In November 2020 Pope Francis convened “Economy of Francesco," a global online gathering of young people determined to make the economy fair, sustainable, and inclusive. Georgetown University asked participating students and alumni to reflect on their experiences in two essays: the first considers their pre-conference working groups and the second offers personal takeaways after the gathering.
What Do We Strive Toward?
In my participation in the Profit and Vocation village (the conference’s name for working groups), it has been striking that many speakers begin exploring work opportunities from the perspective of profit before considering vocation. Others, however, chose vocation as the starting point and then figured out the profit consideration. It reflects the global system and the global economic norm. The experts created for themselves working definitions of vocation: striving for goodness, beauty, and truthfulness; recognizing human dignity to delivering value by serving society; or the Japanese concept of ikigai. Their journeys often follow a similar narrative arc. Beginning with a motivation for comfort, they often started down lucrative paths which they ultimately found unfulfilling, or they experienced some form of inequity in the global system, which led them to subsequently dedicate their lives to changing the way that business is conducted and/or the way people think about vocation.
Many of the solutions or efforts mentioned by the speakers look at harnessing or adapting business to address or include vocation. One speaker discussed the concept of a B Corp (benefit corporation) and the Blueprint for Better Business initiative as examples that encourage corporations and for-profit entities to recognize that they are human systems and to create regenerative—rather than extractive—value.
The stories of the speakers’ lives foreshadow what could be a growing shift in the way that we view work. Speaking from an American perspective, our grandparents’ generation was focused on making enough money to live comfortable lives, which was much more difficult for them. Our parents (and many of the speakers) were raised in that environment but, as many of the speakers indicated, some reached a turning point in their lives or a moment when they realized they didn’t really feel that all-encompassing concept of vocation. Some retired early but some began to climb “the second mountain”—a concept that David Brooks first wrote about in a book that was referenced by one speaker. The second mountain is a new way of living that people might discover later in life, which is oriented by the things that are truly important to you. My generation is often described as idealistic as a result of having been raised in homes and schools that, at least more so than previous generations, emphasize vocation in addition to—or sometimes more than—profit.
As we draw close to the “Economy of Francesco” event, I reflected on how we can continue to encourage young people to think about vocation early in life. Does it take a country to reach a certain level of national growth and economic well-being for its citizens to begin to consider ideas of vocation? Or can we teach the young and widely promote the concept of a meaningful career a part of the global economy from the outset? Will there always be inherent trade-off between economic well-being (profit) and vocation? One example might be a Discernment Seminar like the one I participated in during my undergraduate education as part of the American Catholic studies honors concentration. Perhaps then we can consider a method of re-orienting our entire economy so that there does not have to be such a trade-off between vocation and comfort. In my graduate studies at Georgetown, I have focused on how to generate post-education outcomes (often employment) for young people all over the world. In doing so, I have been motivated by the desire to ensure that young people have the ability to do precisely the work that they find meaningful (rather than limited to choose between opportunities that their local economy provides or those that their parents hope might generate the most income for them).
The multimedia nature of the conference emphasized the fact that developing the framework for a fraternal, caring, and generative economy requires more than economists. We need artists and activists to inspire us to do more than listen and think—to act. Occurring under the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was well into a second wave in Italy, the conference offered an opportunity to reflect on the power of unity and solidarity.
On the second day of the conference Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, emphasized the profit-maximizing nature of our global economic system, which creates enormous inequality. Inclusivity must be at the core of a just economy. Dr. Yunus also asserted that humans are an endangered species, that we are quickly contributing to our own demise through a lack of concern for the environment and for those marginalized by our systems of power. One of the most powerful outcomes of those few days, and everything that led up to it, was the final statement and commitment that was released on the final day. The conference created 12 concrete, actionable appeals—from a call to “let the Earth breathe” to financial and institutional reform—which laid the groundwork for the important work ahead.
The message throughout the weekend highlighted the urgency of our global situation. Inequality continues to grow, the environment deteriorates, and our communities continue to fray due to the profit maximization principles at the heart of this global system. These incentives work to muddle and obscure divinely-inspired notions of vocation, creating competition between the desire for comfort and our responsibility to one another. The Profit and Vocation working sessions examined ways of harmonizing those two inspirations. I am inspired to continue to examine the question of whether adapting or modifying business will allow us to create such harmonization, or if we must take a more radical approach in pursuing a just society.
With 58 percent of participants citing education as the future of economic change, schools must become hubs of creative activity. Current and future generations must be encouraged to think innovatively and recognize that they can be change-makers. Inclusivity in education requires ensuring that every single child is given the attention and value they deserve.
In a letter to conference participants, Pope Francis cited the words of St. Paul VI, exhorting us all to remember that development is about more than economics. As I graduate and enter the international development field, I will carry with me that concept of integral human development and Pope Francis’ message that we need “a conversion and transformation of our priorities and of the place of others in our policies and in the social order.” We can all take inspiration from St. Francis Assisi, who shed himself of the trappings of profit and chose to live alongside the poor and marginalized—not out of pity, but in order to honor the human rights and dignity that we all possess. As María Elena González (CEO of Todo Brillo) described, “Todos somos familia—caminamos juntos en paz” (We are all family—we walk together in peace).
Tessa Bloechl (G '21) has spent the last year and a half in Georgetown University’s Master of Global Human Development program (GHD) focused on pursuing questions around youth employment and vocation. Prior to GHD, she spent two years as an international volunteer with Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Her interests and work have also included social inclusion and innovation. Following graduation in May, she intends to continue to focus her efforts on creating opportunities for young people to pursue their passions.