Career Transition

Career TransitionThe term career transition has developed out of years of important and groundbreaking research and theoretical work on the process of vocational development. Beginning in the 1950s, Donald Super wrote extensively on the stages of vocational development, with each stage marking a specific “transition” in an individual’s career path. These stages span an entire life and include all career-related events, from an individual’s first job to the time he or she retires or stops working altogether. Each of these life events is a career transition and serves as an important milestone throughout the life span. However, much of Super’s work has focused on career transitions that are expected or planned. There are numerous types of career transitions that involve unanticipated or even undesired shifts in an individual’s career path. In addition, the term career transition may refer to the process by which an individual changes from one job to another within the same job family; and it may also refer to a more dramatic career change from one occupational category to an entirely different one. Finally, a career transition takes place when an employee merely shifts to a new position within the same company or organizational structure. Regardless of the type of career shift, many transitions take place in adulthood, and it is important for career counselors to be equipped to handle such midlife career changes with their adult clients.

As a result of this somewhat broad definition of career transition, it is difficult to determine how many people are actually going through such transitions at any time. However, past research has estimated that approximately 5 percent to 10 percent of Americans change occupations each year. Thus, despite the popular notion that adulthood is a time of general stability, these figures indicate that for many Americans, this is not the case. Outside of Super’s work, transitions have often been described in the professional literature as “difficult” and even “traumatic” life events. Nancy Schlossberg points out that much of our thinking about transitions has come out of crisis theory. Daniel Levinson and his colleagues were perhaps the most influential in helping to define career transitions as developmental in nature and as a turning point or boundary between two periods of greater stability. Schlossberg also stated that while the outcomes of life transitions can be negative, they are also frequently positive and may provide opportunities for psychological growth.

Two broad categories of career transitions are voluntary and involuntary. A voluntary career transition can occur for a host of reasons. For example, individuals might believe that their interests have changed since entering an occupational category, and they want to transition out of that category and into a position closer to their current interests. In addition, many individuals choose career fields based on parental wishes or the desire to earn a lot of money but may find that they are not satisfied once they have entered the occupation. In addition to factors that are negative and thus propel the person to depart from the chosen career, other career transitions result from more attractive career options that cause the individual to utilize approach behaviors in changing careers. In addition to voluntary and involuntary career transitions, Cindy Juntunen and her colleagues have also identified other career transition classifications, including (a) maintenance transitions, or changes in the individual’s role without a change in the company or job title; (b) advancement transitions, or the opportunity to shift to a better position; (c) entry or reentry transitions, or the return of an individual to the workforce after a long absence; and (d) leave-or-seek transitions, or changes whereby the individual makes the conscious decision to move to a new career.

Given global shifts in the economy, many workers are involved in nonvoluntary career transitions. Companies are increasingly downsizing and shipping jobs overseas, where labor costs are lower, forcing many Americans who would not have opted voluntarily for them into career transitions. This type of involuntary career change is often difficult for workers and families, especially if they reside in communities with few alternative job options. The agricultural crisis of the 1980s in the Midwestern United States created many poignant examples of involuntary career change, when farmers and farm families, many of whom had been on family farms for generations, were forced into career transitions. The continued shift from an agrarian and manufacturing society to one based on service and technology means increasing career change for workers. Workers who previously held stable employment now possess considerably less job security as a result of the skills of newer workers who may have more recent technological training.

In many ways, career transitions have become much more normative as the labor market requires a more fluid and dynamic employment pattern. There is now the expectation that workers will change jobs more frequently, and the image of “career changers” is also evolving. As Edwin Herr and his colleagues have pointed out, career changers previously were seen as having character or personality flaws that caused them difficulty in maintaining a position. They were often seen as malcontents or somehow lacking in the skills necessary to function in a given position. With increasing normalcy of career change, these perceptions are rapidly changing, and the process of career change is seen as an adaptive development stage.

Recent studies on adult career changes indicate that the career change is intricately connected with the individual’s psychological adjustment. The process of adaptation is important to the psychological well-being of individuals who are going through (or have recently experienced) some kind of life transition, including those that are career related. Schlossberg has defined adaptation as a process during which an individual moves from being totally preoccupied with integrating the transition into his or her life. While some individuals may adapt quite easily to career transitions, others may have difficulty adapting and may be at risk for depressive or anxious symptoms. In fact, in a recent study, the majority of career changers coming to a university-based career center had levels of depression and anxiety in the distressed range.

