Career Definition

Career Derived from Latin and French, the term career originally denoted a pathway or racecourse; the course or rapid motion of people, horses, hawks, heavenly bodies; or a course of action. By the early nineteenth century, it had taken on some of today’s meanings and since then has come to refer to some key features of Western society. It is now called into use in a variety of ways in several domains, for different purposes, from different perspectives, and with different underlying assumptions. These diverse uses create many contextualized meanings so that career is not a uni­versally definable concept, but a range of constructs, often with some elements in common. These many meanings endow career with a multilayered richness, although this can make the term ambiguous and even ambivalent and necessitates care in interpreting any specific use of the word. Today’s greater international interchange on career matters also hinders translation of the term into other languages.

Constructs of Career

A few examples can be used to show how meanings of career vary both between and within different domains. However, the word career is often not clearly defined, even in academic usage, and is frequently interchanged with the term vocational; and when it is used to modify other terms, such as development or guidance, the meaning of the term is generally taken for granted.

Career is a familiar term in lay language, in which it is used to denote, among other things, individual work histories, sequences of and patterns in occupations and work positions, and upward progress in an occupation or in life generally. Characteristically, it is differentiated from “just a job” and applied particularly to the work history and progress of professionals, managers, and other elites. However, it may also be used more generally to refer to a biography or life history or as an overarching construct to make sense of life.

Constructs of career are used in several academic disciplines, such as sociology, labor economics, vocational and career psychology, and work psychology. For example, career is used in a range of sociological explanations. From the perspective of those interested in the role of occupations in social stratification and mobility, career choice is construed in terms of influences and constraints on the individual, such as family of origin, education, race, ethnicity, and gender. Other sociologists who use the construct of career in studying organizations see it in terms of, for example, career patterns, trajectories, contingencies, turning points, the accumulation of cultural capital, and issues of power and control in and over employees. A different perspective on career was taken by the early-twentieth-century Chicago sociologists, whose work has become classic in career literature. They saw it as the transitions made by individuals in a wide range of contexts, not just in occupations or organizations, and their ethnographic research suggested that individuals develop both their identities and their roles as they move through a series of status passages. Hence, their construct of career fuses objective and subjective and plays a recursive role in linking individuals to institutions and structure.

Very different constructs are to be found in vocational and career psychology. Here, the emphasis is on the individual, and there is limited concern for wider contextual factors and their constraints and opportunities for the individual. However, the effects of race, ethnicity, class, and gender are now receiving greater acknowledgment. Career has particular significance in this domain, and only a few of the most commonly found constructs can be noted here. One focuses on the congruence of person and occupation, using the differentialist, trait-and-factor approach that matches individual traits, abilities, and dispositions to the demands of occupations. Another frames career in terms of the implementation of the individual’s self-concept and development through life, recognizing the stages, tasks, context of development, and career maturity. Other constructs view career in terms of individual agency, social learning, information processing, planning, and decision making. Others focus on how people make sense of their experiences and construct meaning through actions, narrative, and metaphor. Further constructs of career are used in work (industrial, occupational, organizational) psychology, where career is construed in terms of the relationship between (a) the individual and the organization and (b) the influence of the structure and dynamics of the organization, the design of jobs, the reward system, performance management, managerial style, and control.

Career is also a key construct in several areas of practice. In career guidance and counseling, career choice and development are construed in terms of how people can both fit into society and fulfill themselves by entering appropriate jobs and developing themselves further through their work. Constructs focus on the need, formerly of young people and now increasingly of adults as well, to gain appropriate information about occupational opportunities and constraints, be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, make realistic decisions in the light of these, and become empowered in their work lives. More recent national priorities have introduced another construct of career that is concerned less with clients’ fulfillment than with their employability, achieved by developing themselves and managing their careers.

In education, constructs of career have traditionally been used in addressing the transition from school to work, but now increasing concern about the relevance of all levels of education for the world of work highlights the significance of educational and career choices. Constructs focusing on informed, realistic decision making are used directly by career guidance specialists and indirectly in the school and higher-education curriculum material designed to increase awareness of work-life issues.

In human resource management, which aims to achieve the effective performance of an organization through its employees, the construct of career represents the engagement of the individual with the organization. From this perspective, career plays a part in organizational reward and control systems, and career management is more than people managing their own careers. It refers to how managers attempt to influence their employees’ careers in the interest of both individuals and organizations by planning, facilitating, and monitoring employees’ progress through the organization and by specific interventions. Here, constructs of career development concern what organizational experiences and sequence of jobs will best develop, motivate, and retain employees and what personal investment in skills they will need to make.

In the domain of public policy, career is used primarily to modify terms such as education and guidance. Faced with the need for new skills, adaptability, and redeployment in their workforces and with the problems caused by unemployment and social exclusion, governments in the industrialized world today are concerned with developing human capital. Government perspective on career guidance is that it has a key role in helping labor markets work effectively in the interests of national competitiveness and in helping education systems meet their goals, promoting equity, combating the negative effects of social exclusion, and supporting lifelong learning. It is needed not only by young people entering the labor market but also by adults throughout their working lives, so that people need to develop the skills not just of initial decision making but also of managing their careers.

The many meanings of career are evident in the different ways in which the same terminology, such as career development and management, is used in various domains. Nevertheless, there have been some attempts to develop a more comprehensive understanding of career by, for example, integrating sociological and psychological interpretations.

