In 1928, British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2028, the developed world would be in such a state of technological and financial prosperity that the average individual would enjoy a 15 hour working week. Suffice to say, more than a few of us aren’t quite there yet. Author Craig Lambert has one theory as to why we’re still squandering our lives; he calls it “shadow work.”
“Life has become busier,” writes Lambert. “Somehow there seems to be less time in the day, although days remain indisputably twenty-four hours long. In truth, time isn’t vanishing, only free time is. How can this be? We are living in the most prosperous era in human history, and prosperity supposedly brings leisure. Yet, quietly, subtly, even furtively, new tasks have infiltrated our days, nibbling off bits of free time like the sea eroding sand from the beach. We find ourselves doing a stack of jobs we never volunteered for, chores that showed up in our lives below the scan of awareness. They are the incoming tidal wave of shadow work.”
As Lambert describes it, shadow work comprises any and all of the unpaid tasks that the consumer carries out on behalf of corporations, from scanning and bagging our own food at self-service checkouts to assembling our own IKEA furniture. “Scores of shadow tasks have infiltrated our daily routines, settling in as habits,” he says. “We are not slaves in ancient Greece or peasants in medieval Europe, but nonetheless we are working for nothing.” According to Lambert, the result is “middle-class serfdom.”
The Huffington Post’s Stuart Whatley uses the example of the ovine shopkeeper in Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, who instructs our heroine Alice, ostensibly a customer in this establishment, to reach for the egg she wants from the shelf herself. It might not seem like much of a sacrifice, but Lambert argues that these outsourced chores all in aid of the organisation’s bottom line at the expense of our own most precious commodity; time.
As Whatley points out, not all of Lambert’s examples hold up under any kind of real scrutiny; for example, parents who drive their children to school are not always acting as unpaid bus drivers. For many, it is simply the easiest, safest option. Lambert also fails to examine the contextual nature of a great many of these tasks; for busy urban families, those car journeys might well count as valuable time together, an important everyday ritual.
Lambert’s underlying entrepreneurial obsession with time, and how to get the most out of every last minute, is nothing new. But a number of his assertions regarding our supposed “serfdom” seem to reveal an ignorance of the 21st century on-demand economy. For example, not every urbanite is a slave to grocery shopping; companies like Graze and Hello Fresh exist entirely to take that time-suck out of our daily lives. And for some, the act of buying, cooking and serving food is a source of mindfulness, a way of decompressing after a long day.
Like so many writers in this space, Lambert hits on the seed of an interesting idea but fails to consider the possibility that people live widely differing lives. What is a waste of time to one consumer is an enjoyable activity for another. Perhaps instead of griping about the time we are losing, we should simply adopt the Kondo philosophy and strip away all tasks from our lives that do not bring us joy, handing them over to the countless convenience-centric services out there.