Middle Career Stage

Middle Career StageEarly career theorists studied careers as a linear progression that generally corresponds to a person’s life span. They focused primarily on men who worked for one or two organizations, with a ladder of opportunities for promotion. In a typical career, the middle career stage is the point at which an individual attains a level of successful accomplishment recognized by both oneself and one’s peers. This usually occurs approximately at middle age.

According to careers researcher Douglas T. Hall, the middle career stage may occur at different times depending on a person’s pattern of entering and leaving work situations as well as when he or she experiences various work events. Although the middle career stage may be referred to as midcareer, midlife, and mid-worklife, they are not the same. Hall defines midcareer as a subjective experience of attaining a level of achievement and establishing an occupational or career role. However, if a person changes careers several times or has a sporadic work history due to, for example, the need to care for children, then what we consider the point of a middle career may occur several times, before and after middle age (i.e., midlife). A person with a job or occupation rather than a career might experience mid-worklife earlier than the accepted age 40 midlife point. For example, men in industrial jobs showed an earnings peak at age 35. According to John C. Rife, women often show a different work pattern than men; they are more likely to have a more sporadic work history, to work part-time, and remain in the workforce longer. A woman might not embark on a career until a much later age than the average man and thus would attain a middle career stage in a later age range.

Furthermore, it would be difficult to define a middle career for these less-than-linear career engagements. More recent research acknowledges the similarities and differences between careers of men and women and those who make several career changes. These changes may be due to individual choice, such as a woman or man who returns to school to train in a new field or stays out of the workplace to care for family members. Career changes may also be precipitated by circumstances such as downsizing and economic downturns. The idea that careers evolve throughout a lifetime in a series of stages has received much attention and produced an enduring framework.

Stage Theorists: Psychological Approaches and the Middle Career Stage

Stage theorists take a life course approach. They evaluate an individual life across time, which they then aggregate to discern patterns. One of the most well-known theories of career stages was developed by Donald E. Super. He proposed four career stages. In the first stage, exploration (teen years to 20s), individuals engage in self-examination and preparation for a career. During the second stage, establishment (late 20s to mid- to late 30s), a person finds employment and works to be a successful contributor to the organization. During the third stage of maintenance (late 30s to mid-40s), a person maximizes his or her capabilities and may be a mentor to others. The maintenance stage may be considered the middle career stage. Some people in this stage continue to grow in their careers; others reach career plateaus; while still others stagnate if they fail to learn new job skills and remain professionally active. The fourth stage is disengagement, in which the individual may leave the organization to find personal fulfillment outside of a career. Super later identified a recycling phase, in which individuals may change career paths.

Building on his stage model, Super developed the Life-Career Rainbow, a “life-space, life-span approach.” He identified the early 30s and late 40s as the period in which one allocates the most time and effort to the worker life role. Thus, the middle career stage would be the point at which one attains a clear level of competence and devotes the most life space to career issues.

The stages identified by Super were also supported by the work of Daniel Levinson. Levinson studied men in a variety of occupations (e.g., hourly workers, business executives, biologists and novelists) to discern developmental periods of stability and transitions that correspond to age. Using the “life structure” of self, family, affiliations, career, and community, he observed the following: an Early Adult Transition from age 17 to 22; the era of Early Adulthood, spanning age 17 to 45, with an Age 30 Transition commencing between age 28 and 32 and concluding between age 33 and 40; the Era of Middle Adulthood, from age 40 to 65, with a Midlife Transition somewhere between age 40 and 45 and another transition between age 50 and 55; and the Era of Late Adulthood, commencing at age 60.

The Transition periods involve a reassessment of the life structure with a special focus on work and family. Specifically, the Age 30 Transition involves the man identifying the benchmarks of success—a ladder of accomplishments—and creating a strategy to attain them. If the man determines that his life structure is not satisfying, he may be prompted to change jobs. During this stage, the man reaches for his dreams; he desires to win and gain recognition. Whether one changes an occupation or not, the Age 30 Transition sets the stage for the Age 40 Transition. During the latter transition, the man reviews his past and prepares for the future. At this point in his life, he becomes more concerned with his own internal markers of success than with approval from others. He is more concerned with using power to lead and help others, forming a legacy, and having more caring relationships.

Thus, in Levinson’s framework, the middle career stage occurs at the end of early adulthood (age 33-40), when the man has devoted much of his energies to establishing himself in his chosen occupation with associated markers of success. The individual is more likely to attain a balance between internal and external markers of success through the process of the Midlife Transition (age 40-45). Although commonly associated with a “midlife crisis” of disillusionment with one’s life structure, especially career status, the Midlife Transition may also be a time of flexibility, creativity, and developing new goals and aspects of the self. A person perhaps shuns externally driven rewards, choosing those he prefers; he takes delight in the intrinsic rewards of his career. He is in a position to make positive organizational changes, mentor others, and decide the terms of his attachment to his career as an independent person. He assesses his legacy as the value of his life that he leaves to subsequent generations.

