This article outlines the main schools within the broad area of career theory, which here have been defined as (a) a sociological perspective focusing on the structural influences over one’s working life and the interplay between individuals and institutions, (b) an “individual differences” or vocational perspective concentrating on fitting round pegs into round career holes, and (c) a developmental or life cycle perspective examining the way people develop and change over the course of their lives. This is not to say that additional perspectives are not relevant to theorizing about careers, only that the main areas of theoretical interest within the careers area have been dominated by these perspectives. Since it is impossible to do justice to the diversity and number of specific career theories in this brief space, we concentrate on the most important influences in the field and on general themes and tensions that have persisted throughout career theory.
Career Theory from a Sociological Perspective
The sociological perspective on careers focuses on the social structures, cultural norms, and institutions that define, direct, and constrain people’s actions at the societal level, as well as how those structural forces shape individuals’ behavior as they navigate through institutions, professions, and occupations. Careers work on occupational and professional boundary definition, mobility, status assignment, and constraints on occupational choice has roots in early sociology. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Max Weber (1864-1920) contributed to some of the most seminal early theoretical work in careers, most notably that of Everett Hughes.
Durkheim’s contribution to the careers literature focused on the nature of the relationship between the individual and societal structure, the importance of the division of labor to collective and individual identity, and the importance of occupational identity and association to the organization and integration of society. The Division of Labor in Society posited that individuals tend toward increasing functional specialization as society becomes increasingly industrialized, and these shifts change the foundation of social solidarity from individuals sharing similar functions within a community to individuals dependent on one another within a highly organized division of labor. This division of labor strongly determines individuals’ occupational lives and identities.
Karl Marx and Adam Smith were also preoccupied with the division of labor in industrial society. However, Durkheim did not argue that its effect on workers necessarily implied class conflict, as did Marx, and he was more concerned with its effects on social cohesion than was Smith (though Smith was more ambivalent about the societal effects of capitalism than one would assume given contemporary memory). The main concern with division of labor was how it leads to excessive specialization, dangerous in particular when accompanied by social inequality. Division of labor supports social integration only when specialization is not accompanied by an unjust division of status. When people are required to narrow the scope of their everyday professional activities to atomistic proportions, individuals begin to suffer from anomie, or alienation from their social collective, which undermines the stability of the collective. Durkheim’s work on the division of labor translates well from the societal to the organizational level, what he terms the “corporative” level, which he sees as an important secondary source of social cohesion, mediating between the societal level and the individual level. His work reminds organizational theorists to pay attention to how career boundaries and job scope within organizations play an important part in determining the cohesiveness of organizational groups and in developing organizational norms.
Occupational groups also play an important role in Durkheim’s work, in particular for their capacity for moral influence, rivaling the influence of the family as a source of collective morality and group identity and as protection against the alienating aspects of postindustrial life. As professional life has overtaken other sources of individual identity, Durkheim’s work on occupational groups has been reflected in career theory on professional identity, occupational attachment, and professional ethics.
In addition to remaining the most elegant theorist on the value of (and dangers inherent within) bureaucratic organizing, Max Weber was also the first theorist to describe the characteristics and stages of the administrative or bureaucratic career, newly emerging within early industrialized commerce and the movement in the nineteenth century toward a public service. Along with Durkheim, Weber was also concerned with a central tension within society between the need for individual freedom and the need for social control. Yet while Durkheim prioritized the maintenance of social integration and social order, Weber was more concerned with the value of individual freedom and humanity, which could be silenced within the efficient but depersonalized “iron cage” of bureaucratic organization.
As is well-known, Weber defined a number of characteristics of the modern bureaucracy, including the following: (a) fixed and continuous offices (b) governed by rules and/or laws within (c) an organizational hierarchy, managed by (d) officials with fixed sets of duties and (e) predetermined qualifications for office, including (f) specific training for that office. Weber was profoundly ambivalent about bureaucracy and the rationalization of processes that it requires. It has been claimed that Talcott Parsons tempered this ambivalence in his early translations of Weber’s work, which stressed the positive aspects of Weberian descriptions of bureaucracy over negative ones, whereas later translations of Weber’s work by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills highlighted this ambivalence. Weber’s ideas about bureaucratization in the modern state and corporation speak to the career theory on career paths, job scope, occupational and organizational socialization, and occupational and organizational identification. His ideas on the tension between (a) the gains of efficiency, stability, and fairness provided by bureaucracy and (b) the dangers to individual freedom and growth extended by the same process translate into theory on the relationship between an individual’s need for growth and development and the organization’s need for stability, reliability, and continuity.
