How much do you really work?

Photo: Mouzhik via Flickr Creative Commons
Photo: Mouzhik

Friends paid us a visit recently to tour our grand abode and to catch up. In conversation, they described an exasperating night helping two kids with homework. On top of that, they cared for the insatiable needs of their infant. I imagined them wishing nights like these were short-lived. But this was homework. Our friends, and millions like them, will be stuck on this soul-sucking ride for several long years.

What they were engaging in, and what we all engage in is something called “shadow work.” Ivan Illich coined the term and described it best, saying: “With the rise of this shadow economy, I observe the appearance of a kind of toil which is not rewarded by wages, and yet contributes nothing to the household’s independence from the market.

There are sundry examples of shadow work, yet a few are quite common:

  • housework
  • commuting to work
  • other work-related travel
  • shopping for and purchasing “work clothing”
  • maintaining a vehicle (be a car or a bike)
  • helping children with homework
  • deleting spam from work email
  • booking flights and hotels online ourselves
  • self-checking out groceries
  • pumping our own gas
  • maintaining our lawn

When I add up all of the shadow work I do, things like commuting to work; maintaining my bike for work travel; housework; lawn work; etc., it looks like I spend roughly 12 hours a week doing “shadow work.” These laborious or otherwise banal activities provide me with neither wages nor freedom from the market. And my experience is not typical: I have a 15-minute bike ride to work and no kids.

Others, including many of my friends, practically live and work in the shadows. And the average American spends 35 hours a week (equal to having another unpaid job!) doing “household activities”, purchasing “goods and services”, and dealing with “telephone calls, mail, and e-mail.” Small wonder that a 2007 study estimated that 38 percent of working Americans are chronically fatigued!  And with the rise of “self-help” technologies (checking out our own groceries, pumping our own gas), fatigue is only likely to climb. 

In autonomous, vernacular cultures, shadow work is rare and unremarkable.  “Homework” in these cultures involves life skills such as how to harvest crops and build fires. You know, work that in the words of philosopher, Craig Lambert, “directly answers the needs of life.”

Pin It