Today is Labor Day in the United States, a day dedicated to celebrating the American worker.
On this day, it’s worth asking: what is work? Are we measuring the right thing? Is the nature of work even something we can measure?
In Western culture the dominant conversation about work centers around productivity.
What are you producing? What are you shipping? How much? How quickly?
GDP: The Myopic Measurement of Productivity
GDP — Gross Domestic Product — has been the standard measure of wealth for countries since World War II.
GDP measures the value of all goods and services bought and sold.
In his book Sabbath, Wayne Muller offers that this measurement is mypoic and destructive:
when wealth is measured only in terms of goods and services bought and sold, only those actions involving money are seen as good and useful. Anything done in time is seen as useless.
The consequence of this way of measuring is that it places value on anything that requires goods and services while devaluing what is most essential for our true wealth, including acts of kindness and compassion, nurturing, caretaking, and the deeper healing that cannot be attained through surgery or pharmaceuticals.
As Muller explains:
when we measure only the manufacture and sale of goods and services — regardless of the uses to which those goods are put, and regardless of the quality of the days and lives of the people using them — we create an economy unintentionally skewed toward military expansion, war, destruction, and other profitable and expensive endeavor. Waste, stupidity, and evil all cost money, and are, by extension, economic goods; each feeds the machine of growth.
A New Perspective on Work
The Hebrew word for work, Avodah, also means worship, and service. The original meaning of the word referred to sacrifices offered in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the word was also used to describe the sacrificial rite, the complex and fraught main service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur.
This is work.
Work is not just what you know, produce, or ship. Work is service to the world, service to a higher purpose, service beyond yourself.
The work of service is the work of showing up. It is the work of being present.
A New Paradigm of Productivity
Over the past few decades the nature of work has shifted from one based primarily on producing goods to one driven by “knowledge work.” We’ve seen the shift from a production economy to the information economy to the app economy to the “gig economy.”
Each “progression” has created more unhappiness and dissatisfaction, as we’ve moved from working to make a living to working as a way of living.
Our stuff fills storage units and landfills. We are drowning in information and the apps and systems to organize it all.
Meanwhile, we are thirsty for the undivided attention of a spouse, a parent, or a friend. We yearn for a conversation uninterrupted by the ping of a new text message or a social media alert. We are starving for silence and serenity, both externally and within.
What we need, desperately — what we are thirsty for — is presence.
The Future of Work is Presence
Presence is a healing balm for the fears, disconnection and loneliness that ails us.
Presence is about how you show up, not what you ship.
We can’t measure it by traditional GDP.
Without the foundation of presence, nothing else is possible, or sustainable.
Presence powers physical production and “productivity.” Presence empowers knowledge and creativity.
The best app for remembering what you need to know is not an app at all, but the skill of paying attention in the first place.
And for what matters most — raising future leaders, healing illness, dis-ease, and division, comforting people in their time of grief, and creating meaningful impact in the world, presence is the work.
The future of work is presence.
It is time for The Presence Economy.
And with this economy, it’s time for a new measure of GDP: Growing Deeper Presence.