In Part One of this interview, Jack Fortin spoke with Janel Kragt Bakker about the role of community in discerning calling. In Part Two, Janel asks Jack about the vocation challenges and opportunities for those of retirement age.
Tell us about your interest in the relationship between vocation and retirement.
I am retirement-age myself, so I’m looking at my life differently than I have in the past, making different choices about how I spend my time and what I prioritize. My interest in the elder years developed through my friendship with author and executive coach Richard Leider, who talks about the “new elder.” Since many people are living longer, they now experience a whole new stage of life, sometimes referred to as the “third age” or “third chapter” (eg. The Third Chapter, Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot)
This age includes breaking away from middle age and preparing for later age, but also contributing to the world in new ways. The new elders between the ages of 55 and 75 roughly correspond with the Baby Boom generation. There are 72 million of us, and we are going to have a huge impact on society—we want to make a difference.
With expanded lifespans, how is retirement changing?
As Chris Farrell from NPR’s Marketplace has argued, Baby Boomers are reshaping how we view work and how we view retirement. For instance, 25% of successful new entrepreneurial businesses are started by 55- to 65-year-olds. A generation ago, people were winding down at that point, not starting new businesses.
Among the “new elders,” many of us are not ready to hang up the hat yet. Some of us may have physical limitations, and some of us are caregivers—and these factors play into our callings. In this third age of life, we are defined not so much by our age but our circumstances and conditions. If my spouse and I are healthy, we may be thinking not so much about the end of life as we are thinking about having an encore in our careers or community involvement. To do that, we have to know who we are and what is important to us.
Because we’re living longer and because we have choices that previous generations have not had in their elder years, many of us are going through an identity crisis similar to that of adolescence, but with the added baggage of already having an image of ourselves that either has to be unpacked and changed or reconstituted.
I know where I’ve been, and I have some regrets that I want to leave behind. But I also want to do something meaningful. I may not want the stress and responsibility of leading a major company, but I may want to mentor younger professionals, experiment with a new model of business, or explore a buried passion.
How do you look at retirement as a theologian?
As a theologian, I’m interested in understanding how people in various circumstances can explore their callings. There isn’t one kind of calling, and there isn’t one kind of stage. People have different situations financially, relationally, and physically. Calling looks different depending on circumstance and situation, but also on personality and passions. No matter where you are, you are still uniquely and wonderfully made. You still have a call.
What are some particular challenges and opportunities regarding calling that people face later in life?
As people move out of traditional positions and construct their own ways of making a contribution in later years, it can be disconcerting. Often there is less structure and accountability. It can feel less secure. Someone who is used to getting up early for work and getting home late may find it difficult to develop new habits and patterns.
For those of us who have been married for a long time, the person we are married to now is in many ways a different person. We have to fall in love again if we want the marriage to be strong. Similarly, in times of transition vocationally, it’s a matter of transforming. The transitions of the elder years are particularly transformational because the end is in sight. The big questions about life and death are looming close. At the same time, I’ve got energy and I want to “pay it forward.”
Many people fear irrelevance in their retirement. How do you respond to this fear?
I think you have to step out and say, “Who do I want to be at this point in my life? What do I want to become? Where is my sphere of influence?” But we need help with these questions. We have to ask them in the context of community. We need to know that we are not alone, that we have choices and opportunities no matter our circumstance.
What is the role of congregations as people transition in older adulthood?
I think the congregation should be the place where it’s safe enough to sort out these great questions. Many people say that the key to healthy congregations is young people. I think we’ve got to focus on the young people and on the elders, and that will serve the middle-aged people who are in the squeeze, trying to raise their kids and worrying about their own parents.
Ministry to older people in the congregation should provide opportunities for community and conversations that re-explore calling and vocation. I think the church has to find ways to equip and commission this generation. That is what sacraments do. We show up and receive them, and they help us live out who we are in the world.