Super’s Theory

Beginning with the first documented vocational counseling attempts of Frank Parsons in 1909, vocational counseling and research focused for nearly half a century on vocational choice—not on how or why one made a particular vocational decision, but rather on what that decision was. Donald Super’s theory of vocational development was therefore unique in being one of the first attempts to explain the process underlying vocational choice and to take a developmental perspective by looking at vocational development across the life span.

In developing his theory, Super drew on the earlier work of Eli Ginzberg, Sol Ginsburg, Sidney Axelrad, and John Herma, who presented a model of vocational choice as part of a developmental process and incorporated Charlotte Beuheler’s concept of life stages. Therefore, at the core of Super’s theory has always existed the idea of five predictable stages of vocational development that occur as part of a continuous process throughout the life span. The theory was tested and refined based on results from the Career Pattern Study. This large-scale longitudinal study followed the career development of a large group of boys from Middletown, New York, who were in the eighth and ninth grades in 1951. Although the culturally homogenous nature of this sample has led to concerns about the cultural validity of Super’s theory, the Career Pattern Study remains one of the most ambitious studies of vocational development.

Super developed and refined the theory over the decades since it was first proposed. His final formulation of the theory, referred to as the life-span, life-space approach, is captured by two models: the life-career rainbow and the archway of career determinants.

The Life-Career Rainbow

According to Super, a career consists of the varying roles people take on during their lives. The life-career rainbow (or career rainbow model) brings together both the roles played in life (the life space) with the five developmental stages or structures of life (the life span).

Life Space

Super believed that people play several roles during a lifetime, with the work role as one of many. These roles are included in the life-career rainbow in what is called the life space. Life space is captured in the horizontal arches of Super’s rainbow and contains the roles of child, student, leisurite, citizen, worker, and homemaker. Roles can be enacted simultaneously, as when, for example, an individual has an active career, is a parent, and is active in community organizations. Roles that take more time commitment become more central, whereas other roles involving less commitment become more peripheral. People are defined by the central roles they play. As life transitions occur, central and peripheral roles are changed, added, or dropped. For example, the child and student roles become more peripheral as one becomes established with career and family. Similarly, increasing the number of roles in one’s life may mean less commitment to other roles. Roles can also interact, with outcomes in one role affecting outcomes of other roles. Depending on these interactions and the amount of energy and time taken from other roles, the presence of multiple roles may be positive or negative.

Life Span

As noted above, the roles played by a person develop and change throughout the course of a lifetime. The life span, symbolized by the top layer of the life-career rainbow, signifies the developmental structure in which the individual adapts to work. This layer shows a progression of life stages, from childhood to old age, that correspond to Super’s five career development life stages: growth, exploration, establishment, maintenance and disengagement. Each stage comprises several key career tasks that the individual is challenged to master before progressing to the next stage. Vocational or career maturity refers to how well an individual is able to handle these tasks.

Developmental Stages

During the growth stage, ages 4 to 13, the person achieves the initial steps toward career development, which range from simply caring about a vocational future to achieving appropriate attitudes and behaviors toward work. During this stage, children develop their self-concept as they explore their environment and meet important adult role models. If children encounter a sufficient variety of rewarding experiences during this stage, they will develop not only interests, but autonomy, self-esteem, and a sense of the future as well. A lack of rewarding experiences hinders such development. Thus, children may become innovative or conventional, goal-oriented or purposeless as a result of the learning they encounter in this stage. This growth stage contains the three sub-stages: fantasy, interest, and capacity. Children begin to develop by fantasizing through role-plays, they then develop interests by liking certain tasks over others, and finally they begin to consider their abilities in relation to job requirements.

