Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A woman's shadow work is never done

Speaking of paid and unpaid work, the New York Times just ran a fascinating op-ed piece by Craig Lambert, deputy editor of Harvard Magazine, about “shadow work.” That’s a term Lambert says was coined 30 years ago by Australian philosopher Ivan Illich to describe all of the work people do that they don’t get paid for, such as housework, shopping, paying bills, etc.

Lambert argues that machines, instead of liberating us from repetitive and menial tasks, have actually increased the amount of shadow work we do. We pump our own gas, squeegee our own windows, bag our own groceries, plan and book our own travel arrangements. Chores that we now perform for ourselves, often with the help of technology, were once done by human beings who got paid for it. At our jobs, support staff  like secretaries and clerks have been reduced, their tasks—typing, copying, mailing, sorting email—added to remaining employees’ other responsibilities. “Even those in senior management perform these humdrum jobs,” Lambert writes.

Doctors say patients complain of fatigue, Lambert notes. “Much of this fatigue may result from the steady, surreptitious accumulation of shadow work in modern life,” he writes. “People are simply doing a huge number of tasks that were once done for them by others.”

I’ll leave it to economists to figure out whether Lambert is right, whether technology has produced a net increase or decrease in shadow work. Obviously, technology has streamlined many unpaid tasks: washing dishes, looking up information, shopping for certain items.

What most interests me is the timely point tucked within Lambert’s piece. More people are questioning, thanks in part to the Occupy Wall Street movement, why so many Americans are struggling while a tiny minority rakes in phenomenal wealth.

Lambert’s thesis provides one explanation for that phenomenon. But he steers around that point, blaming not CEOs but the machines themselves. “The robots have won,” he announces. “The robots are in charge now, pushing a thousand routine tasks onto each of our backs.”

But of course, robots aren’t the ones forcing humans to do extra work. Robots, who will gladly work for free, don’t benefit from the arrangement. Robots aren’t lighting cigars with $100 bills. That would be, at least theoretically, the people who profit from the robots’ work. Of course, not all business owners are thriving financially, not even those who have replaced employees with machines. But whatever financial savings are being seen—in salaries, health insurance and so on—isn’t going to the machines, let alone the people taking on extra shadow work.

Meanwhile, there’s one important category of shadow work that Lambert doesn’t mention at all—understandably, since it’s not central to his point—but that is relevant to this blog: caregiving. Technology, as far as I can tell, neither dramatically reduces nor increases the work of caring for children, the old and the sick. But some research indicates that parents, especially mothers, are spending more time than ever on childcare.

As the New York Times reported last year:

Before 1995, mothers spent an average of about 12 hours a week attending to the needs of their children. By 2007, that number had risen to 21.2 hours a week for college-educated women and 15.9 hours for those with less education.

Although mothers still do most of the parenting, fathers also registered striking gains: to 9.6 hours a week for college-educated men, more than double the pre-1995 rate of 4.5 hours; and to 6.8 hours for other men, up from 3.7, according to an additional analysis by Betsey Stevenson and Dan Sacks, economists at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

It stands to reason that, as our population ages, we’ll be spending more time caring for our elders, too.

Unpaid caregiving represents a big chunk of shadow work, and it still falls disproportionately on women. If Lambert is right, it helps explain why we’re feeling so overwhelmed. We’re juggling paid work, plus more of the traditional shadow work than we performed in the past, plus new high-tech forms of shadow work.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some shadow work to do in the kitchen.