The Winding Road: Discerning Vocation Late in Life

Photo by the author.

I’ve been thinking recently about how many different points there are at which one pauses to consider what comes next and what one is called to do. Vocational discernment isn’t just for the young! We tend to focus on the paths students take through their undergraduate years as they weigh possibilities, confirm values, assess habits, commitments and preferences, and make choices about majors, graduate school and career. We seek to foster our students’ meaningful journey through college to successful engagement with the next steps in their journeys.

But this is not the end of the story, and it is good for our students to hear our stories, so that they can see beyond the first set of choices, beyond the first turns in the road. This essay is about the costs of choosing paths, of selecting one option over another, and thus also about the fact that opting for one’s most meaningful calling may come best after the midpoint in one’s career or even upon retirement. 

Partly, this is simply to say that when one chooses one course of action, one path in life for a time, other courses of action are forfeit. And sometimes, young people immediately out of college make understandable choices that include putting family or spouse or the opening steps to professional advancement in front of what they sense to be their calling at that point in their lives. Sometimes, conversely, young people make choices that enable them to live out their sense of their values but that constrain their economic well being. [This relates to what Jeff Brown prescribed in “Make a Living, Not a Killing”]. So, there are opportunity costs to following one’s calling, depending of course what that calling is; and there are opportunity costs to setting aside a sense of calling for the practicalities of career, relationships and family. [See Jason Mahn’s “The Tragedy of the Road Not Taken” for more on this point].

LIfe’s winding path.

The amazing thing is that there are waxing and waning moments in careers and in life. Careers change; lives alter trajectories; new possibilities open.

Life’s positive and negative experiences may help us add value, ability and insight to endeavors at later points in life, may help us pinpoint our calling at quite late points in life — at mid-career, at the point of retirement, even deeply into retirement.  There are multiple times in life to reflect upon vocation, to make decisions that enact a sense of calling. [Shirley Showalter has explored some of these in “Transitions: A Powerful Time for Vocational Reflection”]. Younger people might best understand their own efforts to discern vocation in the context of situations in which the older adults around them are also doing very much the same.

Consider these examples: The median age of Peace Corps Volunteers rises regularly, as increasing numbers of retirees serve. Community agencies, charities, arts organizations and foundations rely increasingly upon the skills, knowledge and perspectives of older members of the community. Schools welcome retired professionals into classrooms as teachers and mentors. These forms of engagement open up new opportunities for the discernment and enactment of vocation late in life.

We are on this vocational journey together and it is a journey that for many of us is never entirely at an end. Younger people can help older people bridge the digital divide and navigate new technologies; older people can help younger people avoid reinventing the wheel or engaging in ambitious but unproductive endeavors. The rewards of cross-generational collaboration fill voids in our lives because not all of us have had the experience of grandparents living nearby, or of nieces and nephews whom we can get to know and help to mentor. Mentoring goes both ways, and the collaborative, relational aspects of vocation emerge in the vibrant context of varied, diverse, intergenerational community.

From “The Beauty of Intergenerational Friendships”

There can be synergies between older people who have organizational skills and experience and younger people who have energy and youthful idealism – so in fact one of the hopes of this essay is that we think deeply about the intergenerational collaboration that results when people at many different points in life come together, uniting in common causes. Vocation is not only for the young; it may not even be primarily for the young. It is not a thing that is ever finished, that one needs to set aside.

In sum, I’ve offered three key points: First, when college students witness our own efforts to discern vocation, to identify, reaffirm or realize our own sense of calling, they better understand the unfolding road they are on. Second, we identify our calling and develop our abilities to realize calling best in intergenerational community. And, third, sometimes putting off the pursuit of vocational calling for a time, for practical reasons, enables us to contribute more effectively to that calling at a later point in time.

Bren Tooley is the Director of the Stellyes Center for Global Studies and the Peace Corps Prep Program at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Bulgaria in 2010 and again in 2018, a faculty instructor in the Fulbright International Summer Institute in Bulgaria in 2012 and 2014, and a Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar participant in Brazil in 2001. She has been faculty member and academic administrator at Colorado College, Cornell College, and Monmouth College and has been deeply involved in international and interdisciplinary program development and administration, faculty development and mentoring, and international student outreach and support for many years.

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