Occupational Choice

Occupational ChoiceFor many individuals and for a long time, occupational choice has been seen as the goal of career development. Theory and practice focused on either occupational choice or career development, but more recently these have been integrated into more complex conceptions of career. Historically, occupational choice is a comparatively new phenomenon. Up until the twentieth century, most people’s occupations were determined by their station (position in the society) and their family circumstances. Occupations were usually inherited and passed on through generations within families. This was so prevalent that many family names in English-speaking countries are actually occupation titles, such as Baker, Farmer, Cook, Carpenter, Potter, Taylor, Ryder, and so on. The vestiges of this form of career are evident in the development of family dynasties traditionally associated with property and agriculture but more recently with large corporations in which owners pass leadership on to their progeny across generations. However, increasing industrialization and its sociological impacts resulted in major changes in the structure of the labor market, including the decline of some traditional occupations and the establishment of new occupations associated with machine operation and increased urbanization. It was not possible to “inherit” an occupation if the occupation had not existed previously. Progressively more people had to choose occupations.

In fact, early in the twentieth century it was recognized by social reformers such as Frank Parsons that occupational choice constituted a very significant way in which individuals could actually improve their life circumstances. If people could choose rather than inherit occupations, then this was a major opportunity for them to better their lives on the basis of talent and motivation rather than just birth or station. Later in the twentieth century, others with a social reform agenda in Western societies also saw the potential of occupational choice and opportunity as crucial in the development of disadvantaged groups such as minorities, those with disabilities, women, and indigenous peoples. Indeed in the counseling literature relating to occupational choice, a major theme has become the relative priority of social change in comparison with individual fulfillment.

The paradigm for such choice was that of matching characteristics of the person with those of particular occupations. The concept of “career” was the progressive development of a person’s working life within the occupation originally chosen after leaving school, college, or university. A rigorous example of the matching paradigm originated in the University of Minnesota and became known as the theory of work adjustment (TWA). The fundamentals of this theory were that good occupational choices would be made when there were correspondences between characteristics of individuals and those of occupations. Thus if there was a good match between the abilities of an individual and the performance demands of an occupation, then it was likely that the person would be successful in working in this occupation. The TWA called this “satisfactoriness.” If the personal preferences of an individual corresponded with the rewards offered by an occupation, then it would be likely that the person would like working in this occupation. The TWA designated this as “satisfaction.” As a result, a suitable occupational choice was understood to be one in which the person was both satisfactory in performance and satisfied in preference.

Holland’s Matching Theory of Occupational Choice

The matching paradigm has had a venerable history in vocational psychology. Another theorist who prominently applied it to occupational choice was John Holland. His approach to occupational choice was both minimalist and pragmatic. Holland sought to answer the question: What is the simplest and yet most helpful way to assist individuals to make occupational choices? Holland’s approach was to make the match between individuals and occupations more systematic. This was done not by the development of normative measures of abilities, interests, and values, as the TWA researchers had done, but by simply asking people through a self-scored questionnaire what they thought their skills and preferences were. Holland’s research generated a taxonomy both of human types and occupational stereotypes. This classification has become and remains the single most influential representation of occupational interests in contemporary career development practice and has frequently been used also as a basis for organizing occupational information for those facing occupational choices.

The Holland typology or “hexagon,” as it has been designated due to the theorized set of relationships between the six types, can be summarized as follows:

  1. Realistic (R): a preference for using practical skills with machines and the natural environment
  2. Investigative (I): a preference for using intellectual skills for scientific and technological activities
  3. Artistic (A): a preference for using creative skills for aesthetic, design, and entertainment activities
  4. Social (S): a preference for using interpersonal skills for caring, supportive, teaching, and counseling activities
  5. Enterprising (E): a preference for using persuasive skills for leadership, business, selling, and managing activities
  6. Conventional (C): a preference for using clerical skills for office, financial, and administrative activities

The Holland approach enabled both individuals and those working in various occupations to be classified using this typology according to a three-letter code representing one of each of the six types. For example, someone after having completed a Holland theory-based questionnaire may derive a three-letter code of ISR (refer to the descriptions of Holland types). According to the Holland approach, such an individual is much more like a food technologist (also coded ISR) than a photojournalist (coded AEC). Therefore, this person would be advised to consider occupations such as food technology rather than those such as photojournalism.

This is the essence of the Holland approach. However, Holland was not naive enough to think that “perfect matches” were easily generated by self-estimates of individuals and occupation incumbents. Obviously, other factors might influence occupational choice such as family, the labor market, and so on. Moreover, Holland recognized that individuals may match a variety of occupations rather than just one. While cognizant of such considerations, Holland maintained that his approach enabled individuals to narrow down the range of occupational alternatives from the otherwise daunting task of trying to consider literally thousands of possible occupation titles.

Super’s Development Theory of Careers and Choice

A more descriptive approach to the issue of occupational choice was adopted by Donald Super. Actually, Super is usually credited with shifting the focus of counselors and researchers alike away from “occupations” to that of career. Super’s theory focused on describing the process of career development, and over a 40-year period, the theory evolved by incorporating ongoing thinking in other areas of psychology into his theory. Super’s initial theory sought to describe individuals’ careers in terms of stages: growth, exploration, establishment, maintenance, and decline (later renamed “disengagement”). Originally, Super’s theory considered occupational choice as a single event in this developmental paradigm. Occupational choice was seen as individuals implementing their self-concept. That is, as individuals develop through the growth and exploration stages, they develop a set of perceptions about themselves that they then seek to match with particular occupations. The closer the match, the greater the sense of personal and work satisfaction. Although broader in scope than Holland, this resembles the trait and factor approach. However, as Super elucidated the theory incorporating life span and life space concepts emphasizing the multirole nature of careers, the self-concept was later conceptualized as an internalized perspective of the person’s self along with the person’s perception of the context in which the person lives out other chosen roles in addition to worker, including parent, student, citizen, homemaker, child, and leisurite. Occupational choice for Super came to be viewed as one way in which individuals manifest their selfhood in the world. However, Super also introduced the concept of “life role salience,” indicating that work is only one of several roles that at any time in people’s lives may be most important for them.

The demands of different roles for individuals may also result in role conflict, especially in terms of time, effort, and money. However, sometimes different roles may compensate for one another. For example, individuals who want to be parents but are prevented from having children for whatever reason may assume the role of workers in a child care setting.

Thus increasingly, Super incorporated contextual factors into his theory of career development, and in doing so, occupational choice became only one of many important decisions that people may be, and usually are, called upon to make in their lives. Implementing the self-concept through occupational choice involved synthesizing all the developing characteristics, roles, evaluations, and learnings of individuals, on one hand, and compromising with the constraints of external reality, on the other. Indeed, occupational choice for Super gradually assumed a developmental perspective. Decision making began to be understood as an ongoing process of development and change. Super introduced two ideas to account for this. As the person developed and changed, so too did the self-concept, resulting in a series of occupational choices, each one attempting by “successive approximations” to secure a better match between self and work. The other concept that Super employed was that of the “minicycle,” in which individuals make ongoing occupational choices by recycling through the stages of growth, exploration, and establishment. Thus by the time of his death in 1994, Super had embedded occupational choice in the broader conceptualization of ongoing personal change and development, a multiplicity of influences, and a multirole perspective in which life structure and career became virtually synonymous.