Weber has also been credited with developing an early analysis of social hierarchy that separated out class hierarchy, the classification of individuals based on economic advantage, from status hierarchy, the classification of individuals based on honor or occupation. Distinguishing status and class allows one to conceptualize occupational attachment from both economic and prestige perspectives and informs career theory on occupational identity formation and attachment, echoed in Everett Hughes’s (see below) understanding of the creation of “professions.” Group identity can serve both to separate one group from another (economically or via prestige) and to help a group cohere internally (through commonalities in economic advantage or prestige).
Everett Hughes occupies a unique space in the history of career theory, since he is often designated as one of the founders of the field and was writing about the sociology of occupations as early as 1928. Using the institution as the central level of analysis allowed Hughes to continue to focus (in a Durkheimian sense) on the structural forces that constrain and shape human behavior, while remaining attuned to how individuals continually create meaning and norms within those institutions. For Hughes, institutions serve both as a regulatory or moral function for individuals, providing a source of collective identity and therefore mitigating against anomie in postindustrial society, and as an efficient way to organize resources. Hughes took on the division of labor and its importance to social relationships and its danger of undermining social stability. Framing the division of labor as a social phenomenon with implications beyond simple economic results allowed Hughes to frame work as a crux between the individual and society and point out that no profession can be understood without placing it within the context of a social matrix or system.
Weber’s influence on Hughes is also evident throughout his work. In “Institutional Office and the Person,” first published in 1937, Hughes wrote about the characteristics of formally held offices in much the same way that Weber wrote about characteristics of bureaucracy, including how offices define and prescribe one’s role and, in so doing, confer status on an individual. He echoes Weber’s understanding of status assignments by pointing out how offices can be communicated through ritual, such as taking a vow (like the Hippocratic oath), which defines office holders against others. Hughes was also interested in how professions are defined and circumscribed, repeating concerns about how professions maintain problematic boundaries, protecting themselves from outside intervention at the occasional expense of transparency and accountability.
Hughes’s students at the University of Chicago conducted some of the most important ethnographic studies of professions and occupations, including Becker and colleagues’ Boys in White, a classic study of the indoctrination of medical students into the profession of medicine, as well as studies of the careers of the taxi hall dancer, the professional thief, and the tubercular patient. Strains of Hughes and the concern for the effect of bureaucratization on individuals can be seen directly in some of the dystopias described in sociological investigations of the “modern corporation,” such as White Collar, by C. Wright Mills, or William Whyte’s Organization Man.
In the second half of the twentieth century, sociological career theories tended to focus on the social-structural determinants of occupational choice and attainment or, more ethnographically, on individuals’ experiences of career navigation through social structures.
A great deal of empirical work has studied the effects of class background and parental occupational attainment on the outcomes of individuals. Classic work in this area includes labor market theory, which speculates about the importance of both external and internal labor market features to individual work outcomes: Delbert C. Miller and William H. Form’s industrial sociology; and Peter M. Blau and Otis Dudley Duncan’s status attainment theory, which posited (and demonstrated empirically) that individual occupational status is heavily influenced by parental attainment. The second trend draws more heavily on the ethnographic work of the Chicago school sociologists, conducting inductive investigations of individuals’ navigation through careers and the interactions between the micro- and macrolevels of analysis.
Edgar Schein is the most obvious representative of this second sociological trend. Using a firmly interactionist approach, Schein examined both how the organization serves the acculturation and socialization needs of the individual and how the individual serves the innovation needs of the organization. His work on career anchors—the individual self-concept with which individuals approach their working lives and that could be based on technical competence, managerial competence, security, creativity, or autonomy—drew attention to the nature of the subjective career and the notion that organizations would be better served if they could accommodate individuals’ changing self-concepts. In terms of how individuals navigate through organizations, Schein conceptualized the organization as a cone, containing multiple classes of boundaries representing different types of status passages: external/internal boundaries, vertical boundaries (promotion), and horizontal boundaries (movement toward the “inner circle” of organizations). Michael Driver’s directional pattern model of careers, driven partially by the individual and partially by the organization, recalls Schein’s understanding of unique individuals navigating unique paths through organizations.
The desire to capture what a career is, both for the individual and within an organizational context, continues to receive a great deal of theoretical attention. The general trends have been to expand earlier understandings or metaphors of career, generally more static, predetermined, and organizationally and objectively defined, to be more dynamic and broadly, individually, and subjectively defined. Douglas Hall’s theory of the protean career and Michael Arthur’s theory of the boundaryless career represent keys to this trend.
