by Brandon Due
I wish that I could say I planned for a career in older adult ministry because it would have been a good plan. The reality is that vocation isn’t so tidy. Because I grew up in the church and attended a Christian college, the concept of vocation and “being called” shaped my experiences as well as my expectations. Among the quotes that left an imprint on me is that of Frederick Buechner: “The place you are called is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” There is something both idealistic and pragmatic about the notion of vocation, and it stuck with me.
Equipped with undergraduate degrees in philosophy and religion and a graduate degree from Harvard in theological studies, I entered a recession job market in 2008 eager to make an impact but profoundly underwhelmed by my vocational experience. One particularly memorable interview (there weren’t many to remember) was with a small Boston non-profit providing low-income housing. The hiring manager asked, as he skimmed my resume, “So, you recently graduated from Harvard?” After a short pause, he looked up incredulously, “Well, what are you doing here?” Sure, that office assistant job didn’t require 19 years of formal education, but to someone eager to get out of the library and into the world, there were far worse prospects — like no job, or perhaps even worse, a meaningless job.
According to the Pew Research Center, 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds was unemployed or out of the workforce in 2010, the highest rate in more than three decades. Today’s graduates face a similar workforce picture. According to research from the Economic Policy Institute, and reported by Slate, a quarter of today’s graduates are unemployed or underemployed (8.5 percent and 16.8 percent respectively), and about half of those who do find work won’t find a job requiring their degree. Nonetheless, in that same study, researchers found optimism among millennials like me (born 1981-1996). Despite struggling — and often failing — to find jobs, about 9 in 10 millennials either said that they had enough money already or that they have confidence that they will eventually meet their long-term financial goals. So with spiritual fortitude despite bleak job prospects, I repeated the Buechner quote, read Jeremiah “For I know the plans I have for you,” and kept searching.
Older adult ministry
There are times in life when the call grabs you by the ear — and my call to serve older adults was one of them. At first, it was personal. My wife and I found ourselves 1,400 miles from family as we were told about a terminal diagnosis for my mother. Moving home to be with her for her last six months was one of the easiest decisions I have ever made because the world’s greatest need was family.
I didn’t know it, but a new door opened. I met a hospice nurse who inspired me to think about direct caregiving. I found an adjunct job teaching ethics and philosophy, but also started taking courses to become a nurse. The next step was truly odd. I went through a two-week course to become a certified nursing assistant so that I could gain experience and supplement my income as an adjunct college instructor. It seems paradoxical that a job requiring a master’s degree would be supplemented by a job requiring a two-week program, but there it is.
It was my first job working for Presbyterian Homes and I was hooked. The older adults I cared for became like family, and there was something profoundly rewarding and humbling about the work. In the midst of my ongoing job search, I had stumbled into an organization that averages over 200 unfilled full-time positions each month (5-6 percent of all positions) and that fiercely promotes from within for leadership positions. I found an organization that described itself as a ministry with the mission “to honor God by enriching the lives and touching the hearts of older adults.” It was difficult to describe to my achiever father why I took the jobs I did; I think he was more frustrated by my job search than I was. I told him that I wanted to find a job where even the hard days were rewarding and that this felt like the right place.
I applied to several positions internally and was selected for a communications position. My responsibility was to write inspirational and educational scripts for a daily huddle among all 5,800 employees. “StandUP” draws teams together at the beginning of the workday to focus on purpose and operational excellence. The practice provides employees with an opportunity to meet face-to-face every day and to center one another in community and prayer. It actually seemed as though my education, experiences and vocation were finally matching up.
Open to calling
Six years after beginning my job search with no small measure of irony and a healthy dose of humility, I now find myself engaged in workforce strategy for the older adult housing and services ministry. According to the Bureau of Labor, the reality is that 5 of the top 6 occupations with the greatest number of projected job openings in the next decade are in healthcare. In the next decade, they project a 20 percent increase in openings for RNs and nursing assistants, a 25 percent increase for LPNs and a nearly 50 percent increase in openings for home health aides and personal care aides. At the same time, growth in the labor force will slow with a modest 5 percent increase projected over the next 10 years. Behind these numbers is the fact that baby boomers, who make up the largest generation of Americans in history, are leaving the workforce at the same time that their need for healthcare services increases.
The workforce shortage will not be limited to healthcare. For the first time, the world’s mature economies are coping with a decline in the working-age population. While there are still segments of the population unable to find work (or meaningful work), it is estimated that the United States will reach its “natural” unemployment rate within the next year (as of September 2014, at 5.9 percent, the United States is 0.4 percentage points above its estimated natural rate). The fact that there are businesses, organizations, and ministries with such a shortfall of employees while so many employees can’t see a pathway in front of them seems like a solvable problem. Employers can work together with educational institutions to identify and prioritize new and expanding career pathways. Churches can guide vocational discernment by forming relationships with faith-based employers and arranging volunteer experiences, internships and simple workplace visits — now we are talking youth ministry!
While the churchlessness of the millennial generation receives much attention, I have renewed confidence that faith-based organizations have a notable advantage in the marketplace: to provide work that holds meaning. The research does show lower rates of religious affiliation among millennials, but millennials pray about as often as their elders did in their own youth, according to Pew general social surveys going back to 1972. In addition, millennials report higher volunteer rates than the previous three generations. I don’t think I am the only one thinking about the world’s greatest needs. Of course, meaning can be leveraged across all generations. For example, boomers have a very different notion of retirement as they enter their “encore years” and seek out that “third act.”
When I look to the young people (yes, even younger than I) coming into senior housing and services with education and experience in healthcare administration, I can’t help but glance heavenward concerning the circuitous path set out before me. I guess vocation requires a longer view. Vocation asks us to be more like Mary than Moses. At the beginning of his career, Moses responded to God’s calling by saying “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” Mary, on the other hand said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”
BRANDON DUE is communications manger and project administrator for Presbyterian Homes & Services serving Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin.