IdentityA person’s identity develops as a consequence of the interplay between biological, psychological, sociological, and historical influences. At its core, it emerges out of the individual’s efforts to maintain a sense of personal uniqueness and continuity in the face of changing developmental tasks and life circumstances—and at the same time feel a sense of solidarity with a group. Another way to conceptualize identity is to describe the attributes of individuals who have achieved a firm sense of personal identity. They would in all likelihood be described as people who know who they are, and others would be likely to view them in a manner that is generally consistent with how they view themselves.

An important feature of identity is that a person’s overall sense of identity is a composite of identity in a number of domains. Although there is some disagreement about the number and definition of these domains, there is general agreement that the vocational, sexual, and ideological (e.g., religious and political) domains are among the core components of a person’s identity. More recent research has produced evidence to suggest that ethnic identity, which is derived from a person’s membership in an ethnic group, may also be an important identity domain that impacts the perceptions and behaviors of individuals in their social and occupational contexts. Ethnic identity, however, appears to be more salient to individuals who are members of minority groups in their societies than to individuals who represent the majority group or individuals who live in a culture with little ethnic diversity.

The vocational domain of identity has been described as the most critical component of the young person’s quest for identity, in part because it appears to temporally “lead” identity development in other domains. Indeed, everyday experience confirms that at least in Western societies, adults are more likely to identify themselves by saying, “I am a contractor” or “I am a psychologist” than by saying, “I am heterosexual” or “I am Caucasian” or “I am Catholic.” In short, occupation is often the primary determinant of a person’s social status and economic well-being, and it is most influential in how one spends one’s leisure time and with whom. Chances are high that one’s spouse will be selected from among the people with whom one works. Thus, who we become and who we are in our own perceptions and in the views of others are often determined to a greater extent by our vocational identities than by anything else.

Developing a self-chosen identity is viewed as a not only necessary but also very desirable accomplishment that signifies the successful transition to adulthood in Western industrialized societies. Western ideals of independence and autonomy are reflected in the identity pursuits of Western adolescents, but they are clearly not universal. In Japanese culture, for example, autonomy is deemphasized, and cooperative behavior and social subordination are emphasized as the means of fostering a sense of belonging and harmony within the group. Clearly, this has implications for the development of vocational identity, as illustrated by the contrasting images of the “self-made man” in American society versus the “company man” in Japanese society.

The Development of Vocational Identity

Current thinking about vocational identity has been shaped primarily by Erik H. Erikson’s theory of psychosexual development. All of Erikson’s eight stages of life span development have implications for career development, as demonstrated by his many references to the central importance he assigned to the individual’s ability to create a successful work role within the opportunities and limitations imposed by the interpersonal and sociocultural context. Nevertheless, career researchers have focused their attention on the stage of identity formation and on its immediate precursor, which is the stage during which children develop a sense of industry. Children who successfully establish a sense of industry have the beginnings of the capacity to feel useful; they begin to feel confident in their abilities to make things (and to make them well); and they gain confidence in their abilities to learn what it takes to be a well-functioning and productive member of society. It should thus not be surprising that developing a firm sense of industry in childhood is a necessary condition for developing a self-chosen identity during adolescence and young adulthood, particularly for developing a firm vocational identity.

Although thinking about the career development implications of children’s behaviors and experiences may require an expansion of much of the current theorizing about career development, there is a growing body of research that supports the idea that children learn about the world of work quite early in life and that they formulate ideas about what they want to be when they grow up and, perhaps even more important, about what they don’t want to be (and do). There is also growing evidence that children who experience success and recognition as a consequence of their efforts and achievements have a good chance to succeed in acquiring a sense of industry, which not only is a precondition for the development of identity but has also been shown to benefit their school performance and protect them from various forms of deviancy.

The successful acquisition of a sense of industry thus serves as a springboard for a process that is absolutely essential for the development of a vocational identity, namely, exploration of the world of work and occupations. This may start out as relatively random and fortuitous and then progress to include more systematic and sophisticated exploratory activities. Gradually, adolescents are able to focus their explorations not only on the pertinent dimensions of likely occupations but also on their perceptions of how their own interests, abilities, and values correspond to both the demands and the rewards that various occupations have to offer.

