Vocational Wellness in Older Adulthood: Research and Practice
By Nick Gowen
As the field of career counseling has evolved, theorists and practitioners have grown to consider not only a person’s fit with a career but also the degree to which the career contributes to a meaningful life. Developmental career theorists such as Super and Gottfredson emphasized that career is a vital component of a person’s “self-concept,” or the internal understanding of oneself and one’s place in the world (Zunker, 2016). Similarly, career counselors with a foundation in narrative therapy may ask clients to reflect on how their careers contribute to a meaningful life story (Zunker, 2016). In the past three years alone, the connection between work and meaning in life has been the focal topic of scholarly articles published in the Journal of Career Development, the Journal of Vocational Behavior, and the Journal of Career Assessment. Because of our profession’s focus on wellness, defined by Myers, Sweeney, and Witmer (2000, p. 200) as “a way of life oriented toward optimal health and wellbeing,” counselors can play an important role in this process of finding meaning.
However, the quest for a meaningful life does not end when a person leaves their primary career or formal work role. Finding meaning in life can often hinge in part on the benefits that work provides, such as feeling useful and exercising one’s skills and talents. Retired older adults, then, must find new ways to conceptualize and achieve these benefits of work in retirement. Counselors who work with aging clients are charged with the responsibility to promote the development of this often-neglected aspect of older adult wellness. For counselors, then, the specific questions are: How do retired older adults conceptualize this often-neglected aspect of wellness, and how can we as counselors promote its development?
“Vocation” in Older Adulthood
In his research on holistic wellness in older adults, Fullen (in press) proposed the term “vocational wellness” to capture wellness components typically associated with the working world but are no less important in retirement. Fullen chose the word “vocation” because it derives from the Latin word vocare, which means to call, and fulfilling life’s calling can continue well past the time when a person leaves his or her career. For some older adults, vocation may come in the form of volunteering or taking on a new role in the family. Dik, Duffy, and Eldridge (2009) agreed that vocation is a concept applicable beyond retirement.
In essence, a vocation is a life role in which a person finds purpose or meaning outside of oneself. This definition could be applicable to many older adult clients, who continue to find meaning in activities such as volunteering, political activism, artisanship, and family caretaking. It also equips counselors with a word to capture what is missing in some older adults’ lives: the feeling of being useful, skilled, competent, or purposeful.
Opportunities in Practice and Research
There are immediate ways counselors can use the concept of vocational wellness with older adult clients. Counselors can introduce the term vocation as a way to help older adults think about life roles and their relationship to meaning making. Counselors can also help older clients consider ways to feel more purposeful in everyday activities and encourage them to seek out roles that specifically foster meaning making.
However, before counselors can fully understand the relevance of vocational wellness in the lives of older adults, the field needs to build a base of research. Counselors and counselor educators can begin by extending the pre-existing research on vocation’s role in meaningfulness. Although work’s connection to meaning in life is steadily developing in the counseling literature, there is little research on this concept in retired older adults. Our profession needs qualitative research on older adults’ vocational activities and their impact on overall wellness. Through interviews, researchers can learn exactly what fuels older adults’ sense of meaning and how their vocations contribute to their sense of wellness.
What’s more, the existing psychometric instruments used to measure work-related meaning making — such as Crumbaugh and Maholick’s (1964) Purpose in Life Test; Steger, Frazier, Oishi, and Kaler’s (2006) Meaning in Life Questionnaire; and Dik, Eldridge, Steger, and Duffy’s (2012) Calling and Vocation Questionnaire (CVQ) — use language that limits some older adults’ full participation. For example, the CVQ includes prompts such as “I intend to construct a career that will give my life meaning,” “I see my career as a path to purpose in life,” and “My career is an important part of my life’s meaning” (p. 260). For older adults who have retired from their careers, these questions may not apply. However, a CVQ prompt such as “My career is an important part of my life’s meaning” could become relevant to older adults by substituting the word “vocation” in place of “career.” Researchers can modify these instruments (or create new ones) that help us measure the degree to which vocation impacts an older adult’s sense of meaning.
For many older adults, retirement signals an end, but certainly not to one’s search for meaning in life. A body of research on vocational wellness in older adulthood will give us new ways to promote holistic growth during a period of life that is too often seen as one of decline in ability, relevance, and purpose. As counselors, we can use the concept of vocational wellness to show our older adult clients that retirement provides continued opportunities to feel useful, competent, skilled, meaningful, and ultimately well.
Crumbaugh, J., & Maholick, L. (1964). An experimental study of existentialism: The psychometric approach to Frankl’s concept of noogenic neurosis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 20, 200-207.
Dik, B. J., Duffy, R. D., & Eldridge, B. M. (2009). Calling and vocation in career counseling: Recommendations for promoting meaningful work. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 40(6), 625-632. doi:10.1037/a0015547
Dik, B. J., Eldridge, B. M., Steger, M. F., & Duffy, R. D. (2012). Development and validation of the Calling and Vocation Questionnaire (CVQ) and Brief Calling Scale (BCS). Journal of Career Assessment, 20, 242-263. doi:10.1177/1069072711434410
Fullen, M. C. (in press). Defining wellness in older adulthood: Toward a comprehensive framework. Journal of Counseling and Development.
Myers, J. E., Sweeney, T. J., & Witmer, J. M. (2000). The Wheel of Wellness counseling for wellness: A holistic model for treatment planning. Journal of Counseling and Development, 78(3), 251-266.
Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53(1), 80. doi:10.1037/0022-0184.108.40.206
Zunker, V. G. (2016). Career counseling: A holistic approach. Boston: Cengage Learning.
Nick Gowen is a master’s student in Counselor Education at Virginia Tech. Before pursuing his master’s, Nick worked as a writing consultant and helped individuals and businesses tell their stories through writing. His interest in working with older adults stems largely from his close and continued friendships with older adults throughout his lifetime. After completing his degree, Nick hopes to work exclusively with older adults in his counseling practice. He can be reached at email@example.com.