Integrating Choice and Developmental Perspectives-Circumscription and Compromise

More recent formulations in vocational psychology have usually sought to synthesize the disparate perspectives of choice (as exemplified by the Holland approach) with development (as exemplified by the Super approach). One such attempt was that of Linda Gottfredson. She viewed occupational aspirations as developing through a process of circumscription (eliminating the unacceptable options) and choice through a process of compromise (relinquishing some preferences to broaden the range of available options). Like Super, Gottfredson drew attention to developmental experiences shaping individuals’ perceptions of themselves; however, Gottfredson placed more emphasis on early development. The salient aspects of childhood development for occupational choice were seen by Gottfredson as the formation of sex type, then prestige, and then interest preference perceptions of both the personal self and the environment. Thus, occupational choice was viewed as the process of matching the perceptions of the self with the corresponding perceptions of the world of occupations. Gottfredson charted a Cognitive Map of Occupations based on generally held stereotypes of occupations in terms of their sex type (how masculine or feminine they were perceived to be), prestige (what is the perceived socioeconomic status of each occupation), and field of work (classified according to the Holland categories outlined earlier). For example, most people would agree that construction worker is perceived as a male, low-prestige, Realistic occupation, while dental hygienist is seen as a female, mid-range, Social occupation. As individuals develop their understanding of themselves and their environment, particular occupations come to be seen as congruent or incongruent with the self. Incongruent occupations, often unconsciously, are eliminated from consideration on the basis of the occupational stereotype. By the time career-related decisions are being made, individuals have circumscribed their occupational options to what Gottfredson called a “zone of acceptable alternatives.” While individuals may have ideal preferences within this range of occupations, often adventitious factors may precipitate another choice within the same range. To illustrate, consider a 17-year-old boy having narrowed the range of options by eliminating all occupations except those that are male, mid-range, and Realistic. He would likely be thinking about trade and technician-level occupations, since such occupational stereotypes correspond with such a self-concept. This person might consider electronic communication technician as his most preferred option. However, the competition for obtaining such work may result in the boy deciding to commence training and work as an electrical mechanic, because that occupation is also in his zone of acceptable alternatives and because he is offered a position by an uncle who owns an electrical manufacturing firm (a serendipitous event).

Such a scenario illustrates a number of new dimensions to our understanding of occupational choice. First, choice can be about what we do not want as much, if not more, than what we want. Second, the often unconscious influence of perceptions, images, and stereotypes, rather than standardized occupational information, is frequently influential in and determinative of occupational choice, regardless of their accuracy. Third, occupational choice is not necessarily “a perfect match” but may be simply in some way “acceptable.” Fourth, unplanned contextual factors (such as having an uncle in the industry) can be influential in the occupational choice outcome.

Gottfredson also sought to address the issue of how individuals respond when they are unable to choose and enter an acceptable occupation. Such individuals have to “compromise.” Gottfredson postulated that the most recently developed perceptions of self, being less integral to individuals’ understanding of themselves, are more likely to be relinquished as a way to broaden the zone of acceptable alternatives. Thus individuals are more likely to broaden their interest preferences rather than their prestige preferences and more likely to lower their prestige preferences before broadening their sex type preferences. In a more recent formulation of her theory, Gottfredson indicated that while this pattern of compromise generally applies, it can be moderated by the degree of the compromise and the individuals’ level of concern. By introducing in a systematic way the notion of compromise, this approach sought to integrate developmental, psychological, and contextual processes into occupational choice.

Integrating Choice and Development Perspectives-Social Learning Theory

John Krumboltz and his associates used principles derived from learning theory as a basis for incorporating a wider range of influences than Holland’s pared-down approach. Basically there are three types of learning:

  1. Classical conditioning or associative learning: two ideas or events are so frequently linked that the learner makes a connection between the two on a continuing basis.
  2. Instrumental conditioning or reward and punishment: this is learning by experience that particular actions can have either positive or negative outcomes.
  3. Observational learning or learning by example: by observing others and our world we learn by inference, imitation, and demonstration.

