One of the biggest economic mysteries right now is why worker productivity is so low, particularly in the United States.
Some economists say it’s just a correction to the unsustainable hard work many of us have done during the Covid-19 pandemic. But there was also a decline in productivity after the Great Recession. And while there are certainly large long-term factors at play here, such as the failure of education to keep up with technology (which in turn reduces productivity) I think there are other issues that are not sufficiently explored. These include the emergence of shadow works.
Shadow work is a term coined by Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich in 1981. For him, it included all unpaid work done in economies, such as maternity and housekeeping. Recently, however, the term has been expanded to include work that companies have been able to deliver to their customers via technology.
In a 2015 book Shadow work: the unpaid and invisible jobs that fill your day, Craig Lambert, former editor of Harvard Magazine, focused on the myriad tasks that used to be done by other people, and that most of us now do for ourselves, usually with the help of digital devices. This includes everything from banking to travel reservations, ordering food at restaurants to packing groceries, not to mention downloading and navigating between the apps we need to pay parking tickets, keep track of our kids’ school assignments, or even troubleshoot our tech issues.
While neither Lambert nor groups such as the IMF’s statistical agency have a good estimate of the total amount of overtime such tasks represent, it’s clearly large and growing, especially if you consider the research that shows a quarter of jobs in the United States will be like that. severely disrupted by automation by 2030 (in fact most jobs will experience some level of disruption). “I am absolutely amazed that we take the time to straighten out the things other people used to do for us,” says Lambert.
In one recent, unfamiliar week, I downloaded and used several new apps on my phone, in order to do things like pay college prep teachers, book lessons, and manage a vacation abroad. Then there was the uniquely American hell of working under health care. This included entering medical information for providers, filing insurance claims for multiple family members, and efforts to try to obtain compensation or correct frequent errors that appear in a highly fragmented and highly complex system in which various entities attempt to pay costs. for each other.
I lost 2 hours trying to solve an order problem (unsuccessfully) with a department store, going from multiple help emails to chatbots to outbound call center chats that promised to fix things but didn’t. I eventually handed it over to my credit card company, Visa, who in turn had me enter additional digital information.
The business trip required the use of an unfamiliar travel platform, which required time and effort to learn. I scanned my lunch items at a kiosk at the airport, which asked if I wanted to leave a tip (for myself?). When the flight was delayed, I sat in a cafe where orders had to be placed via an iPad. After 30 minutes of waiting for a latte, I looked around for help but could not find a human to complain to (the guy next to me claimed he had been waiting 40 minutes). In the end I got on the plane with no coffee or cash back.
One could argue that all this shadow work drives down consumer prices, by reducing human labour. Maybe. But is it a product of the economy as a whole? You have to wonder. Does it make sense for me, as a well-paid knowledge worker, to spend several hours a week agonizing over tasks that used to be done much better by entry-level workers who need work?
This is not an arrogant question, it is a reasonable question. Economists such as Joseph Stiglitz have cited shadow labor as a negative externality to the market system as firms are incentivized to offload labor costs. Lambert points to one of the negative consequences of shadow work as the loss of entry-level work in the service sector. A 2019 study by the Brookings Institution indicated that the lowest-paying jobs are most at risk from automation, which in turn means that young people and minorities in particular are at risk of the kind of labor market disruption that leads to shadow work. Unless countries improve education to keep up with technology, many of these workers will not be able to get new jobs, and productivity and growth will decline.
Meanwhile, in an increasingly automated economy, human contact in general is becoming a luxury. The really rich have other humans to do their shadow work for. And yes, technology may reduce “friction,” but that depends on what you consider friction. I remember an MIT professor Sherry Turkle He tells me about a sensor-based app developed by a colleague that allowed academics to move from one class to the next without encountering any other human beings who might distract them. Frictionless, yes. Also anonymous.
It is clear that automation and the application economy bring with it many benefits. The emotional costs of busyness and distraction that put us all in our individual information silos are hard to quantify. But tracking the full economic cost of a shadow business would be a worthwhile project.