In the next stage, exploration, which occurs between the ages of 14 and 24, the developmental tasks are to narrow vocational interests in order to make a vocational choice. Open exploration becomes focused, allowing individuals to enact their private views of themselves into a career choice or educational decision. For example, adolescents begin trying out various part-time jobs, and students declare a major in college that is consistent with their interests. During this stage, one may choose a career early without examining other options; such foreclosure may lead to later vocational discontentment. The exploration stage contains the substages of tentative, transition, and trial. Individuals tentatively form decisions in regards to their needs, interests, and abilities and then encounter transition as they move into the reality of the world of work; finally individuals enter a field of work and test the job for its appropriateness, given their needs and abilities.

Once a suitable field of work is chosen, the person enters the establishment stage, ages 25 to 44, in which the salient tasks are to keep and advance in the job. This is done by becoming part of the organizational culture, demonstrating adequate job performance, and getting along with one’s colleagues. Success in these tasks then may allow the individual to advance within his or her career.

During the maintenance stage, ages 45-65, individuals face the tasks of maintaining their place at work in the face of changes and competition from younger, more eager and educated workers. This may involve gaining new skills and becoming more aware of current trends; without doing so, one may experience stagnation in one’s career.

In the final stage, disengagement, which usually occurs after the age of 65, individuals face the career tasks of disengaging from the work role and planning for and living in retirement. Disengagement from work often occurs due to age-related declines in mental and physical capacities. Such disengagement may be seen by engineers who begin to take on fewer projects or by professors who choose to teach fewer classes. This deceleration may then lead to retirement, in which occupational activities are ceased.

Maxi- and Mini-Cycles

According to the life-career rainbow, these five stages of development occur in order in what is called a maxi-cycle. Future vocational problems may occur when one does not follow the proposed order of stages. For example, foreclosing early without proper exploration can lead to a less suitable occupational choice. The theory also recognizes that transitions between stages and career interruptions often lead individuals to experience a mini-cycle or a recycling through stages. For example, an adult in the maintenance stage of a maxi-cycle might find that with a promotion come the needs to explore new skills and establish new roles with coworkers. Alternately, adults in this stage who lose their job may be forced to recycle through earlier stages and reexplore interests and values to select a new career and then reestablish themselves in the new field.

The Archway of Career Determinants Model

Explicit in Super’s developmental tasks are the ideas (a) that individuals possess different abilities, interests, values, and so on; (b) that these patterns of intrapersonal characteristics make individuals more or less suited to different careers; and (c) these individual differences and the careers available to a person at any one time are shaped by situational factors. Super’s second synthesizing model, the archway of career determinants, was created to make more explicit these environmental and intrapersonal determinants of career that are suggested by the developmental tasks of the career rainbow model. Thus, the arch is similar to the rainbow in that it describes Super’s career development theory but differs in how it is described.

As its name suggests, the archway model is shaped in the form of an arch, which represents an individual’s career. Each stone of the arch symbolizes an influential factor or determinant of career. The most basic determinants are near the base with biology and environment forming the bottom of the base. An individual’s personality characteristics (e.g., intelligence, needs, values) form the column on the left. Societal characteristics (e.g., labor market, school, family) form the column on the right. Although not represented graphically, these intrapersonal and environmental factors are assumed to interact with each other in determining an individual’s career development. The arch itself sits on these two pillars and signifies the outcomes of the two columns of personality and societal determinants. The two ends of the arch represent the developmental stages, with the left side containing the earlier developmental stages and the right side containing the later stages. Finally the arch culminates to form the keystone, the central piece of the arch, which represents the person who makes the career decisions.