Using these principles, Krumboltz and his associates outlined a set of influences on people as they develop and make career decisions. These influences include (1) genetic endowments and special abilities; environmental conditions and events, many of which are beyond the control of the individuals; and learning experiences, which result in the development of task approach skills (which include personal standards, habits, ways of thinking and observing, and emotional reactions). Part of this process also is the development of individuals’ understanding of both themselves (self-observation generalizations) and their environment (worldview observation generaliza­tions). These become outcomes that combine further with other task approach skills such as decision-making style to produce actions in the form of decisions (such as an occupational choice) and behaviors intended to lead to or implement decisions. Increasingly, Krumboltz has come to emphasize two particular aspects of this formulation relevant to occupational choice. The first is the impact of unplanned events as influences on people’s career development and occupational choice. His vision of such influences is much broader than Gottfredson’s, extending beyond immediate serendipity to include the vagaries of training and employment opportunities, finances, laws, natural disasters, family circumstances, community expectations, and technological change.

The second aspect is the extension of occupational choice into the broader context of life transitions. Decisions associated with work influence and are influenced by other decisions people make about their life circumstances. Thus, for example, the fact that someone is married or gets divorced, moves interstate, wins the lottery, has a life-threatening experience, and so on cannot be dissociated from the person’s work circumstances. In fact, Krumboltz very recently has gone so far as to suggest that career counselors should become life transition counselors, who develop a long-term continuing relationship with their clients as individuals course through their lives and as planned and unplanned events impact on them and precipitate the possibility or necessity for change. The analogy that Krumboltz uses for a life transition counselor is an individual’s personal dentist, who is visited regularly for checkups and from whom treatment is sought when a problem arises. Such a counselor would also help in the development of habits to prevent or minimize negative unplanned events in the same way a dentist might help by providing a mouth guard for playing human contact sports.

Decision-Making Approaches to Occupational Choice

An alternative approach to occupational choice that overlaps some of the preceding formulations is the focus on the actual process of choice or deciding. A systematic application of this decision-making approach was that of Irving Janis and Leon Mann. Decision-making perspectives tend to be sequential in their presentation of the choice process. Janis and Mann outlined the decision sequence as follows:

  1. Accepting the challenge: deciding to decide rather than procrastinate, shift responsibility, or engage in defensive avoidance
  2. Searching for alternatives: using creative problem-solving techniques such as brainstorming and modification of flawed alternatives
  3. Evaluating alternatives: using a balance sheet to weigh gains and losses to self and others of particular occupation options
  4. Choosing and becoming committed: using strategies such as “maximizing” (finding the one best alternative) or “satisficing” (selecting an alternative that is acceptable even though it may not be the very best); developing contingency plans was also recommended in case the worst case scenario in the future were to eventuate
  5. Overcoming setbacks and adhering to the decision: analyzing when plans fail or the unexpected occurs in order to learn from the experience and to discover how plans might be redeemed and adverse outcomes redressed; flexibility was advocated to be able to adapt alternatives in light of unforeseen change.

Some of the themes of contemporary perspectives of occupational choice are evident in the Janis-Mann model such as incorporating others as well as self in the choice process, the use of creativity in developing choice alternatives, the uncertainty of the future, and the need for flexibility in responding to change.

Sociological Perspectives on Occupational Choice

From time to time in the career development literature, an insurgent voice of protest is raised, challenging the very concept of “occupational choice.” It is objected that the idea of “choice” is a prerogative of the privileged, and that for many who are disadvantaged, there is little or no choice. This view often emphasizes sociolog­ical and labor market perspectives—social class, remote location, economic disadvantage, and employment supply and demand. One-industry towns are a classic example of this viewpoint, which could be summarized by saying that people do not choose occupations, jobs choose people. This constitutes a salutary reminder, especially to psychologists in the career development field, that many of the influences on individuals’ occupational choices are not in fact psychological at all.

Recent Formulations of Occupational Choice

The five approaches to occupational choice outlined represent a sampling of how thinking about this topic has been approached and has changed. A range of other more recent conceptions are also mentioned to provide an indication of some of the latest thinking about occupational choice in career development.

