Adults in Transition

Adults experience a wide variety of transitions including shifting from school to work, marriage, divorce, birth of a child, death of a loved one, adjustments to serious injuries, relocations, and, particularly, career transitions. Since the latter part of the 20th century, a rapidly changing global economy and technological advances have demanded that people adjust to the changing context affecting their work lives. Coping with these challenges requires increased awareness of one’s self, of the world of work, and of adaptive strategies for making wise career decisions. The following sections emphasize various career-related transition types, theories, stages, special populations, and implications for career counseling.

Types of Transition

Transitions may be categorized as anticipated, unanticipated, or even nonevents. Moreover, these events can occur abruptly, such as in the case of accidents, or more gradually, such as adjustment to planned promotions or career transitions. A transition may be defined as an event or nonevent resulting in a change of assumptions about self and the environment and thus requires corresponding change in one’s behavior and relationships. For career counselors, it is important to understand the nature and context of the transition.

Anticipated Career Transitions

Some transitions occur at expected times and can be approached strategically. The initial planned career transition that most adults face is switching from school to work, with other transitions including searching out and changing careers and retirement. Unlike in other career transitions, the individual asserts great control in initiating change. This process typically involves gains, losses, and significant role shifts across the life span. Being able to think about and rehearse these changes in roles can increase one’s level of preparation, thus allowing for successful transitions.

Unanticipated Career Transitions

Unanticipated career transitions often involve a sense of crisis and are not usually associated with planned life cycle transitions. These unanticipated events can happen as a result of being fired or demoted, of sudden illness, of a premature death of a spouse, or of a natural disaster. Sudden plant closures or reductions in force (RIF) exemplify unanticipated career transitions. Although a plant closure may be announced and support for the transition provided, a RIF may result in a notice shortly prior to termination.


Nonevents are those events that a person has planned for and expected, but do not materialize, such as a marriage that did not occur, a promotion that failed to happen, or an unrealized dream. Another example of a nonevent is if a person planned to retire at age 62, but was not able to do so due to financial limitations. Nonevents can be categorized as personal, ripple, resultant, or delayed. Personal nonevents are individualized nonevents, such as a job change that never happened. A ripple nonevent results as a consequence of another person’s nonevent such as a spouse losing a job, hindering a planned retirement. The resultant nonevent occurs when either an anticipated or unanticipated event develops, causing a non-event such as failing to graduate, effectively blocking a planned career. Delayed events represent a situation where a nonevent occurs, but the person continues to hope that the event is only delayed and will eventually happen, such as a delayed promotion. Theories have been developed over the last century to help individuals cope with these types of transitions.

Theoretical Background

Career theories have been continually updated since Frank Parsons’s early work on vocational choice. These changes were driven by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and globalization. Parsons is credited as the father of vocational psychology. Prior to Parsons’s time, occupational choice and satisfaction related more to a person’s social class than to his or her choice. Industrialization allowed more individuals the opportunity and volition to engage in personally satisfying careers that provided a sense of security, dignity, and that matched their interests and values. Over a century since Parsons’s time, parallel issues affect today’s workers, though globalization presently is the main driving force instead of industrialization. Whereas the vocational issues that Parsons addressed involved a changing emphasis from agricultural to industrial opportunities within the United States, rapidly developing technologies and the increasing pressures of a global economy are presently paramount. Today, occupations are not simply shifting from one industry or area within the country, but the work is being sent to areas around the world. While new opportunities have opened up for workers, most continually struggle to cope and adapt to situations over which they have little or no control.

Career transition concerns and coping strategies are likely to vary across a life span. Theories such as Donald Super’s life-span, life-space vocational developmental theory are intended to cover a person’s career and life roles across the life span. His integrative theory was established during an era in which a person predictably and uniformly left school, obtained employment, and eventually retired. Although Super recognized the necessity of being ready to cope with work environments and occupations that are likely to change, his term career maturity implied a typical or natural progression from school, to work, to retirement.

To address the changing nature of careers, theorists have updated the concept of career maturity, considering it more appropriately as career adaptability, which has been placed at the core of career construction theory. Career adaptability is a psychosocial construct that denotes an individual’s readiness and resources for coping with current and imminent vocational development tasks, occupational transitions, and personal traumas. Insights from this concept provide a framework for dealing with unplanned changes. Individuals who are able to adapt and navigate through educational and career transitions do so along dimensions of concern about one’s future work life, control over one’s career future, curiosity to explore future selves and scenarios, and the confidence to seek one’s career goals.

Transition Stages

Career transitions inherently involve a process that occurs over time. Therefore, any consideration of transitions must address the complex interactions between the individual, significant others, and the cultural context of the transition. Theorists have proposed that individuals experience four stages in career transitions— moving in, moving through, moving out, and moving in again. Research indicates that people experience a variety of issues related to each stage. During the moving in stage, many employers will fail to provide sufficient job orientation. As a result, 50%-60% of newly hired individuals leave their job in the first 7 months. This stage of starting a new job requires knowing the expectations of peers, subordinates, supervisors, and job tasks. Moreover, workers must recognize that openness to this new information can help them embrace the new system and environment. In order to accomplish this, the person needs to understand the expectations regarding his or her new position and the culture of the environment, understanding the explicit and implicit norms and being aware that he or she is likely to feel marginalized initially.