Career Development Assessment and Counseling Model

In addition to these well-articulated theoretical models, Super developed counseling applications of these models. His career development assessment and counseling model integrates several useful assessment instruments to explore a client’s development, values, interests, and career maturity. Several sequences are possible, but often assessment begins by determining where the client is in the life space, life span, and what the importance of the work role is. The latter may be done with adolescents and young adults using the Career Development Inventory (CDI) or with older adults using the Adult Career Concerns Inventory (ACCI). The CDI measures career decision-making readiness by assessing career decisions in light of the attitudes and knowledge possessed by the adolescent or young adult. The ACCI measures concerns and planning related to the career developmental stages of exploration, establishment, maintenance, and disengagement. The Salience Inventory may be used to assess how important a life role is to an individual in comparison to other life roles. Five life roles (student, worker, citizen, homemaker, and leisurite) are assessed in regards to activity, dedication, and value expectations. If assessment reveals that the work role is not very important, then the counselor may either attempt to better orient the client to the work role or shift the focus from vocational development to development of other roles, depending on the appropriateness of the lack of work role salience. This assessment may also reveal useful information about the interactions among the individual’s varying roles. Assessment then proceeds to measuring the client’s interests and values, using common tools such as the Strong Interest Inventory and the Values Scale, which assesses 21 intrinsic and extrinsic work values individuals may seek to satisfy within their life space. Often these values underlie the individual’s interests, as when, for example, values of altruism are reflected in social interests. Finally, these assessment results are integrated into a narrative interpretation that identifies needed areas of growth (e.g., in work-related attitudes or acquisition of new skills) and suggests ways that counseling may help in such development.

Criticisms and Future Directions

In the archway model, the column representing situational determinants is equal in size and, ostensibly, importance to the column representing personal career determinants. However, as suggested by the person as keystone, Super’s theory is held together by the central salience of the individual. The better able people are to match their interests, values, needs, and abilities to an occupation, the more likely they are to have a satisfying and productive career. This fundamental premise that a successful career choice depends on successful implementation of the self-concept underlies the most significant criticism of Super’s theory: that it overemphasizes the role of the individual and underestimates the role of the environment and culture. For example, although Super’s theory clearly acknowledges situational determinants of career, some have argued that the theory does not adequately acknowledge the impact of discrimination and circumscribed opportunities faced by many persons of color and others. In addition, the emphasis on individual choice fails to acknowledge the important role of the family or group for individuals from more collectivist cultures or with a more interdependent sense of self, such as Asian Americans.

Despite these criticisms, which Super himself acknowledged, his theory of vocational development remains one of the most influential approaches to understanding vocational development. His developmental approach moved the focus from a one-time adolescent or young adult career choice to an understanding of the multiple influences from birth through death that shape a lifetime of career behaviors. Furthermore, the theory has clear counseling applications. Although aspects of the theory may need to be modified when applied with clients from some cultural groups, Super’s developmental approach to understanding career behavior across the life span, refined across several decades, remains of tremendous relevance. Future directions that would increase the relevance and utility of the theory include greater attention to cultural context and to development in the later stages.


  1. Ginzberg, E., Ginsburg, S. W., Axelrad, S., & Herma, J. L. (1951). Occupational choice: An approach to a general theory. New York: Columbia University Press.
  2. Leong, F. T. L., & Brown, M. T. (1995). Theoretical issues in cross-cultural career development: Cultural validity and cultural specificity. In W. B. Walsh & S. H. Osipow (Eds.), Handbook of vocational psychology: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed., pp. 143-180). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  3. Super, D. E. (1957). The psychology of careers. New York: Harper.
  4. Super, D. E. (1992). Toward a comprehensive theory of career development. In D. H. Montross & S. J. Shinkman (Eds.), Career development: Theory and practice. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
  5. Super, D. E., Crites, J. O., Hummel, R. C., Moser, H. P., Overstreet, P. L., & Warnath, C. F. (1957). Vocational development: A framework for research. New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University.
  6. Super, D. E., Osborne, W. L., Walsh, D. J., Brown, S. D., & Niles, S. G. (1992). Developmental career assessment and counseling: The C-DAC model. Journal of Counseling & Development, 71, 74-80.
  7. Super, D. E., Savickas, M. L., & Super, C. M. (1996). The life-span, life-space approach to careers. In D. Brown, L. Brooks, & Associates (Eds.), Career choice and development (3rd ed., pp. 121-178). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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