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Book Review: 'Shadow Work' by Craig Lambert

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.


“Shadow Work” by Craig Lambert, subtitled “the unpaid, unseen jobs that fill your day”, is a 2015 economic and career book. This book is aimed at identifying the tasks that eat into our free time. What is shadow work? What is driving the growth of “shadow work”? And what are the pros and cons of Lambert’s book, “Shadow Work”?

Computing has enabled much of the shadow work and self-service automation that the book refers to.

Computing has enabled much of the shadow work and self-service automation that the book refers to.

What Is Shadow Work?

Shadow work is a term adopted and re-defined by Craig Lambert in his book of the same name. Shadow work isn’t a reference to paid overtime but unpaid work we do for employers or organizations. When you are checking your work email on your cell phone, that is shadow work. Lambert’s book talks about when you bag your own groceries at Aldi’s, though it doesn’t talk about the fact this allows Aldi’s to charge less than Walmart for many things.

Shadow work includes when you assemble furniture from Ikea, fill your own drink at the restaurant or enter your information instead of the receptionist doing it. Shadow work has arisen as a way for organizations to save money by pushing tasks onto the consumer, though it doesn’t always bring down the cost of goods and services by those organizations. When you sell your own home, you pocket some of the savings from the elimination of the realtor commission, though home buyers factor the lack of commission into the sale price, too. When you pump your own gas, the station charges a lower price per gallon of gas. It is sometimes offered as a way to empower the customer or give them more freedom, such as letting someone get unlimited refills if the business doesn’t have to have a server get drinks.

Shadow work takes the form of customer interaction with automation instead of dealing with a customer service representative, whether you’re placing an order through an app, trying to navigate a phone menu or searching a self-help knowledge base to try to solve your own technical problem. In these cases, automation and online resources are useful when they give people service when the office is closed but hurts them when it puts hurdles between them and assistance. Scheduling your own flights and having more options than what a clerk on the other end of the line would offer is one example. Making your own stock trades online or rebalancing your own 401K gives you the freedom to decide when these actions should be taken – but it also leaves the task undone if you don’t attend to it.

The book “Shadow Work” classifies commuting as shadow work since you do it in the hope of getting to work but don’t get paid for the time.

Shadow work isn’t unique to for profit businesses. Governments that make you sort your recyclables with fines if you don’t sort everything properly are forcing you to engage in shadow work. Automated refunds when you drop off bottles for recycling are a hybrid public-private form of shadow work. Making people fill out forms without assistance in order to receive assistance from the state is another. The book describes the tedious process of screenings that you can avoid by paying the fee and joining the TSA “Pre-Check” program as shadow work.

Volunteering isn’t shadow work – it is a voluntary choice. Shadow work is defined by being a requirement for a transaction like a purchase or receipt of a service, usually as a recent add-on to the previously wholly delivered package. The unpaid internship, though, is shadow work – you’re working without pay for uncertain benefits.

The author classifies housework and childcare in the home as the original form of “shadow work”. So is homeschooling, but the author doesn’t discuss that. The book says that housework burdens grew with the rise of the consumption economy and industrialization, but the reality is that automation from clothes washers to vacuum machines actually reduced that burden. Ironically, the author doesn’t consider the massive amount of physical labor invested in running a subsistence farm or off the grid household “shadow work” because it reduces their expenses, failing to grant housewives the same recognition because they aren’t using daycares to tend to their children.

Pros of the Book “Shadow Work”

How does piecemeal automation affect not just the job market as a whole but individual interactions and transactions? “Shadow Work” covers both topics in depth. The social and cultural norms that can impede spread of shadow work are also addressed.

“Shadow Work” discusses the evolving labor market that results from automation, the hands-on repair work, for example, that Mike Rowe calls dirty jobs. It fails to mention, though, that many of the unemployed graduates are chronically under employed or unemployed because they trained for potential management and knowledge work positions that are unnecessary due to automation and shadow work instead of the millions of skilled trades positions that are unfilled. This is called the skills mismatch.

“Shadow Work” discusses how unpaid internships, required by some elite schools for graduation, shut out the poor and middle class who cannot afford to work for free for months on end in addition to their tuition bills. The author neglects to include the volunteering mandates that many schools require of students, where you have to volunteer X hours unpaid to get a high school diploma.

Weaknesses of the Book “Shadow Work”

The book provides a good explanation of how shadow work is gradually reducing the workforce. The author incorrectly blames high unemployment around the world on automation and shadow work while ignoring the productivity growth and higher employment that would occur with looser employment markets and economic growth that comes from less regulation.

“Shadow Work” ignores the fact that raising the minimum wage pushes many businesses to increase shadow work, such as fast food joints putting in self-service kiosks because they can’t afford employing the same number of people given a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Overhead expenses like Obamacare push employers to demand more unpaid overtime of their professionals and redesigning processes to push “shadow work” onto customers so they can use fewer part time staff in lower skill positions. The author is completely wrong about the belief that socialized medicine will solve this problem. The author totally ignores problems like Canadian wait lists to get assigned a doctor or months-long waits to receive care – in short, reducing costs by reducing care or requiring patients to research and solve their own problems, another type of shadow work.

The book describes the decline in leisure time through the 1970s and 1980s but doesn’t include the fact that this is partially due to women entering the workforce, officially reducing the leisure time stats and artificially inflating the worked hours stats by moving from unpaid to paid work.

Complaining that housework remained a chore for women after working 40 hours outside the home while ignoring the fact that the housework burden had to have been dramatically reduced for a wife to work outside the home in the first place is a significant oversight. When complaining about how much housework women do, “Shadow Work” cites many anecdotes but ignores the fact that media usage (TV viewing, surfing internet) is more than five hours a day or 35 a week, which dwarfs the 10-20 hours a week of housework many women reported per week.

The book criticizes the Protestant work ethic and worships the European model that rewards leisure but barely admits to the low productivity, high unemployment and unsustainable economic model it creates. Instead, Lambert blames automation for Europe’s high youth unemployment rate actually caused by a high minimum wage and strict labor laws that drive employers to only experienced, highly productive people instead.

The author Craig Lambert mocks and lambasts involved parents, seeing them as hindering their children’s development and doing a poor job compared to various professionals. This man sees the average person as an idiot.

Observations about the Book “Shadow Work”

The book overlooks the rise of tasks that companies outsource in return for points, status and perks. Reddit moderators and Youtube’s Heroes program are arguably shadow work. Doing surveys for points that may or may not be exchanged for money or merchandise of any value is another. Companies that reward people who send out pictures and retweet content that promotes the company with swag is yet another.

The author of “Shadow Work” admits that the democratization and on demand nature of automation lets you buy items online at any time and have them delivered to your home, yet the author still idealizes the need to wait in line at the bank and store to get money and buy things.

Books like "Stretch" are a better reference when you want to plan for the future of employment.

"Stretch" is a better book to read to plan for the workforce of the future.

"Stretch" is a better book to read to plan for the workforce of the future.


The concept of “shadow work” needs to be recognized by society on its whole as well as the degree to which it should be adopted or accepted. Beyond that, the book “Shadow Work” is severely lacking.

The author’s liberal solutions are not solutions but a demand for expansion of the policies that led to so much shadow work in the first place. There is insufficient recent hard data and too much anecdotal evidence to make this book a good business or sociological text.

Questions & Answers

Question: What are the advantages of participating in job shadowing?

Answer: Job shadowing isn't "shadow work". Job shadowing refers to you following someone around as they do their job. The main benefit of it is that you see what the job normally involves instead of the rough outline in a job description. Job shadowing may take place during a job interview or as part of a new hire's orientation.

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