Social cognitive career theory expands on the learning theory approach. Learning processes are linked in this perspective with cognitive processes of self-regulation, including self-efficacy (the belief in one’s own ability to effect change), outcome expectations (beliefs about the consequences of actions), and personal goals (commitments to act to effect desired outcomes). This approach emphasizes the importance of the person and the environment in the process of occupational choice. Individuals both shape and are shaped by their interactions with their contexts. The choice process is viewed as a feedback loop, commencing with the expression of a goal, action taken to implement this goal, performance attainment information gained as a result of the action taken, feeding back into the expression of a revised goal, and so on.

The cognitive information processing model is an emerging approach to occupational choice, expanding on earlier decision-making perspectives. Occupational choice is a specific instance of a range of decisions that individuals are called upon to make in their lives with varying levels of generality and complexity. This approach draws attention to metacognitions such as self-talk, self-awareness, and monitoring and control in the process of decision making. The choice process is conceived as a five-stage cycle in which people act in and act on their contexts. Moreover, decision making at one level of generality such as lifestyle (e.g., the desire to live in a warmer climate) is likely to influence decision making at a more specific level such as occupational choice (e.g., having to find a new job in a different location). The five-stage cycle process is (1) communication (perceiving a need or gap), (2) analysis (identifying the causes of and connections with the problem), (3) synthesis (developing potential action alternatives), (4) valuing (prioritizing alternatives), and (5) execution (developing a strategy for choice implementation). Then there is a return to the communication stage to evaluate if the need is met and so on through the cycle again.

Contextual accounts of career stress the complexity and multiplicity of possible influences in career development. However, rather than seek understanding of these in causal sequences, proponents of contextual-ism tend to look for the goal directedness and meaning for individuals in their present contexts. This approach to career understands occupational choice in terms of action and construction. Action is individuals’ capacities for change, intentionality, meaning, and continuity. Truth and meaning emerge from the transaction of individuals with their contexts. Construction is the person’s capacity to interpret and integrate his or her experience in meaningful ways as a basis for further action such as occupational choice. Interpretation and narrative become major means to assist individuals make occupational choices within the broader context of life planning. These theorists often talk about career in terms of being constructed as a project that emphasizes intrinsic motivation, purpose, and meaningfulness. This approach incorporates emotions as motivators, regulators, and interpretive keys to meaning and significance. From this perspective, occupational choice is not about questions of “how” to choose a career but “why” a career is being constructed this way and “what” this tell, us about each individual’s sense of purpose.

Recently, attempts have been made to introduce systems thinking into the career development field as a way to understand contextual diversity and the need for greater conceptual comprehensiveness. Such approaches view career in terms of a pattern of (mutually influencing) life influences in which individuals are both systems comprised of subsystems and are subsystems of more general systems (such as family, workplace, and community), which are themselves part of even more general systems such as the economy, geopolitics, and the law. Such an approach emphasizes the embeddedness of individuals in their context and the interactive potential of systems to influence one another in unplanned and disproportionate ways.

Allied to systems thinking in career development is the emergence of chaos and complexity theory applications. Such theories build on the contextual and systems accounts of career by focusing on the implications of complexity in terms of occupational choice. These theorists draw attention to the role of chance, the nonlinearity of change, and the adaptive and evolutionary propensities of the self-organizing properties of systems. In particular, the chaos and complexity approach focuses on the susceptibility of individuals as complex systems to change and the concatenating effects of such change. This can in turn result in the dramatic transformation of the system (sometimes called a phase shift). For example, some form of “conversion” or “trauma” experience can totally alter the personality and course of individuals’ lives. Occupational choice is viewed as a decision-­making task undertaken in a context of perpetually incomplete knowledge and significant, though always limited, control. The susceptibility of complex systems to change renders preparing for, initiating, and dealing with change, the perpetual challenge for career decision making and development.