Career Theory from a Vocational Perspective
The idea that an occupation exists that will best match or fit any individual was particularly attractive after industrialization undermined the traditional artisan- and guild-based organization of labor and after migration to cities (together with waves of immigration to the New World) made the placement of new arrivals into productive positions in society more urgent. This challenge was approached both by early psychologists, who believed that testing individuals’ abilities or aptitudes could be used to effectively place individuals in a societally productive way, and by civic reformers, who developed theories more concerned with individuals determining career choices that would prove individually “fit.” Though both strains were concerned with “fitting” people to jobs, psychologists tended to prioritize what was best for the organization, while civic reformers tended to focus on the needs of the individual. However, all of these theories generally imply a static understanding of human nature: Once a correct choice is discovered, whether by expert testing or journeys of self-awareness, the peg would have found an appropriately shaped hole.
Psychology as a scientific discipline was in its nascent stages in the nineteenth century. Psychologists such as Francis Galton (1822-1911), James McKeen Cattell (1860-1944), and Charles Spearman (1863-1945) were optimistic about the ability to measure and quantify individual abilities and potential, avidly devising tests to determine the nature and extent of individual differences and using those differences to predict various outcomes. Historically, the advancement of these types of early intelligence tests became useful as enlistment in World War I ballooned, which gave the military a tight timeline for figuring out how to most effectively place hundreds of thousands of personnel. The U.S. Committee on Classification of Personnel in the Army conducted one of the largest applications of intelligence and aptitude testing ever testing 1.7 million men and critically influencing the deployment of those military personnel.
It was, however, the development of personality and interest tests—such as the Strong Vocational Interest Blank and the Kuder Preference Record—which provided a boon to career theorists looking to develop propositions about what kinds of individuals would choose and excel in different jobs. The theories behind interest testing were conceptually different from the theories behind intelligence or aptitude testing, for they assumed that volition would determine performance at least as much as inherited ability would. Though vocational testing has moved beyond static understanding of human ability and the idea that scores on tests are alone enough to understand in what occupations individuals will thrive, these early theories and tests continue to maintain some authority in the field.
Moral and educational concerns motivated the second stream of vocational theorists. Instead of being primarily concerned with how organizations could most effectively gain productively from their human resources, early vocational guidance theorists were propelled by an interest in understanding the “person side” of the peg-in-hole metaphor: In what type of employment would an individual find the greatest satisfaction?
The reformist and theorist Frank Parsons (1854-1908) played as seminal and catalytic a role as the one played by Hughes within the sociological tradition of career theory. A lawyer by training, Parsons became concerned in the later stages of his career about the effects of industrialization on workers, especially among those most vulnerable (the young, the poor, and new immigrants). At Civic Service House in Boston, Parsons developed an experience-based theory: If individuals had accurate and thorough self-understanding and had accurate and adequate understandings of different professions and the connections between those two sets of beliefs, a solid vocational choice could result. His motivation was to encourage vocational discovery as a process of self-actualization. Though Parsons’s theory of vocational choice was not new (similar ideas about vocational choice had been circulating since the 1700s), it remains most credited to him to this day.
It is possible to see the influence of both the individual-differences tradition and the vocational-education tradition in some of the earliest works of the career theory canon. In the 1950s, Anne Roe’s personality theory of career choice made predictions about career choice based on a combination of factors, including childhood experiences, our personal needs and need strengths (taken from Abraham Maslow), and our genetic predispositions (i.e., abilities). Though incorporating ideas from more developmental theories, such as attending to the importance of one’s childhood environment in later career choice, her theory remained primarily vocational in perspective, interested in the prediction of adult vocational interest patterns and choice based on a combination of individual-level factors. In an effort that enlarged the “fit” notion to include both individual and environmental factors, Lloyd Lofquist and Rene Dawis developed the concept of work adjustment. Work adjustment represents the continuing effort of individuals to ensure that their own needs are met within the work environment in ways that are commensurate with the requirements of their jobs; this correspondence then predicts satisfaction, effectiveness, and turnover. The inherent tension in the vocational guidance tradition within career theory involves the twin desire to predict people’s “best fit” profession, while acknowledging that prediction is, at best, probabilistic and that person-environment fit involves many interacting variables, which can all potentially change.
