Life in the Shadows

If the pace of life seems overwhelming, it might well be because we have assumed so many of the jobs once held by others. This is the position of Craig Lambert in his book, Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs that Fill Your Day (Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2015). The Harvard sociologist takes a look at the myriad tasks that have been thrust upon consumers in an ever-faster paced world.

He calls it "shadow work" -- those self-service activities that we welcome into our lives in the name of convenience and autonomy. We now pump our own gas, check out our own groceries, and buy and print our own plane tickets. Although not employed by any of the companies that provide these products and services, we nevertheless do the things once done by employees… but without the paychecks.

Lambert’s description of life in the shadows is complete and exhaustive, if not exhausting to those who play the game. We find shadow work in the home, in school, the workplace and during leisure. Armies of kiosks and robots have now embedded themselves into our lives and have taken that human touch away from economy and culture that make life interesting and meaningful. It is a “fast, fast, me, me, now, now” world with “less human contact.”

A brave new world in the shadows awaits us as Lambert supplies example after example of shadow work from movies at home (where the consumer supplies place, projection, and concessions) to self-checkout (where the shopper becomes the cashier) to the disappearance of business support staff (where executives absorb secretarial functions). With everyone doing all their own things, people become isolated, each in their own “silos.” They are increasingly hostile to communicating directly and prefer mediating relationships through their machines… and in a mechanical manner.

Much worse than the practical implications of this exhaustive addition of so much unpaid work to our already overburdened schedules, there are alarming social implications. The shadow world is a development of the massification of the individual that has long characterized modern times.

This can be seen in shadow work’s destruction of those small but meaningful contacts that make up the glue that binds people together in community. Lambert rightly laments “society fragmenting into millions of atomized, siloed individuals.” He sees a trend of life “without connection to the community, and thus setting the stage for anomie and social breakdown.”

At the same time, individuals without anchors in family and community are easily integrated into the cyber masses that “submerge individuals’ own preferences beneath those of larger establishments, as corporations and other behemoths commandeer their daily life, funneling nearly all human energy into economic channels and institutionally determined goals.”

Everyone in the shadow world imagines that they are all so autonomous and different yet they end up appearing so much the same.

There is a fundamentally egalitarian angle to the shadow work world toward which Lambert harbors some sympathy. When everyone does all their own things, it has a leveling effect that favors the collapse of hierarchies. By trying to do everything, the new shadow workers reject the idea “of placing someone ‘above’ them” (for example, a doctor or lawyer) -- or below them (as in a restaurant waiter). No one person need depend on another.

Lambert’s optimistic perspective holds that shadow work will usher in an era of democratization and collaboration, where all information can be found online and consumers will naturally customize their choices via new technology. However, experience has shown that isolated atoms rarely have the character to stand up to new systems. They usually seek validation by following the trends and fashions dictated to them by big media.

Shadow Work is an important book that makes visible the invisible servitude that so exhausts us and consumes our time. It is not, however, a call to action that will lead to a rejection of the individualist mentality that has brought about shadow work regimes. The book does not propose a return to an order where the natural links of family, community and faith will bring back that human element so lost in modern culture. Lambert’s work does shed light but not enough to save us all from life in the shadows.

John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author of the book Return to Order, as well as the author of hundreds of published articles. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP).

If you experience technical problems, please write to