The term “vocation” is used ambiguously both for “call,” in religious contexts, and for work, in the sense of employment or career. Since I have been focusing for several years on the issue of “work in retirement,” I have had to think about the assumption, common in our culture, that work is something onerous and burdensome, from which one should be happy to be released in old age. For it is clear that while this is true for some, for many people work is an essential part of what makes life worth living, and central to their identity. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, the notion of work carries a negative connotation, going back to the story of the Fall, when Adam is cursed with the need to make a living from the earth by the sweat of his brow and Eve is cursed with the pains of childbirth (which have come to be called labor, thus tightening the association).
By way of contrast, it is interesting to notice that when Sigmund Freud was asked what constituted a good life, he is said to have answered, lieben und arbeiten, love and work, and I believe that both love and work remain essential well into old age, although they may be disconnected from the biology of conception or the economics of production and distribution. What seems to be critical is the distinction between “meaningful work” and alienated labor. Christians have varied in their attitudes toward conditions of work, but although they have on the whole argued that the conditions of work should be just, a great deal remains to be done to make work “meaningful.” Beginning in the 19th century, for example, there has been an emphasis on the importance of justice in dealing with labor in Catholic encyclicals, but “meaningfulness” is not seen as an aspect of justice. Probably the most useful thinking in this area has been done by employers faced by the need to retain workers with particular skills or to evoke creative thinking. Interviews with people approaching retirement suggest that most intend to continue work of some kind and often express the necessity to continue earning to support themselves or their families, which is one dimension of meaningfulness, but want increased flexibility and autonomy. Many who anticipate working as volunteers, however, emphasize that they will do so only if their tasks are intrinsically meaningful.
We now face a situation in our society where there is a shortage of jobs, in spite of the fact that virtually all needs are now addressed with money paid for work, and indeed work is routinely translated into everything from food to shelter to education to the expression of love. A famous poem by Robert Frost (“Two Tramps in Mud Time”) ends with the desire to abolish the gap between work done for love of the work and work done for pay, as Frost wishes he could “make my vocation my avocation,” something done “for heaven and the future’s sake.”
When most people have no choice of whether to work or not, and must often settle for what they can find, where does call come in? In several ways. Many people make a distinction between the work they feel called to do and the job that earns their living – often described as their “day job.” Others notice that having followed a vocation as, for instance, healers or teachers or clergy, it is often the case that “their job doesn’t let them do their work,” for instance by requiring them to spend time in committee meetings or filling out insurance forms or raising funds for a new roof. But a deeper examination of the meaning of work might reveal two issues that are rarely included in discussion. First, we need to study what people have in mind when they speak of “meaningfulness” – for instance the difference between standing in a production line repeating the same motion again and again and having some greater sense of share in the completed product and how it fits into lives. We might hope that over time such factors would be included among the goals of the labor movement. But second, we need to study the ways in which someone who has taken a job for the wage it offers can discover a calling in that job, like the nurse’s aide who starts out seeing herself in a menial role in the hospital and becomes increasingly identified with the care she is giving to individual patients, the elevator operator for whom recognition and greetings give meaning to the day and to his passengers, or the barber or barista who becomes a coach and counselor.
"Two Tramps in Mud Time" by Robert Frost
But yield who will to their separation,My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.