As the person adjusts, he or she enters into the moving through stage. At this point some people may feel that their careers have reached a plateau. A person may also fear being stuck in a dead-end job, feel loneliness or that he or she is lacking in competence, or be concerned about managing competing demands. Strategies for addressing demands of this stage can be organized into three approaches. Forming is a way for individuals to gather information through exploration, innovation, and invention. Norming allows the individual to extend and improve upon what has been done in the past. Finally, fulfilling is a type of transformation involving integration of old and new ideas.

The third stage is the moving out stage. This is a common experience for a variety of reasons, such as a reduction in force, retirement, planned career change, or a layoff. It is both a time of distress as well as an opportunity for a new beginning, depending on how one approaches the change. Working through this stage is similar to working through the grief process, which is characterized by denial and isolation, anger and resentment, bargaining, preparatory depression, and finally acceptance. Individuals must recognize the importance of moving through stages and not getting stuck. Some may not even be aware of the stages or the nature of what happens in the stages.

The fourth stage, moving in again, involves the individual’s attempts to find and adapt to a new occupation or setting. It is helpful for support systems, such as family, friends, and even former coworkers, to find ways to cope with the unemployment during this stage. Coping strategies can involve joining support groups, keeping busy with other productive activities, and taking an active approach to career and educational exploration. During this stage, it is likely that individuals and their families will experience moments of despair or frustration. Instead of moving into a new job, many individuals transition into an educational setting. Although starting a new job, changing careers, going back to school, or retiring involve unique concerns and outcomes, the transitional issues remain the same: Individuals need to understand the culture of the educational setting, expectations for performance, technology and skills involved in returning to school, and seek strategies for feeling connected to the community again.

Implications for Counseling

To assist individuals with transitions, it is important to conduct an adequate assessment of their values, interests, skills, and personality and to note the importance of coping, social support, and so on. For coping resources, it may be useful to understand the four S’s of Situation, Self, Support, and Strategies, which address the current situation, the person’s unique patterning of traits and identity, the available resources, the social support, and the coping styles employed. Both emotion-focused and solution-focused approaches can be beneficial in helping the individuals and families process their emotions as well as retain a positive focus on identifying solutions in moving in a new direction. For example, the initial stages of transition may include anger at the company, the situation, or even government policies. Counselors can help dislocated workers understand and appropriately express these emotions. A solution-focused strategy may include a shift from dwelling on what went wrong in the past situation to proactively identifying steps, such as returning to school, to plan for the future.

Counselors can incorporate strategies from career construction theory or the career pathing model to benefit people in transition. Career construction uses narrative and constructivist approaches to help the person understand his or her career decision influences and choices across the life span. Career construction gives counselors a way to view clients in a broader and integrated fashion that emphasizes human agency through the context of their work and other life themes.

Career pathing starts with a clarification of goals and then utilizes assessments to help the client understand how his or her skills, experience, and personal style align with the skill requirements, performance expectations, and available occupational opportunities. The information gathered can be used to identify the actions and environments, such as training, coaching, additional education, or mentoring, that will be needed to prepare the person for a new occupation.

People naturally seek meaning and order in today’s complex world, especially those who have experienced a great deal of change. Because people who have gone through forced or unplanned career changes may experience a sense of loss and reformation of goals, it may be helpful for them to search for a sense of meaning and purpose in the transition. For some, this involves seeking spiritual support and guidance, which can also be another means of engaging social support.

Special Populations

Because career transitions affect the lives of individuals in such a holistic and sometimes dramatic fashion, it is important to consider how the transition process affects one’s personal and emotional well-being. Although certain aspects of transitions are universal (e.g., confusion, adjustment), the unique nature of different transition types can interact with personal and cultural factors to create additional challenges or to buffer the transitional experience. Career transitions might be experienced differently by people depending on gender, age, socioeconomic status, education, race/ ethnicity, region of the country, sexual orientation, disability status, and so on. Following are a few examples of special populations.

With regard to women’s career development, women may experience barriers in career transition related to work-family stressors, discrimination, or lack of support. For workers transitioning into retirement, the concepts of selection, optimization, and compensation may be particularly relevant. Selection can involve identifying new goals and choosing plans for retirement. People may shift their allocation of funds to optimize their financial resources and even compensate by choosing activities that are commensurate with changes in health. Similarly, health-related changes in older adults are resulting in families that are sandwiched between trying to take care of their own children while taking on the role of caregiver for aging parents, resulting in additional life stressors. Immigrants may have other stressors based upon their level of acculturation, language skills, discrimination, and cultural differences in their views of occupations and dedication to family.

With the rapid changes involved in globalization, workers need to have an increasing level of adaptability to keep up with the dynamics in the world of work. This involves understanding the occupational requirements as well as having an awareness of their own goals, resources, interests, abilities, and coping style. The associated global changes demand a more educated and nimble workforce. Similarly, career counselors need to keep up with these changes and have the appropriate tools to adequately assist individuals transitioning into a better future. Effective transition interventions can result in improved post-transition adjustment, which allows individuals to navigate future transitions with greater ease and confidence.


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