Levinson’s later work included women, and he found that similar eras of stability and transition exist for both men and women. The homemakers, businesswomen, and academics he studied also experienced Midlife Transitions. Some women found that their “careers” as homemakers, wives, and mothers did not contribute to their self-development. They faced the work world with fewer resources at an older age. However, some homemakers were able to turn to occupations for new avenues of personal satisfaction. They were able to dedicate themselves to work pursuits as the demands of home and family decreased and became less preferable. In contrast, career women experienced more conflict among their dreams of being the “successful career woman,” “antitraditional figure,” and “traditional homemaker figure.” They entered the Midlife Transition with the realization of the difficulty of having a career, a marriage, and a family.

Both men and women engaged in career change by moving from external rewards, such as promotions and salary, to examining internal gauges of success. The successful respondents realized that they had attained success in one area but were starting at the bottom of a new area in the MidLife Transition. Almost all the women studied by Levinson changed their life structures during this transition, especially when they realized the deleterious impact of gender discrimination. A longitudinal study of MBA men and women by Joy A. Schneer and Frieda Reitman supports this idea. Schneer and Reitman found that although there were no gender differences in early careers, by midcareer, women had experienced lower levels of satisfaction, difficulty in progressing in their careers, being unappreciated by their managers, and gender discrimination.

Stages are useful in understanding individual career choices and attitudes, especially in occupations with clear career paths. For instance, Susan A. Lynn, Le Thi Cao, and Betty C. Horn studied male and female accounting professionals at different career stages. They defined these stages by professional tenure (years in the accounting profession since college graduation, with 10 years considered the maintenance or middle career stage for the profession). Professional tenure was significantly related to intrinsic and extrinsic reward satisfaction, job involvement, and organizational commitment and negatively associated with intention to leave for the men, but not for the women, in this sample. A study by Rajiv Mehta, Rolph E. Anderson, and Alan J. Dubinsky examined the effect of career stage in sales managers, also considering tenure to measure career stage. Middle stage was considered to be the period of working in the field for 8 to 15 years. Reward preferences varied with career stage. Middle stage sales managers ranked the attitudes of superiors toward them as being the highest preference (compared with those in early and late career stages), followed by salary and commission bonus, achievement of market goals, respect of fellow salespeople, and opportunities for promotion. Significant differences were found between middle stage managers and late stage managers in achievement of market goals and middle stage and early stages managers in opportunities for promotion and earning the respect of salespeople. David A. Jepsen and Hung-Bin Sheu, using a sample of working-class adults, found that midcareer status predicted job satisfaction for men, but not for women. Thus, an organization may be better able to establish rewards, set policies, manage employees, develop leaders, and understand employee career decisions if managers examine how preferences and attitudes may vary by career stage and the interaction of stage and gender.

Although these stage models are intuitively appealing and are based on longitudinal in-depth studies, they may not apply to individuals who do not fit the traditional career model of working for one or two employers in a stable environment of promotion opportunities (i.e., career ladders). Careers scholar Edgar H. Schein proposed a career cycle that encompasses both an internal and external career regardless of career opportunities or type of work. The external career reflects the characteristics of work itself, such as opportunities and limits. Although still perceived by the individual, it provides markers that influence the internal career assessment, which is the individual’s subjective ideas of a career and one’s role in it.

Schein recommended that aspects of career development be viewed as a series of issues or tasks irrespective of age or life stage. In his framework, an individual enters the work world and receives training between the age of 16 and 25. An individual attains full membership in an early career anywhere between age 17 and 30. Schein identified full membership in a career or midcareer from age 25 on. In this middle career stage, the major issues for the person to consider are choosing between being a generalist or specialist, retaining skills through learning, developing visibility, becoming more responsible for work tasks and managing others, being productive, and formulating a long-range career plan. At this point, a person is also gaining independence, developing personal standards, and forming a clearer self-assessment and the ability to evaluate opportunities. He or she is also becoming a mentor and seeking family/work balance. From age 35 to 45, a possible midcareer crisis has the individual seriously reassessing attainments versus goals to determine whether to change careers, keep the status quo, or move ahead. He or she also considers desired versus actual outcomes, examines the weight of a career in life, and becomes a mentor to others. This middle stage also includes a realistic appraisal of economic and family needs as well as how to maintain skill competencies.