John Holland’s theory of vocational choice is perhaps the most representative “career” theory that tentatively explores the tension between knowing that individuals continually develop and prioritizing the notion that the goal of vocational guidance is to “fit” individuals to jobs. The theory proposes that vocational choice and behavior are driven by individuals’ attempts to best fit their personal orientations to their occupational environments. Individuals have patterns of personal orientations (Holland defines six: Realistic, Investigative, Social, Conventional, Enterprising, and Artistic) that drive vocational choice. Congruence between individuals’ personal orientations and the demands of their occupational environments then drive satisfaction and performance outcomes. The theory has taken on added complexity since first proposed in the early 1960s, for example with regard to emphasizing contextual factors. Although it does try to take into account how people may change and require adaptation to different environments (a position helped through the use of longitudinal research into the stability of vocational choice), it remains a more complex and nuanced restatement of older “peg-in-hole” theories. Linda Gottfredson’s later theory of circumspection and compromise echoed Holland’s interest in fitting individual preferences with occupational requirements, though from a lens of childhood psychology. She posited that individuals’ vocational choices are made on the basis of narrowing occupational options (circumspection eliminates unwanted options, while compromise replaces unrealistic desired alternatives with more realistic ones) through an ongoing process of mapping one’s self-concepts to held images of occupation.
Career Theory from a Developmental Perspective
In contrast to most vocational theory, the developmental perspective focuses on careers as a dynamic and maturing process that evolves over time. The key theorists usually identified with this perspective have traditionally built stage-based models of career.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung (1865-1961), as well as Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) and Erik Erikson (1902-1994), contributed different visions of dynamic individual change and growth over the life cycle.
Freud’s legacy is perhaps both underrepresented and diffused in the career theory canon. Freud did claim that life’s twofold foundation is “the compulsion to work, the power to love.” In particular, the key role that work plays in a well-adjusted personality and the unhealthy role it can likewise play in a less well-adjusted personality are persistent themes throughout his writing. Strains of this can be seen in Clayton Alderfer’s work, which points out how Freud’s work on transference is relevant to understanding how needs from other realms could be sublimated through work. Work can represent the most positive achievement in individual life, but it also may represent attempts to avoid negotiating the unconscious. Freud’s continued priority of childhood influences over the potential for seminal experiences in adult life and the frustrating untestability of his theories left him with less to contribute to career theory than other developmental theorists.
In contrast, Jung presented himself as one of the first theorists of midlife. Jung’s own “midlife crisis,” in 1913 at the age of 38, triggered a new understanding of the period between age 35 and 50 as a phase of life during which important changes in the psyche take place. During this phase, individuals tend to shift from a primary focus on the external world to a more internal, reflective state, opening the possibility for profound growth—as well as potential for withdrawal from the second half of life if the tasks one is confronted with at midlife prove too intimidating.
Following Freud and Jung, both Maslow and Erikson presented hierarchical stage-based models that are highly attractive and transportable to theorizing about careers (though they remain frustratingly uncooperative in empirical testing). Maslow’s theory of motivation rests on a five-step hierarchy of needs, beginning with physiological needs; progressing through safety needs, affiliation needs, and achievement and esteem needs; and finally culminating in the need for self-actualization. Individuals are motivated by whatever set of needs is most personally salient and unmet at the time. Once a set of needs has been met, the next-higher level of needs assumes greater salience. Self-actualization has remained a popular construct representing an important career “success” outcome. However, empirical analysis has had little success confirming his theories; instead, Maslow’s work has been reinterpreted by career theorists as speaking to a series of sequential career stages, representing status passages rather than sets of need gratification.
Erikson’s eight-stage developmental theory contains a number of progressive tasks that directly influence career theory. The stage of industry versus inferiority requires that the school-age child integrate an understanding of the importance of work and accomplishment, while mitigating against a sense of inadequacy as he or she grapples with learning new technologies. This stage gives way to the stage of identity versus role confusion, during which the main task is to ensure the development of a strong sense of self, a key piece in developing a strong vocational identity: Erikson claimed that the inability to resolve an occupational identity is a primary cause of disturbance in youth. The intimacy-versus-isolation stage, which occurs in early adulthood, requires individuals to commit both to intimate relationships and to stable employment or career (toward midlife) and builds toward the final two stages of life (both after midlife). During the stage of generativity versus stagnation, individuals are to guide and teach the next generation, while the final stage, ego integrity versus despair, represents the culmination of a life’s journey toward maturity, during which one has accepted the limitations of one’s individual life but remains an enlightened leader and legacy builder.
