The flight attendant handed out the snacks. I made eye contact with the young man beside me as he reached for his Coke and pretzels. After some small talk about the flight, he turned to me and asked, “What do you do for a living?”
I decided to try out my new status.
Noticing his eyes starting to glaze over, I immediately turned the tables to ask, “What do you do?”
Jubilee is an assignment I have accepted. It means I have named my purpose in life and am free to practice it.
We started to chat about what life was like for a senior in college to be making the transition into the work world. I peppered him with questions, taking satisfaction in helping him describe his interests and skills and assuring him that he would do great in his job interview.
He never asked what I was retired from, nor did he ask what it was like to be retired. That was just fine with me. Both of us got off the plane with more energy. Why?
Asking the young man questions, searching his face for signs of his thinking and feeling processes, imagining his excitements and fears and really listening to his answers gave me a chance to practice my vocation, my calling, of teaching and learning.
The coolest thing about a vocation is that it can be practiced anywhere. You don’t need a job. It helps if you have had a career related to your vocation, but only because a career gives you lots of opportunity to practice.
That encounter on the plane took place five years ago. Since then, I have published a book (Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World), plunged into an extensive book tour and contributed to another book on vocation in higher education (I was the president of, and a professor at, Goshen College). Now I am finishing a semester-long residency at the Collegeville Institute, where I’ve been thinking about the connection between vocation and aging.
The next time a stranger asks, “What do you do?” I plan to answer, “My job is jubilee.”
Discovering ‘Jubilee’ Instead of Calling Herself Retired
Since this term is new, an “elevator speech” might be necessary. Here’s my first draft: “Jubilee is an assignment I have accepted. It means I have named my purpose in life, and now I am free to practice it.”
A little testimonial might help tell the story.
The Jubilee Backstory
I found this word jubilee when I watched novelist Isabel Allende’s TED Talk on living passionately at any age.
Allende’s zest for living at age 71, in the video, is contagious. Her crush on movie star Antonio Banderas, and her passionate defense of passion, will make you want to go take tango lessons.
But the biggest jolt to me as I watched her talk was her assertion that Latin Americans have no such word for the concept of “retirement.” I didn’t know this. Instead, they use the word jubilación for the post-career stage of life.
Jubilación means jubilation in English. The root word is jubilee. If you substitute jubilation for retirement, you can call your work in the elder stages “jubilee.” From there, it is easy to get to the alliterative phrase “my job is jubilee.”
The Origin of Jubilee?
To my knowledge, the first published book to connect jubilee and aging was Maria Harris’ Jubilee Time: Celebrating Women, Spirit, and the Advent of Age. I highly recommend it, both as an introduction to the subject and as a series of exercises. Though the book’s focus is on women, men could easily adapt the practices described.
Jubilee has Judeo-Christian roots, which you can find in the Bible’s Book of Leviticus. It is linked to the number seven and tied to the ideas of a weekly Sabbath and a Sabbatical after seven years of labor. After seven sabbaticals, or 49 years, a person reaches the big one — Jubilee. In this year, the Bible says that God commands his people to let the land lie fallow, forgive debts, liberate slaves and return family property that was sold since the last Jubilee.
Often, the word jubilee carries the meaning of liberation. African-American spirituals claim the biblical promise of freedom. The famous Fisk University choir is called the Jubilee Singers. Margaret Walker’s 1966 novel about the Civil War is titled Jubilee.
Jubilee also sometimes focuses on the number 50. The Queen of England celebrated her Golden Jubilee during the 50th year of her reign, in 2002.
The word jubilee connects the number 50 to the deeper opportunities that go beyond job and career. Life changes after the age of 50. At this point in our journey, we are moving beyond literal “middle age” because most of us won’t live more than 100 years. Once the road ahead gets shorter than the road behind, subtle shifts occur in our values, dreams and priorities.
When we accept the idea of jubilee as a vocation, we are untethered from total reliance on a particular job or career for identity. We may or may not continue paid employment, but we are free to select a “larger tent” identity based on what brings us joy, uses our gifts and serves needs in the world.
The R-Word Versus the J-Word
The word “retirement” has one big advantage over the word “jubilee:” Everyone knows what it means.
But almost every “retiree” I know chafes under the word “retirement.” Sometimes they say, “I’m Re-fired!” (Or Retooling. Rebooting. Reimagining. Reinventing.)
However, a word beginning with “re” faces backward. The connotations associated with “re” — that “real” life was in the past — are hard to shake, no matter how powerful the substitute for “tire.”
Jubilee may need a longer explanation, but at least it sounds like a party and not like an army in retreat… or somebody about to go to bed… or a hermit who is closing the door to society. Furthermore, you can start using it after you turn 50 and keep using it the rest of your life! Your employment status is secondary to your “job” of being jubilant through claiming your purpose.
So, the next time a stranger asks you “what do you do?” what will you say?
Shirley Hershey Showalter is author of the memoir about growing up Mennonite, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. She was also president of Goshen College, where she was a professor, and a foundation executive at the Fetzer Institute. She is currently the Kilian McDonnell Fellow at the Collegeville Institute and writes the blog Magical Memoir Moments.