Schein acknowledged that people move through these stages at different rates and that personal and family factors also play a role in career decisions. In illustration, Dawn S. Carlson and Denise M. Rotondo examined MBA graduates to determine whether there was a difference between external and internal careers in terms of promotion stress. They found no difference in career stress based on internal career stage, but did find that early external career individuals showed the highest levels of promotion stress, followed by mid-level career stage. The higher career stages showed lower levels of promotion stress.

Despite the appeal and research findings of the stage theorists, we need to look beyond their assumptions of organizational stability and job security to understand careers in contemporary work life. In our present-day work environment, organizations are under continual pressure to change and adapt to their environments. Similarly, individuals employed in organizations as well as those outside of them face the need to change with their environment to have a meaningful connection to work. The learning, experience, and motivation that brought a person to the middle stage of a career path will help the person navigate career and personal change as well as develop innovations and new business ideas. Sally J. Power and Teresa J. Rothausen observed that when an individual scans the external environment for work information, it indicates a readiness for midcareer development. Power and Rothausen extended our knowledge of the midcareer or maintenance stage by proposing a middle-career development structure in which individuals consider work in a broader context, rather than as a specific job; engage in continuous learning to avoid obsolescence by surveying the environment to determine the future requirements of their work; and analyze their organizational roles to make lifestyle decisions, such as how to maintain their skill value to their present employer while remaining marketable. Using these three concepts, they identify three levels of midcareer development with developmental tasks and cycles.

According to Power and Rothausen, the first level of midcareer development is job oriented, in which the person is dependent on the employer and reactive, an early midcareer situation. Most people at midcareer who work for large organizations are probably at this stage. They either cannot or do not realize that the need for organizational adaptation may influence their future employability. The second level is work maintenance, in which a person has attained job satisfaction and internal and external rewards but is cognizant of the need to become a lifelong learner to remain marketable. An example of this is a person who has good “people skills” but may need to learn the more commonly used software applications. The third level is work growth development, in which a person proactively fashions growth and learning opportunities to satisfy new internal and external rewards as part of a long-term career development plan. This would involve self-assessment, retraining, and changing the organization-person role agreement.

Alternatives to Stage Approaches: An Array of Career Patterns

Whereas traditional stage theorists assume a long-term career within the same stable organizational environment, with development of organizational-specific skills to climb the hierarchy and career decisions made more likely by the organization (or at least in tandem with the individual), other theories consider less linear paths and emphasize the need for the individual to take control of his or her career. Kenneth R. Brousseau, Michael J. Driver, Kristina Eneroth, and Rikard Larsson described a multiple-career concept model. In addition to the “traditional” linear career, they explain an expert career, in which there is little movement and one stays in one career for life; a spiral career, in which a person moves into different careers every 7 to 10 years; and a transitory career, in which a person changes jobs every 3 to 5 years, usually in unrelated areas.

Experts such as self-employed health care professionals, lawyers, and skilled craftspersons with their own businesses may experience midcareer analyses differently than does the traditional organizationally employed person. Little is known about the expert career pattern because we have only just begun to study these types of work situations. Because experts are motivated to continually develop professional competency, it may be that these individuals seldom experience a middle stage or midcareer reevaluation. In contrast, a person with a spiral career pattern may have several midcareer experiences at different points within each career experience. While those with a spiral career pattern are motivated by developing new knowledge and skills that enhance personal development and creativity, these individuals move every three to five years to unrelated areas, in search of variety and independence. Similarly, those with transitory careers may have midcareer evaluations at different points in each career experience, or they may not even experience midcareer reevaluations because they move on to the next exhilarating experience once they start feeling bored.

Contemporary organizations are more likely to include the expert, spiral, and transitory career patterns. Firms need to build their human capital while considering these nontraditional patterns, using strate­gies including contracts for long- and short-term assignments; career development, training, counseling, and cafeteria-type rewards and benefits tailored to different trajectories and patterns; engagement of workers in forthright discussions and strategy-building sessions; and mentoring across career patterns not only to meet organizational and individual needs but also to sustain motivation, as a person may move through several midcareer issues.

Boundaryless and Protean Careers

In response to the “new economy” and accompanying organizational changes, Michael A. Arthur and Denise Rousseau have proposed that a career is now the converse of the organizational career in terms of individual independence from organizational employment. This unbounded state can be determined by moves across employers, organizational levels, functional areas, occupations, or industries; validation by the market; reliance on external networks; emphasis on personal reasons over organizational imperatives; or the individual’s perception of himself or herself as unbounded. In these circumstances, an individual may adopt any of Brousseau and colleagues’ career concepts described earlier and become the architect of his or her own career. This shifts more of the focus from external career success indicators to the internal markers.