In attempting to understand how we make career decisions, we must at some stage confront our irrational natures. There is a plethora of research pointing to our inability to apply logic appropriately in decision-making tasks. However, much theorizing on occupational choice has taken an overly optimistic view of our rationality and what can be predicted. Such traditional thinking has started from the premise that certainty of choice is the desirable outcome and that rational deductive logic can be applied to systematically remove uncertainty until all that remains is the logical career choice. Aside from the issue of whether absolute certainty is attainable or desirable, it is unlikely that most of us make career decisions based on logic alone. Hunches, emotions, weaknesses, prejudices, unplanned events, indeed life events in general, will all conspire against the purely rational choice. Furthermore, this dynamical nature of reality and human experience reminds us that we can act purposively to fashion a job to our liking, rather than passively and supinely fitting into a rigid and predefined job.

A Final Comment

In most contemporary theoretical and research literature, the term occupational choice is rarely cited. Most writers refer to career choice and career development, since the idea of “career” incorporates the broader notions of not just occupation but leisure, family and community commitment, and other salient activities. Some theorists who still value simplicity continue to want to focus specifically on the mechanisms of choosing. However, the dominant perspective that is ascending is that choices relating to work have to be understood and made within the broader context of individuals’ lives, in which a multiplicity of potential influences may be operative. Moreover, the notion of “occupational choice” has associated with it, from its historical origins, the idea of a front-end, single career choice for life. While some of the predictions about the need to change careers from 5 to 10 times in the future are yet to be verified, the idea of a single “occupational choice” seems to sound curiously old fashioned. However, it is still the case that about 40 percent of most Western societies’ workers have remained basically in one occupation for virtually all of their working lives, suggesting that such an idea might still be relevant. Furthermore, labor market statistics in Western economies typically reveal that the lability of employment varies considerably across occupations, again suggesting that the idea that people will alter occupations very frequently may not be universally applicable across most labor markets.

Therefore, it may be somewhat premature to jettison the concept of occupational choice entirely from the career development literature and counseling practice. For example, the word vocational has largely been eschewed by writers in favor of career in the same way that guidance has given way to counseling and development in most contemporary literature. However, the resurgent interest in the role of spirituality in career development has emphasized ideas of purpose, fulfillment, identity, and calling, to which the term vocation originally applied. Thus it suddenly does not seem so improbable that vocation will make a comeback in the career development literature. If so, then consigning occupational choice to desuetude may also be premature. Researchers, theorists, and practitioners are all taught the virtues of parsimony in explaining outcomes and behaviors. However, if science in general has taught us anything in the last hundred years, it is that reality is anything but simple. In fact, it is wonderfully and astonishingly complex. Therefore, trying to explain everybody’s working life and behavior with a single paradigm and even with a single set of terms may not be achievable or even desirable. Notwithstanding whatever the half-life of some other types of work may be, for at least some occupations and those who choose them, the idea of an occupational choice remains meaningful, relevant, and applicable.

See also:


  1. Amundson, N. E. 2003. Active Engagement: Enhancing the Career Counselling Process. 2d ed. Richmond, BC, Canada: Ergon.
  2. Bloch, D. P. and Richmond, L. J., eds. 1997. Connections between Spirit of Work in Career Development. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.
  3. Brown, D., Brooks, L. and Associates, eds. 1996. Career Choice and Development. 3d ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Cochran, L. 1997. Career Counseling: A Narrative Approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  5. Gelatt, H. B. 1991. Creative Decision Making. Los Altos, CA: Crisp.
  6. Herr, E. L. 1999. Counseling in a Dynamic Society: Contexts and Practices for the 21st Century. Alexandria. VA: American Counseling Association.
  7. Niles, S. G. and Harris-Bowlsbey, J. 2002. Career Develop­ment Interventions in the 21st Century. Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall.
  8. Patton, W. and McMahon, M. 1999. Career Development and Systems Theory: A New Relationship. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.