Individuals are assumed to start out, as they emerge from childhood, lacking a well-defined identity. This is referred to as identity diffusion. For many young adolescents, this is followed by identity foreclosure, which occurs as they adopt the beliefs, goals, and values of significant others. Because young adolescents do not have the necessary experience (i.e., they have not engaged in sufficient exploration) to have a self-chosen identity, foreclosure identity is considered to be a premature commitment to an identity, and often adolescents eventually relinquish their foreclosed identity in favor of a period of moratorium or active (re)exploration. If successful, they can then emerge with a self-chosen identity, which is referred to as identity achievement. Although this developmental course is normative, it is not invariant. Some individuals do not foreclose, some may go back to diffusion following a moratorium period, and some never achieve a self-chosen identity.

Although it is generally accepted that adolescence and early adulthood are the periods of life in which identity development represents a primary developmental task, it is also clear that especially in the vocational domain, identity development does not stop there. Changing economic conditions and advances in technology have eliminated whole occupational categories (e.g., telephone operator) and, concurrently, have forced countless individuals to abandon their vocational identities, explore alternative occupations, and develop new vocational identities. Even within broad occupational categories, advancement or promotion may also lead to changes in vocational identity. As more individuals pursue midlife career changes or serial careers, their views of who they are and what they do (i.e., their vocational identities) invariably change as well. Thus, it is clear that the task of vocational identity formation should never be considered finished once and for all. Individuals have the capacity to reinvent themselves and their careers from early adolescence through old age.

Adolescence has been identified as the period when most of the “work” of identity formation takes place, but questions have been raised regarding the significance of achieving a firm sense of vocational identity (i.e., making a firm commitment following a period of exploration) during adolescence. One line of reasoning is that because many adolescents spend most of their time in school and school-related activities, they may be relatively ignorant of the world of work and thus may be unable to make an informed commitment, even if they have engaged in a period of exploration. Countering that view is research that has demonstrated that part-time work involving moderate hours, which is experienced by the majority of adolescents in the United States, has a positive impact on adolescents’ realism about work and vocational choice, thus facilitating the achievement of a vocational identity. Moreover, some researchers have demonstrated that a significant number of adults developed rather firm ideas when they were quite young about the type of work they wanted to do and their current occupations are consistent with these early ideas.

Research on Vocational Identity

James E. Marcia’s identity status framework has stimulated a great deal of research on identity. Marcia introduced the concept of identity statuses to operationalize the four possible outcomes (diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, achievement) of what Erikson called the “quest for identity”: Marcia reasoned that since the four identity statuses represent a complete and exhaustive conceptualization of identity development outcomes, any adolescent should be categorizable into one of the four statuses. To accomplish this, Marcia developed a semistructured interview procedure. Other researchers subsequently developed self-report questionnaires to facilitate the classification of research participants into the identity statuses. In each case, the principal objective was to assess a global construct of identity, although the assessment of various identity domains, including vocational identity, can also be accomplished.

In using the identity status paradigm, a basic underlying assumption has been that the identity achievement status is the most advanced of the statuses, resulting from a period of exploration of alternatives and a subsequent well-defined commitment. The moratorium status precedes identity achievement primarily because the individual’s focus is on exploration of alternatives, and commitments tend to be tentative and vaguely formed. In the foreclosure status, the individual is assumed to have done very little exploration but remains firmly committed to childhood-based values. The identity diffusion status is the least developmentally advanced status, consisting of a lack of commitment and usually only haphazard exploration. Although this categorization of the identity statuses from most to least developmentally advanced has been generally accepted, some researchers have offered evidence to suggest that for a significant number of adolescents, the progression is not a smooth one. In other words, it is likely that some adolescents make several changes into and out of the moratorium status.

Throughout the process of exploration, contextual factors (most notably peers, school, media, and family) play important roles in channeling the vocational explorations of children and adolescents. One line of research on the development of vocational identity development has focused on gaining a better understanding of how contextual influences operate to (often inadvertently) limit the exploration (and consideration) of male-dominated occupations by female adolescents, as well as the exploration of female-dominated occupations by male adolescents. A number of reasons have been offered to account for this apparent sex bias, but most researchers agree that more research is needed on the impact of the media on the vocational exploration of children and adolescents and on the relationship between vocational identity development and the early formation of vocational aspirations, goals, and commitments.

