One of the most important milestones in an individual’s life and career is the transition from school to work. Much research has examined how individuals come to understand who they are by the work they perform and the occupations they choose. Early psychological theories examined the importance of work, especially as measured by hierarchical rank and income, to the process by which a child becomes an adult. One of the most influential of these models was developed by Erik Erikson, who proposed that an individual must pass through eight stages, each with its attendant requirements or “dilemmas” determined by age and social demands. Erikson’s fifth stage (identity versus role confusion) is the time when young adults (approximately age 19-25) begin to focus on career concerns by contemplating what occupations to prepare for, while creating sexual, religious, and political identities. The formation of an adult identity and separation from one’s parents are associated with career decidedness, exploration, confident decision making, and the ability to engage in career-related tasks.
Drawing on the works of psychological life development, Donald Super devised perhaps the best-known model of career stage development. Super suggested that individuals implement their self-concept through vocational choices. This process of choosing an occupation that permits maximum self-expression occurs over time and can be summarized in four career stages: (1) exploration, a period of engaging in self-examination, schooling, and the study of different career options; (2) establishment, a period of becoming employed and finding a niche; (3) maintenance, a period of holding on to one’s position and updating skills; and (4) disengagement, a period of phasing into retirement. The exploration and establishment stages constitute the early career.
One key developmental task of the exploration stage is choosing an occupation. Career scholar John Holland argued that individual traits, parental preferences, and childhood experiences create natural preferences, which, over time, lead to the development of interests and coping styles as well as occupational preferences. Holland’s model of vocational choice suggests that individuals will seek out work environments that match their skills, abilities, attitudes, and values. He identified six personality types: (1) Realistic, who prefer to work with objects, tools, machines, and animals and are persistent, practical, and asocial; (2) Investigative, who chose to observe, understand, and control the physical and social environment and are curious, independent, and introspective; (3) Artistic, who prefer ambiguous, unsystematic tasks that use physical and verbal materials to craft new ideas or products and are expressive, imaginative, and nonconforming; (4) Social, who like to inform, teach, and develop others through human relations skills and are friendly, empathic, and understanding; (5) Enterprising, who exercise leadership, use persuasion to achieve goals, and are ambitious and self-confident; and (6) Conventional, who like to organize and handle data and are conforming, efficient, and practical.
Holland’s theory and its related measure, the Holland Vocational Preference Inventory, have been used by career counselors in a variety of settings and, as such, have been the subject of much research scrutiny. Holland’s six types, along with the Myers-Briggs personality measure, are often used to assist college students in making early career decisions.
Holland contended that failure to work in a situation with good personality-environment fit would create role conflict, whereas congruence between personality and the environment would result in high satisfaction and performance. The process by which individuals match themselves to organizations was detailed in John Wanous’s book Organizational Entry: Recruitment, Selection, Orientation and Socialization of Newcomers. During the job search process, individuals seek out firms that will meet their needs, while organizations simultaneously seek out individuals with required qualifications. Once a match is made, the new employee learns the firm’s culture and norms through formal organizational methods, such as orientation programs and the employee handbook, as well as informal processes, such as hazing and office gossip.
Wanous suggested the use of “realistic job previews” (RJPs) as a means of reducing the likelihood of a person-organization mismatch and decreasing employee turnover. In contrast to the seduction recruitment method, which creates inflated expectations or false impressions, RJPs provide potential employees with the positive as well as the negative aspects of the organization and job. During the recruitment and selection process, individuals who perceive a mismatch between their needs and values and what the organization has to offer can self-select out of the process, choosing alternative job offers that better fit their needs. Those who are eventually hired by a firm providing an RJP should be aware of—and “vaccinated” against—the potential negatives of the workplace. They should have more realistic expectations that can be more easily met, as well as a better understanding of job requirements. Employees exposed to an RJP are more likely to have developed coping mechanisms for managing the realities of the workplace and to be more committed to the firm after having made a meaningful choice among alternative job offers. Because the highest turnover rates are reported among the newly hired, the use of RJPs, as well as other methods of reducing unrealistic expectations, can help organizations lower replacement costs.
In the early career stage of establishment, individuals become employed and try to discover their niches. Individuals become regulated to the work world, learning how to interact effectively with coworkers and superiors within cultural norms. They develop expertise and responsibility for improving performance and seek to reconcile the desire for independence and the demands of organizations. Being proactive, managing office politics, and finding a mentor or establishing a network of mentors are all means by which newcomers can help increase the effectiveness of the socialization process that occurs during the establishment stage.
As individuals navigate through the establishment and other stages, career anchors, which are internal to the person, act as both driving and constraining forces of career decisions. Edgar Schein defined a career anchor as the pattern of an individual’s self-perceived talents, values, and motives. If an individual is placed in a situation incongruent with his or her values that fails to meet his or her needs or is unlikely to produce success, that person will be “pulled back” by his or her anchor to a situation more likely to produce success.