Influences Shaping the Constructs of Career

Career has taken on new significance and meanings as its social and economic context has changed over time. In the mid-twentieth century, as large-scale bureaucracies were burgeoning in increasingly complex Western industrial societies, career started to receive attention in theory and practice. Representing individual mobility and meritocracy, it captured something of the relationship between the individual and society or organization at a time when the ethos of individualism was growing even as, it was being argued, a mass society was emerging. In this particular context, emphasis on the effective matching of person and occupation, advancement, continuity and future planning, and the separation of home and work became characteristic of twentieth-century constructs of career.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, this context changed considerably, and new forms of career emerged, such as the boundaryless, portfolio, and protean forms, with the emphasis on networks rather than hierarchy. Concern with discontinuities, endings and beginnings, flexibility, instrumentality, self-management and self-direction, employability, lifelong learning, and work-life balance have now become characteristic of constructs of career. As the context continues to change, new constructs of career are likely to develop.

The assumptions underpinning constructs of career have also changed over time. Mid-twentieth-century conditions and social norms ensured that opportunities for upward social mobility and occupational advancement were greatest for White, male, middle-class workers, so that career was then a construct used largely of the experiences of White, male professionals and managers or those who aspired to such elite status. Indeed, when some terms are translated into French and Spanish, career is rendered as “profession.” The frequent use of college students for the large-scale samples in much career research built those norms into the career theories of the time as largely unquestioned assumptions. However, those norms are now being challenged as multicultural diversity is recognized and accepted; the construct of career is no longer regarded as being of relevance only to elites.

Constructs of career are also underpinned by even more basic assumptions. Science, which has shaped thinking in modern times, informed the interpretation of the individual, the environment, and the relationship between them and generated the methodological approaches to studying them that have been adopted in much highly respected career research. Toward the end of the twentieth century, however, new views that critique those assumptions have gained some currency.

Constructivism, social constructionism, contextualism, and postmodernism offer different ways of understanding and argue that knowledge is constructed in historical and cultural context through social processes and actions. Such approaches propose that what have traditionally been regarded as facts, such as the structure of an organization or individual traits, are interpretations constructed in a particular context for a particular purpose. These views also highlight the way career is constructed through social interaction, throw into question some key notions such as rational decision making, and underpin the interpretations of career in terms of personal constructs, narrative, metaphor, and contextual action theory that are now becoming more common.

These new views also suggest that different communities have their own discourses that construct and configure meanings that are central to their identities, interests, and power relations and use rhetoric to promulgate and sustain them. Hence, the various approaches to career seen in the several domains above can be taken as discourses of career. In other words, there are several types of stakeholders in career, and they all view the construct from their own perspectives and use it for their own purposes. In addition to individuals, stakeholders include government, employers, academics, counselors, and society itself. They use the construct rhetorically to convey their own viewpoints and values and to shape others’ interpretations. Vocational psychologists use career to empower clients; employers use career to motivate and retain staff; and policymakers use career to develop human capital and strengthen social inclusion. By regarding career as tying people to labor markets and employment in ways that are both personally meaningful and beneficial to work organizations and society, the rhetorical use of the construct supports the ideologies of society and thereby contributes to its stability.

Common Elements in Constructs of Career

Across the range of constructs used to understand career, some common elements can be inferred. Career refers to movement (of an object or person) through time and (social) space. Most commonly, this is through occupational or organizational space, but it could be through a series of identity-bestowing roles or situations, as in the career of the TB patient or marijuana user. This movement is contextualized, anchored in a specific space (setting in motion the process of constructing a range of meanings).

Movement through space is gauged in relation to some known point, which for career is located within social space, whether construed as social structure or a network of relationships. This means that the understanding of an individual’s career is achieved by reference to others, whether individual or collective, and hence according to the norms, such as status, worth, or rates of progress, which give differential values to roles and relationships and the moves between them. Hence, evaluative judgments and normative expectations inform some constructs of career, whether explicitly or implicitly.

The movement of career was traditionally seen as continuous, with discontinuity or a break in career calling for explanation. The single actions or steps that constitute this continuous movement are not considered piecemeal or haphazard; between them is implied a connective tissue that transforms the whole into a course or trajectory. Different constructs of career make their own interpretation of this tissue; for example, the objective pathways individuals follow, the agency of individuals whose decisions and actions shape their career movement, or the story line individuals weave of their hopes, decisions, and actions. Despite discontinuity in the objective pathways of many of today’s careers, this connective tissue can still be inferred in subjective experiences.

Career is also movement through time and relates a person’s past, present and, importantly, future. Some constructs of career approach time in linear fashion, with the present flowing from a known past toward an expected future. Others, Janus-like, look backward from the present to interrogate the past and forward to construct the future, or address how the future motivates action and the construction of meaning in the present. Thus, career has been used to construct actions and events, and in some instances, the self, across time. This has informed the interpretation that career attributes coherence, continuity, and social meaning to individual lives.

Many constructs of career reflect some of its original meanings, frequently, the dual meaning of pathway and movement along it. This view points to the most distinctive characteristic of career. Career represents the coexistence of the objective and the subjective, both the social reality and the individual’s experience of it; even when the focus is on the former, the latter, though submerged, is still present. Career also represents other dualities: individual and collective, and rhetoric and praxis. Its two faces make career inherently ambivalent. It is not “either/or” but “both/and,” making career a very powerful and fascinating construct that can continue to offer meaning for the twenty-first century.

See also:


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