In the boundaryless career setting, the individual would be determining midcareer attainment in terms of skill proficiency and marketability. Instead of an orga­nization, the market and the inner self provide feedback as to career status and success. For example, boundary-less careerists such as filmmakers, consultants, and self-employed skilled craftspersons often start out working as an apprentice, develop a reputation, engage in networking, gain work based on referrals, work on different projects with various clients, and decide when and where to work. These individuals gain knowledge and skills as they move from project to project and can use their career capital when they desire new career challenges. We have all read about successful actresses who switch to directing or entertainers who use their visibility to highlight social issues.

A similar reliance on internal indicators of success is found in the “protean careerist,” a term identified by Hall. Although related, the protean career is conceptually distinct from the boundaryless career. Like the middle-career psychosocial development issues described by Super, Levinson, Schein, and Brousseau, Hall described a career driven by an “internal compass” of satisfying internal rewards. Protean careerists are in charge of their careers; seek growth, mobility, and psychological success; and are committed to a profession while maintaining balance with other life issues. The protean careerist seeks continuous learning, is open to exploration and change, and engages in learning cycles that constitute a career.


An individual in the middle stage of his or her career has developed an array of knowledge, skills, abilities, and experiences and recognized accomplishments in a chosen career or occupational area. Middle careerists are repositories of organizational learning, mentors, and present and future leaders in and out of organizations. They function as change agents in the work environment. However, if the middle career stage does not reflect desired accomplishments, it may be associated with demotivated or plateaued workers, the loss of talent, and psychological distress and despair, all of which impact individual and economic development. We need to recognize that individuals in and out of organizations may have diverse middle-career experiences at different ages. These experiences may also vary with occupation and with individual factors, such as gender, interests, and abilities. Given the importance of work to self-esteem, social standing, and perceived success in our society, we need to examine ways to maintain the psychological satisfaction, creativity, productivity, skills, and experiences of people in the middle stages of their careers.

See also:


  1. Arthur, M. B. and Rousseau, D. M. 1996. “The Boundaryless Career as a New Employment Principle.” Pp. 3-20 in The Boundaryless Career, edited by M. G. Arthur and D. M. Rousseau. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Brousseau, K. R., Driver, M. J., Eneroth, K. and Larsson, R. 1996. “Career Pandemonium: Realigning Organizations and Individuals.” Academy of Management Executive 10(4):2-66.
  3. Carlson, D. S. and Rotondo, D. M. 2001. “Differences in Promotion Stress across Career Stage and Orientation.” Human Resource Management 40:99-110.
  4. Hall, D. T. 1996. “Long Live the Career.” Pp. 1-12 in The Career is Dead—Long Live the Career, edited by D. T. Hall. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
    Hall, D. T. 2004. “The Protean Career: A Quarter-Century Journey.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 65:1-13.
  5. Jepsen, D. A. and Sheu, H. B. 2003. “General Job Satisfaction from a Developmental Perspective: Exploring Choice-job Matches at Two Career Stages.” Career Development Quarterly 52:162-171.
  6. Levinson, D. 1978. The Seasons of a Man’s Life. New York: Knopf.
  7. Levinson, D. J. and Levinson, J. D. 1996. The Seasons of a Woman’s Life. New York: Knopf.
  8. Lynn, S. A., Cao, L. T. and Horn, B. C. 1996. “The Influence of Career Stage on the Work Attitudes of Male and Female Accounting Professionals.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 17:135-149.
  9. Mehta, R., Anderson, R. E. and Dubinsky, A. J. 2000. “The Perceived Importance of Sales Managers’ Rewards: A Career Stage Perspective.” Journal of Business and Industrial Marketing 15:507-524.
  10. Power, S. J. and Rothausen, T. J. 2003. “The Work-oriented Midcareer Developmental Model: An Extension of Super’s Maintenance Stage.” Counseling Psychologist 31:157-197.
  11. Rife, J. C. 1997. “Middle-aged and Older Women in the Work Force.” Pp. 93-111 in Handbook on Women and Aging, edited by J. M. Coyle. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  12. Schein, E. 1978. Career Dynamics: Matching Individual and Organizational Needs. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  13. Schneer, J. A. and Reitman, F. 1994. “The Importance of Gender in Mid-career: A Longitudinal Study of MBAs.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 15:199-207.
  14. Super, D. 1984. “Career and Life Development.” Pp. 191-234 in Career Choice and Development, edited by D. Brown and L. Brooks. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  15. Super, D. E. 1987. “Life Career Roles: Self-realization in Work and Leisure.” Pp. 95-119 in Career Development in Organizations, edited by D. T. Hall and Associates. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.