Career Development

Most people participate in some form of paid labor during their lifetime. Typically, they engage in a series of jobs. As these jobs become increasingly related to one another, a career unfolds. This process occurs throughout the life span. Several theories have been proposed to describe the process of career development. Three of the most frequently cited are career development theory, the social learning theory of career decision making, and the social cognitive career theory.

Career Development Theory

Donald Super first proposed his career development theory in 1953, making it one of the earliest theories on career development. Combining life-stage psychology and social role psychology, Super’s theory addresses the significant roles and career development tasks that occur during life stages.

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One element of Super’s theory that combines life stages and social roles is the life-career rainbow,a graphic representation of lifespace and life span, key terms in Super’s theory. Lifespace refers to the roles that a person assumes that are related to both work and nonwork; examples of lifespace roles include child or worker. The life-career rainbow depicts changes in the centrality of roles over time—for example, the development from daughter or son to full-time worker to retirement. Life span, or time, refers to stages in a career, which coincide with developmental stages such as childhood and adulthood. Super identified six major stages of career development and the important developmental tasks of each stage. Additionally, Super estimated the age range during which most people go through each stage.

The first stage that Super proposed is growth, a period of childhood development that takes place from age 4 to 13. Major developmental tasks of this stage include developing a concern about the future, increasing personal control over one’s life, motivating oneself to achieve, and acquiring competent habits and attitudes toward work.

The next stage of career development is exploration, occurring from age 14 to 24. Super asserted that during this stage, people crystallize, specify, and implement an occupational choice. During this stage individuals are constructing their self-identity by choosing and preparing for an occupation. Super concentrated much of his research on understanding development in this stage.

When individuals enter into a specific career, they begin the establishment stage. Establishment, which occurs between the ages of 25 and 45, is the process of stabilizing one’s position in an organization. Furthermore, individuals consolidate their position by demonstrating positive work habits and attitudes. Many individuals focus on having families and developing skills to be a parent during this stage. Toward the end of this stage, individuals are expected to advance their work roles by taking on new responsibilities or working toward promotion.

Once an individual decides to continue in the same career, the maintenance stage begins. This stage comprises the remainder of the time spent in paid labor, typically lasting from ages 45 to 65. During this stage, individuals continue to maintain the skills needed for the occupation they have chosen. They also continue to learn new skills to keep up with changes in their job.

The final career developmental stage is disengagement. Around age 65, when individuals plan for or begin the process of retirement, they enter the disengagement stage. At this time, individuals reduce their work efforts as they retire from their careers, and they shift the focus of their lifestyle from work to other activities such as family or leisure interests.

Though individuals are assumed to progress through the career stages at certain ages and in a particular order, Super concedes that the stages may not take place at the same age for everyone, and people may actually cycle through each stage more than once. This concept, known as recycling, suggests that individuals go through previous stages when they begin a new job or new career. Furthermore, the theory speculates that this cycle of developmental stages may also apply to non-work-related roles such as leisure activities or familial roles. For example, if an individual becomes physically unable to participate in athletic leisure activities, he or she may recycle back to the exploration stage to develop skills for a new leisure activity.

As people progress through the career development stages, the choices they make reflect their self-concept. In other words, as individuals select vocations, they attempt to choose a career that depicts their own self-image. Career development, then, is an iterative process whereby the congruence between self-concept and career increases with each subsequent occupation or job.

Social Learning Theory of Career Decision Making

John Krumboltz’s social learning theory of career decision making (SLTCDM) has its origins in Bandura’s social learning theory of behavior. Krumboltz contended that individuals are guided into careers based on their learning experiences and skill knowledge. He also proposed that reinforcement, whether positive or negative, plays an important role in shaping self-efficacy and motivations for behaviors. For example, if a student does poorly in math, SLTCDM predicts that the student’s interest and motivation in math courses will decline, and the student will not enter a career that requires math skills. On the other hand, if the same student is rewarded in music by winning a competition, SLTCDM predicts an increase in that student’s music self-efficacy, and he or she will be likely to pursue a career related to music. These are examples of instrumental learning experiences, in which preference is developed for activities in which one succeeds or is reinforced and interest is diminished if one fails, receives no rewards, or is punished for participating.

The learning process can also occur through observation or associative learning experiences. Instead of participating in activities, individuals can learn about specific occupations and careers vicariously from the media, role models, or peers. Positive or negative associations about an occupation then influence an individual’s assessment of that occupation and affect whether he or she decides to pursue that occupation.

