and how it has always worked. This is not a new point that is being made.

The logic of changing the division of labor is not some nefarious effort to push costs on to others, but a continuing effort to find lower cost ways of doing things that will be attractive to customers. Lambert makes clear that he is concerned about all of the lost jobs due to the proliferation of shadow work, but what is new about this? When caused by innovation, this is what Schumpeter referred to as "creative destruction". There are no more individuals charged with picking up the tons of horse manure that used to grace the streets of growing US cities. While I can sympathize with that dislocation due to the elimation of an entire class of workers, is it really so bad of a development? I worked in factories, fast foods, and racetracks while growing up. While I learned from these positions, I would be in no hurry to defend any of them from automation. A discussion of education, apprenticeships, retraining, and "industrial policy" may be reasonable, but not complaints about disrupting some fondly remembered division of labor from the 1960s.

The logic of changing these products and services is clearly one of "make versus buy" or some form of capital substitution. In my business, do I do some activity myself or do I hire a contractor? Do I get tasks done by people, machines, or some combination of both? To go into the "way back" machine, recalll the chemical spill disaster in Bhopal, India, around 1984. Union Carbide had a similar plant in West Virginia to the one in Bhopal, but it proved not to be an issue because the US plant was automated while the Bhopal plant was labor intensive. This is not a technological artifact but a choice. A labor intensive plant was chosen for India because labor was cheaper than in the US. The choice is a best a guess on the part of managers and owners as to which arrangement will work out better (higher sales, lower costs, higher profits). Guesses can work out or not. Those that work out persist. This is how capitalism works and the sorts of decisions that led to more shadow work are just more recent example tinged with different shades of automation and globalization. There is nothing new here.

.....but wait, there is more. Lambert is also troubled by developments in American work life that have cast a pall of sorts over the traditional ways in which children have been raised, left to play, and educated. Part of this involves the proliferation of dual income families as women have increasingly entered the workforce in recent decades. This has reduced the time that parents can spend with children and thus forced them to overcompensate in the time that can be spent with children by becoming super parents, soccer moms, helicopter parents, etc. The result has been stressed out parents and children, an impoverishment of the childhood play and sports experience, and an actual weakening of the maturation process of children as parents refuse to let their children take responsibility and grown up - a thumbnail sketch of an argument that brings to mind William Deresiewicz's arguments in his 2014 book "Excellent Sheep".

After a while, it is hard to keep track of all the pop psychology and sociology being tossed around here, but let me say that this part of the book does not follow the arguments already presented about shadow work. By shlepping their kids around or doing their homework for them, they are doing what upper middle class and wealthy parents have always done. Nobody changed a division of labor or automated anything to bring about soccer moms, tiger moms, and helicopter or snowplow parents. It is not a cost being forced on parents but one that is gladly chosen to enable their kids to get into the right camp, college, sorority, etc. Lambert tries to fit this part of the book into his general argument by claiming that the problem is that home is being made to be like work, through active management, planning, focus on goals, etc. These arguments can be considered and evaluated, but they are not consistent with his articulation of "shadow work". It is forced and it did not work for me.

He goes through the evolution of shadow work in other sectors, such as in grocery and food stores. This is all well and good, but the story is well known and often told. Consumers liked these developments - the supermarkets would not have succeeded if consumers did not shop there. That was the same with Kroger in 1928 as it is with Wal-Mart today.

There are other side arguments prowling around in the book. Lambert does not like the loss of jobs to shadow work but offers nothing but very general nostrums of retraining as a response. Lambert also does not like the overall decline of communities due to technological changes, globalization, the Internet, and smart phones. I am sympathetic with this, but what to do? Without some thought about alternatives, the arguments comes across as more of a scold than something that informs.

Mostar troubling to me is that Lambert appears to assume some prior golden age after whose passing American society has declined in various ways. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s too and it was no picnic. Every time has its challenges and its positives and negatives. Welcome to Earth. A recent book that brings this up effectively is Gordon's book on "The Rise and Fall of American Growth", which goes into considerable detail about what economic life in the US has been like since 1870. This type of research is much more convincing to me than Lambert's "survey says" approach to conveniently quoting facts and figures as his commentary requires.

I was expecting a lot more from this book and was disappointed.

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Reading Progress

December 1, 2016 – Started Reading
December 1, 2016 – Shelved
December 7, 2016 – Finished Reading

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