Traditional life span developmental psychology examines human development throughout life, with the perspective that developmental processes are best understood in a context that incorporates individuals’ entire life courses. Clayton Alderfer’s Existence, Relatedness and Growth (ERG) theory represents a fusion of theories from a number of different disciplines, though the work is most seriously indebted to Maslow’s theory of motivation. Alderfer posed his theory as a more parsimonious, less rigid, and more career-focused alternative to Maslow’s. ERG theory posits that individual needs can be characterized by “existence,” or the importance of finding equilibrium in the satisfaction of human needs; “relatedness,” or the importance of human interactions in social environments; and “growth,” or the need of any system to increase in order and differentiation over time.
George Vaillant’s study of successful adult adaptation also represents a theoretical stepping-stone between Freud, Jung, and career theory. In a 35-year-long cohort study of “people who are well and do well,” Vaillant took Freud’s work on the ego mechanisms of defense and arranged them in an evolutionary process, to range from the least- to most-adaptive defense mechanisms. His study demonstrated that individuals who are most successful are able to change their needs and priorities as they navigate the life cycle and demonstrate growth over time. Vaillant believed his longitudinal study also supported the theories of Erikson, finding that subjects at early midlife are more interested in their own careers (conforming to Erikson’s stages of industry and identity), while by their 50s, they are more interested in their colleagues and staff (con-farming to Erikson’s stages of intimacy and generativity). He also noted that individuals could get stuck, living their adult lives as if they were teenagers, harkening back to Jung’s concerns about unsuccessfully meeting the challenge of complete individuation that meets one at midlife.
Seeing his study The Seasons of a Man’s Life as a parallel to Adaptation to Life, Daniel Levinson focused on the midlife decade, which had caught the imagination of Erikson and Jung, because at 40, individuals must make the transition from wondering what one will be to coping with what one has become. Levinson distinguished himself from the more purely intraindividual theorists by stressing the interaction between the individual and his or her environment. Levinson posited universal stages through which most individuals pass, each of which is connected to either structure-building or structure-changing periods. The midlife transition, the point at which individuals become disillusioned with their current realities, involves confronting and reintegrating the polarities that define life, and it represents the most important structure-changing phase of life. Erikson referred to this as the “stage of generativity”; Jung first proposed it as the turning point between the first and second half of life.
From the 1950s on, Donald Super distinguished between occupational and career theory—’the former representing the static theories of the vocational psychologists and the latter representing the more dynamic theories covered in this section. Influenced by both life stage theorists and social role theorists, Super built a staged model of careers positing that career development occurs along a set of phases during which individuals continually implement and then revise self-concepts. Super’s “life-span, life-space” approach to careers charges that individuals’ developmental tasks and requirements change over time, as do their social roles, and that both influence career development recursively. Work and life satisfaction depend on the ability of individuals to implement their self-concepts in a fulfilling way, appropriate to their life stages and social roles at the time. Like Schein, Super believed the driving self-concept became more stable as individuals matured.
Though Super’s developmental theory has withstood the test of time, a number of similar career theories echoed many of the same ideas, such as Eli Ginzberg and his colleagues’ theory of occupational choice, based heavily on developmental psychology, and David Tiedeman and Robert O’Hara’s theory of career development. Super’s attention to social roles has also withstood the test of time, becoming all the more important as theorists grapple with issues of dual careers, women’s unique career issues, and the work/life and work/family interface.
There have been serious criticisms of these life course theorists that highlight the need for any theorist of adult development to attend to both intraindividual processes and processes of individual-society interaction. The main criticism of life stage models is their persistent though restrictive tendency for developmental models to make the assumption that developmental stages are sequential, unidirectional, teleological, irreversible, and universal.
We close by identifying three themes that have remained relevant to career theory over time. First, running through the entire literature on careers is the tension between individual agency, the notion that we are what we make of ourselves (present most fully in vocational theory), and social determinism, in which individual behavior is determined by structural constraints (present most fully in sociological theory). Second, the tension between career as a dynamic process and career as a choice or fit phenomenon has been continuously apparent throughout the history of career theory. Though current trends are toward dynamic models, the bulk of empirical work in career theory remains tied to static models, which are easier to design, operationalize, and model statistically. And third, level-of-analysis issues continue as an ongoing tension in career theory. Sociologists have historically emphasized the importance of careers in the stable reproduction of the social order; vocational theorists have emphasized person-job fit as a mutual goal of both individuals and organizations; and developmental theorists have privileged the goal of personal self-expression and/or growth. This tension also speaks to the central fascination with careers as objects of study. They intersect with society at every conceivable level of analysis, from people living their careers to the societies that are formed and reformed in the process.
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