Since work is a partnership with God, it isn’t limited to our careers or our jobs. Our life’s work is greater and more enduring than the positions we hold and the titles we have. It includes all the ways we express our partnership with God—all the ways we make a positive difference in the world. Our life’s work is the impact we make—however we make it—for good and for God. It’s the influence we have for justice and for love.

Because our life’s work is greater than our jobs and lasts longer than our careers, we need a bigger word for it, and the word we most often use is vocation or calling. Vocation is our answer to God for the gift of our lives. Calling is our response to God’s invitation to partnership. The answer is broader than a job; the response is more encompassing than a career.

Maybe you know Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”; its second stanza says:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Our answer to that question—“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?—is our vocation, our calling. We don’t stop answering it when our careers come to an end, or when they shift into a lower and slower gear, or when we retire from whatever job it is we’re being paid to do. Careers and jobs are temporary. Vocation and calling last as long as life does.

The ways we respond and answer—the shape and tone of our vocations and callings—change over time; and, they begin to change more decisively and crucially at midlife. Once we’re at midlife—however you define it—things begin to shift in us. Remember these well-known words from Carl Jung:

Are there perhaps colleges for forty year olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world?. . . But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening.

What was great in the morning, will be little at evening: Sometime in midlife, we begin to turn our attention to whatever we feel we’ve missed or ignored in life’s first half.  

If we have lived mostly in our heads, we will turn to our hearts.
If we’ve been oriented to the external world, we will turn inward to our own spirits.
If we’ve been concerned with what we can count, with quantity and quantifiable results, we will turn toward what counts beyond what can be counted—the quality of our lives, of our relationships, of our communities.

And, many of us will turn from success to significance, from doing to being, and from achievement for ourselves to investment in others, especially in the generations coming behind us. A focus on productivity will begin to yield to a focus on generativity.