As individuals accumulate learning experiences, they begin to make judgments—called self-observation generalizations—about how well or how poorly they can perform specific tasks. These generalizations may be accurate or incorrect, but they influence how individuals try to translate their skills into possible occupations. These skills, which Krumboltz referred to as task approach skills, provide information about an individual’s problem-solving ability, work habits, performance, and work values.

Career development in SLTCDM, then, is a continual process of learning that shapes one’s self-observation generalizations and task approach skills. Like Super’s idea of enacting one’s self-concept, SLTCDM explains how accumulated learning experiences guide career decisions and how individuals identify occupations that match their interests and skills.

Social Cognitive Career Theory

Social cognitive career theory (SCCT), proposed by Robert Lent, Steven Brown, and Gail Hackett, takes a cognitive approach to the process of career development. It was formulated in response to growing ideological changes that placed importance on people’s cognitions. This theory posits that individuals’ interests are first influenced by contextual factors such as education, support, and role models and by individual factors such as gender, race, and culture. Contextual factors and individual factors then influence one’s self-efficacy in certain activities that, in turn, reflect one’s interests. Therefore, SCCT places importance on the individual’s cognitive process of choosing a career based on environmental and social factors, self-efficacy, interests, and performance outcomes. Additionally, SCCT contends that as individuals gain more learning experiences over time, they revise their career-related self-efficacy.

Both SCCT and SLTCDM conceptualize career development as a continuous process of participating in activities, assessing one’s success, and refining career choices based on self-evaluations. The difference between the theories is that SLTCDM emphasizes learning new activities, whereas SCCT emphasizes self-efficacy for the tasks in which an individual participates.

Variations in Career Development Pathways

For many people, career development may not be orderly and predictable. For example, when women entered the workforce in the 1940s to replace the men who had been called to military service, many had never worked outside the home. However, women were—and still are—expected to care for their families in addition to working. The demands of working in both arenas have created somewhat different career paths for women and for men. The conflict between the roles of wife, mother, and worker often has an effect on women’s career progression. For example, single working women are more likely to be promoted than women who are married and have children. For men, having children does not seem to have as much effect on career development.

Increasingly, both women and men are beginning to take more time away from their careers to spend time with their families; therefore, the tradition of participating in full-time paid labor for the majority of one’s adulthood is changing. Workers are also beginning to decentralize the role of employment in their lives to pursue other interests. In response to this shift in priorities, employers have begun to adapt to parents’ desire for more family time and flexibility by developing new work situations such as job sharing, working from home, or working part-time. Maternity and paternity leaves offer parents the opportunity to leave the workforce temporarily to raise children. As a result of these changes, career development may not be a linear process for parents who take time away from the workforce to raise families.

Another group that has experienced variations in career development is immigrants. During the 20th century, the rapid increase in technology and globalization of corporations made the world smaller. One result was the migration of workers. For immigrants in a new country, especially professionals, entering a career is more challenging than it is for citizens of that country. For example, people who are trained as doctors or lawyers in other countries may find they are unable to work in the United States because their training is not transferable. Therefore, they must retrain in the same career or move into another profession. Other challenges to career development for immigrants may include language barriers, access to well-paying jobs, difficulty obtaining a work visa, or discrimination.

Applying Career Development Theories

Though career development theories offer some valuable explanations of the process of career choice and development, these theories do not address career decisions and career commitment that may result from external factors such as family expectations, job availability, or even occupational prestige. Moreover, for people who do not have the luxury of choosing occupations based on their interests or self-efficacy— for example, women, parents, or immigrants—extant developmental theories may not provide an adequate model of the process of career development. On the other hand, career development theories do offer some direction for career counselors. For example, Super suggested a counseling approach to apply his theory to practice. That approach includes assessments to help clients gain information about their level of career development, as well as information about their interests and values to identify potential careers. Krumboltz also provided suggestions for applying his theory, SLTCDM, to practice. Consistent with that theory’s emphasis on learning, he suggested that counselors help clients recognize salient career information they have learned in past jobs and reframe unexpected incidents into positive career opportunities. Finally, SCCT provides a framework for counselors to address clients’ career issues. At its core, career counseling modeled on SCCT assesses clients’ self-efficacy for various activities and uses this information to suggest possible careers. Furthermore, counselors address perceived barriers to careers to give clients more options to pursue.


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  4. Krumboltz, J. D., Mitchell, A. M., & Jones, G. B. (1976). A social learning theory of career selection. Counseling Psychologist, 6, 71-81.
  5. Lent, R. W., & Brown, S. D. (1996). Social cognitive approach to career development: An overview. Career Development Quarterly, 44, 310-321.
  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 and Development, 71, 74-80.

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