Another line of research has examined the relationship between advancement in identity status, on the one hand, and a variety of positive psychological and psychosocial outcomes, on the other. Findings have been quite consistent: Adolescents who have attained the more advanced vocational identity statuses (moratorium and achievement) score higher on these positive indicators than do adolescents who place in the less advanced identity statuses (diffusion and foreclosure). Adolescents in the least advanced group (especially those in diffusion status) have been found to be more likely to be involved with drugs and alcohol, to have lower scores on measures ranging from autonomy to independence, and to be less likely to accept personal responsibility for their own lives. Adolescents in the most advanced group (especially those in achievement status) been found to have more positive feelings about school and about their teachers, to have better grades and higher educational aspirations, to have higher levels of self-esteem, and to be more involved and active within their various contexts (e.g., school and community).

Using the identity status framework with a focus on vocational identity, researchers have examined how adolescents feel about work. Interestingly, nearly all adolescents classified as identity achieved have been found to be enthusiastic about work (and their future work roles) and committed to being productive members of the workforce. In contrast, two-thirds of the adolescents classified as identity diffused have been found to be comfortable with avoiding work or have extremely negative views about the worker role in general and about their future as workers in particular. Researchers have also found that adolescents had clearer vocational goals and scored higher on measures of career maturity as they advanced from identity diffusion toward identity achievement. Consistent with these findings is research that documented predictable differences in career indecision, on the one hand, and membership in one of the identity status groups, on the other. Invariably, adolescents classified as identity achieved no longer experienced any significant career indecision. They apparently knew what career they wanted to pursue, and they felt relatively comfortable with their decisions. Adolescents in all of the other identity statuses, including foreclosure, still experienced significant indecision.

The identity status framework has been productive in the study of vocational identity, but it is not the only framework for studying identity. Michael D. Berzonsky has introduced the notion that individuals within the various identity statuses also differ in how they think, solve problems, and make decisions. Accordingly, he proposed that these differences amount to differing identity-processing styles, which he referred to as “informational,” “normative,” and “diffuse/avoidant.” Individuals tend to use one of these identity-processing styles to deal with identity questions and situations in which they are called on to make decisions. Although there has not been a lot of research using identity-processing style in examining vocational identity, it is likely that the joint consideration of identity status and identity-processing style can yield the best insight into the role played by identity in the vocational development of individuals and their behaviors at work and in other important contexts.

How individuals construct their vocational identities has important implications not only for them but also for their families and for the communities and organizations within which they function. After all, people who “have their act together,” who know who they are and what they want, and whose perceptions of themselves match the perceptions of those who know them also tend to be the people who set goals and then do what it takes to achieve them. They tend to be the most productive and self-confident members of a society that relies on them and rewards them. Clearly, more research is needed to identify what it takes to achieve a firm sense of vocational identity and to understand the conditions that facilitate this desirable outcome.

See also:


  1. Adams, G. R. and Marshall, S. K. 1996. “A Developmental Social Psychology of Identity: Understanding the Person-in-Context.” Journal of Adolescence 19:429-442.
  2. Berzonsky, M. D. 1989. “Identity Style: Conceptualization and Measurement.” Journal of Adolescent Research 4:268-282.
  3. Blustein, D. L. and Noumair, D. A. 1996. “Self and Identity in Career Development: Implications for Theory and Practice.” Journal of Counseling and Development 74:433-441.
  4. Erikson, E. H. 1968. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.
  5. Kroger, J. 2000. Identity Development: Adolescence through Adulthood. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  6. Marcia, J. E. 1966. “Development and Validation of Ego Identity Status.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3:551-558.
  7. Phinney, J. S. 1990. “Ethnic Identity in Adolescents and Adults: Review of Research.” Psychological Bulletin 108:499-514.
  8. Savickas, M. L. 1985. “Identity in Vocational Development.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 27:329-337.
  9. Vondracek, F. W. 1992. “The Construct of Identity and Its Use in Career Theory and Research.” Career Development Quarterly 41:130-144.
  10. Waterman, A. S. 1999. “Identity, the Identity Statuses, and Identity Status Development: A Contemporary Statement.” Developmental Review 19:591-621.