A number of factors may contribute to an individual’s ability (or inability) to adapt successfully to a given career transition. Schlossberg has asserted that the adaptation process may differ according to the type of transition as well as the individual’s personal resources. In other words, characteristics of the worker and of the transition interact to predict an outcome. Characteristics of the transition, for example whether the change was expected or abrupt or whether it was voluntary or involuntary, affect how the person perceives the transition and progresses through it. Personal factors that can affect adjustment to transition include the individual’s values, self-efficacy, and emotional responses. In addition, many adults engaged in midlife career transitions may have family responsibilities, such as caring for children or partners.

This added factor has the potential to serve as either support or barrier but will, regardless, have an effect on an individual’s ability to adapt to a transition. Finally, demographic and environmental factors are important to consider in assessing how well adults may adjust to midlife career transitions. For example, degree of financial freedom and socioeconomic status may play a role in the transition process, again serving as either support or barrier depending on the individual’s specific circumstance. Similarly, the individual’s racial/ethnic background, gender, and sexual orientation may either help or hinder the adjustment to a new career, whether it is planned or unplanned.

When one considers the numerous and diverse factors that contribute to an individual’s psychological well-being during the career-transition process, it is evident that he or she could use additional support and guidance. Specifically, it seems that during times of career transition, many people could benefit from the support provided by counselors. Counselors can help individuals identify the strengths or resources they bring to the career transition and help them overcome the barriers and obstacles they may be experiencing. Among the many tools used for counseling adults in career transitions, one important assessment is the Career Transition Inventory. Through the development of this assessment, the authors sought to create a tool that would help counselors identify resources that could aid clients in career transitions. This 40-item inventory consists of five factors: (1) readiness, (2) confidence, (3) control, (4) perceived support, and (5) decision independence. By identifying his or her strengths, the client could find it easier to progress through the career change.

Many societal factors indicate that the pace of career transitions, both voluntary and involuntary, will accelerate in the future. Understanding the varied types of transitions, the reasons for relative ease or difficulty in moving through them, and the tools available to assist people in their transitions is vital to the field of career development.

See also:


  1. Brown, D. “A Values-based Approach to Facilitating Career Transitions.” Career Development Quarterly 44: 4-11.
  2. Constantine, M. G. and Parker, V. F. 2001. “Addressing the Career Transition Issues of African-American women: Vocational and Personal Considerations.” Pp. 99-112 in Career Counseling for African Americans, edited by W. B. Walsh, R. P. Bingham, M. T. Brown and C. M. Ward. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  3. Heppner, M. J., Multon, K. and Johnston, J. A. 1994. “Assessing Psychological Resources during Career Change: Development of the Career Transitions Inventory.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 44:55-74.
  4. Juntunen, C. L., Wegner, K. E. and Matthews, L. G. 2002. “Promoting Positive Career Change in Midlife.” Pp. 329­347 in Counseling across the Lifespan, edited by C. L. Juntunen and D. R. Atkinson. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  5. Latack, J. C. 1984. “Career Transitions within Organizations: An Exploratory Study of Work, Nonwork, and Coping Strategies.” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 34:296-322.
  6. Levinson, D. J., Darrow, C. N., Klein, E. B., Levinson, M. H. and McKee, B. 1978. The Season’s of a Man’s Life. New York: Knopf.
  7. Multon, K. D., Heppner, M. J., Gysbers, N. C., Zook, C. E. and Ellis-Kalton, C. 2001. “Client Psychological Distress: An Important Factor in Career Counseling.” Career Development Quarterly 49:324-335.
  8. Schlossberg, N. K. 1981. “A Model for Analyzing Human Adaptation to Transition.” Counseling Psychologist 9:2-18.
  9. Schlossberg, N. K. Counseling Adults in Transition: Linking Practice and Theory. New York: Springer.
  10. Super, D. E. 1957. The Psychology of Careers. New York: Harper.