During the establishment stage, individuals may also make significant decisions regarding marriage, the fit between work and nonwork, and the achievement of goals. Individuals may differ in the amount of commitment and participation they devote to roles, with some individuals engaging in perhaps only two roles (e.g., homemaker and worker) and others at the same age and stage engaging in many roles. The choices young adults make regarding commitment to these roles can cause various levels of role conflict, stress, and self-fulfillment. Daniel Levinson’s well-known model of life development suggests that whereas men develop relationships that complement their career goals (e.g., the special woman and mentor or advisor who support his career), women often struggle with marriage or other relationships that are obstacles to their development. Research has found a number of factors affect men and women differently as they try to build and progress through their careers, including social norms regarding time expectations related to child-rearing and household duties, the importance of job characteristics as they relate to work/family balance, the relative influence of a partner on career saliency and financial rewards, and the impact of organizational cultures that discourage work/family balance and impede career advancement through discriminatory practices.
Early Career Tasks in Changing Times
The linear career stage models, as exemplified by Donald Super’s model, mirror the rise of tall, organizational forms and their related structures and policies. Linear stage theories continue to dominate the research on careers, despite the changes that have occurred in the work environment, including increased globalization, rapid technology advances, increased diversity, and evolving organizational forms (e.g., flatter, more flexible). Some scholars, however, have proposed newer models and theories to recognize these changes. For example, instead of one set of career stages, as depicted by Super’s model, Tim Hall and Philip Mirvis have suggested multiple shorter learning cycles over the life span, which are driven by constant learning and mastery rather than by chronological age. Thus, an individual’s career will be characterized by a series of ministages of exploration-trial-mastery-exit across functions, organizations, and other work boundaries rather than just one period of exploration or establishment.
Moreover, under the old career models, success was often based on winning “tournament style” (i.e., win a round and advance to the next round; lose a round and out of the game). Early career failures, disruptions, and deviations from the linear career path were thought to have long-term negative effects on the career. Under newer, nonlinear careers models, success is defined by the individual, and focus is placed on continuously learning, intrinsic as well as extrinsic outcomes, and the increased ability to make physical and psychological changes throughout life. For example, Lisa Mainiero and Sherry Sullivan suggested a kaleidoscope model of careers, in which women change the facets of their lives to best match their life situations, even if those choices run counter to typical definitions of success. Moreover, unlike the stage theories, the kaleidoscope career model values gender and context rather than making it invisible in the examination of careers. In sum, these newer career patterns may place less pressure on individuals in the early career stages to make permanent career decisions and avoid early career mistakes at all costs, thus reducing stress and encouraging more entrepreneurial endeavors.
Career counselors and educators should examine new ways to assist individuals in early career stages to develop the skills and mind-sets necessary for achievement and personal success in these changing times. Such methods for enhanced early career development include high school guidance programs that facilitate public career exploration and the discussion of clear occupational choices; helping young adults set early career goals that provide a framework for making the many decisions they will face; experiential learning and other creative educational experiences, including university-sponsored service learning and entrepreneurial activities; and emphasis on part-time employment, structured internships, and co-op positions that foster the learning of new skills, interactions with more established workers, and meaningful work experiences.
- Career exploration
- Erikson’s theory of development
- Gender and careers
- Holland’s theory of vocational choice
- Organizational socialization
- Erikson, E. 1950. Childhood and Society. New York: Norton. Hall, D. T. and Mirvis, P. H. 1996. “The New Protean Career: Psychological Success and the Path with a Heart.” Pp. 15-45 in The Career Is Dead—Long Live the Career, edited by D. T. Hall. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Holland, J. L. 1973. Making Vocational Choices: A Theory of Careers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Levinson, D. 1978. The Seasons of a Man’s Life. New York: Knopf.
- Mainiero, L. A. and Sullivan, S. E. 2005. “Kaleidoscope Careers: An Alternative Explanation for the Opt-out Revolution.” Academy of Management Executive 19(1): 106-123.
- Schein, E. 1978. Career Dynamics: Matching Individual and Organizational Needs. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Sullivan, S. E. 1999. “The Changing Nature of Careers: A Review and Research Agenda.” Journal of Management 25:457-484.
- Sullivan, S. E., Carden, W. A. and Martin, D. F. 1998. “Careers in the Next Millennium: A Reconceptualization of Traditional Career Theory.” Human Resource Management Review 8:165-185.
- Super, D. E. 1957. Psychology of Careers. New York: Harper.
- Super, D. E. “A Life-span, Life-space Approach to Career Development.” Pp. 197-261 in Career Choice and Development, 2nd ed., edited by D. Brown and L. Brooks. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Wanous, J. P. 1992. Organizational Entry: Recruitment, Selection, Orientation and Socialization of Newcomers. 2d ed. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.