A career differs from a job in terms of the length, breadth, and depth of personal involvement. A career is a profession in which one makes progressive achievement, whereas a job is defined by specific tasks. Establishing a career serves many purposes, including providing sustainable income, expressing personal beliefs and values, and providing social connections.

Career Paths

Most individuals move through three career stages, each of which is associated with different social and psychological characteristics. During the first stage, individuals are motivated to establish a foundation in the organization and seek opportunities for advancement. The second stage, midcareer, is a time for people to seek new meanings and reenergize. For others, midcareer coincides with midlife crises or problems related to health and family, and it presents challenges related to work. For example, an individual may reach a career plateau when he or she progresses to a point at which hierarchical promotions are unlikely. The third stage, or late career, is a time when individuals maintain their established career status and gradually disengage from the full-time workforce. During this stage, many individuals seek part-time work, increase their volunteer activities, and become valuable resources for the community in alternative ways.

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History of Career

The modern concept of the career can be traced to the Industrial Revolution. Before the 1800s, individuals worked primarily on family-owned farms. The Industrial Revolution introduced factories and modern industries, and many individuals moved to cities to work. During World War I, the first systematic placement of individuals in jobs took place. Using group-administered tests developed for the military, individuals’ potential and expertise could be matched quickly with job demands.

The Great Depression of the 1930s raised the unemployment rate from 3.2% in 1929 to 23.6% in 1932; during this time, people worked more for survival than for personal fulfillment. World War II introduced 6 million workers into the workforce, the majority of whom were married women. After the war, counseling centers designed to serve returning veterans were established to address their career rehabilitation concerns. Over time, sophisticated tests and counseling tools were developed to help people make decisions related to career choice and development. More recently, the workforce has become increasingly diversified, raising important issues about career choice and work adjustment for workers of color and workers with different sexual orientations, disabilities, and lower social economic status.

Career Satisfaction and Well-Being

One important issue that is related to career is the contribution that work makes to individual well-being. Whereas unemployment rates are linked to mental and physical problems, maintaining a career helps individuals to stay active and connected. Research has shown, for example, that individuals with mental and physical disabilities who are able to enter the workforce, do part-time work, or even do volunteer work experience fewer symptoms, report higher self-esteem, and enjoy a better quality of life compared with nonworking peer groups.

Recently, occupational stress has been identified as a major cost for business organizations. The field of occupational health psychology is a new discipline that is dedicated to identifying individual and organizational factors that contribute to occupational stress and career dissatisfaction. For example, research has shown that organizational variables such as environmental uncertainty, role conflict, opportunities for skill acquisition, social contact, physical security, organizational structure and climate, and physical, emotional, and cognitive job demands have both a direct and an indirect impact on individuals’ sense of career satisfaction and level of occupational stress.

Work-Family Balance and Careers

Although a broad distinction can be made between work life and nonwork life, the boundaries between work and home have become increasingly blurred. Two reasons for this trend are that married women have entered the workforce and communication technology has advanced. Dual-earning couples today face the challenge of balancing their work and home lives. Cell phones, the Internet, and portable computers allow individuals to work when they are at home or on vacation. Thus, technological advances have made it difficult for individuals to maintain boundaries between work and home.

Two perspectives, scarcity and expansion enhancement, attempt to explain the interactions between work and family. The scarcity perspective assumes that multiple roles at work and at home compete for an individual’s psychological and physiological resources. Generally, work-to-family conflict is linked to outcomes such as marital dissatisfaction and family distress. Family-to-work conflict is associated with poor work performance, low job satisfaction, and work-related absenteeism. In contrast, the expansion-enhancement perspective emphasizes the benefits of multiple roles in life, which may outweigh the cost of additional stress.

Career Theories

Some of the most influential career theories include John Holland’s person-environment typology; Rene Dawis and Lloyd Lofquist’s theory of work adjustment; Donald Super’s developmental approach; and Robert Lent, Steven Brown, and Gail Hackett’s social cognitive career theory. Holland’s theory proposes six types of vocational interest personality—realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional—and describes the way those interests fit work environments. The theory of work adjustment captures the dynamic interaction between individual workers’ needs and abilities and the reinforcers and skill requirements of jobs. Super’s model outlines six stages of career development that occur throughout the life span. Social cognitive career theory identifies the personal, environmental, and behavioral variables that influence career choices. The theory also focuses on the connection between self-efficacy, interests, outcome expectancy, environmental supports, and social barriers that people experience when making their career choices.

Career Assessment and Counseling

The field of career counseling has continued to evolve since it was established during the early 1900s. Today, career counselors work in a variety of settings: schools, hospitals, business organizations, public services, and private practice. They help individuals explore career options, plan for career paths, locate job placements, and better understand how social and personal concerns interact with one’s career. Career counselors use assessment instruments to help individuals explore factors that may influence their career choices. Four frequently assessed constructs are interests, personality, needs and values, and abilities. Major interest inventories used in career counseling include the Strong Interest Inventory, the Campbell Interest and Skill Survey, and the Self-Directed Search. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the California Psychological Inventory are two popular personality measures. Value measures include instruments such as the Minnesota Importance Questionnaire and the Values Scale. Both self-report and objective assessment instruments of abilities are available. For example, the Harrington-O’Shea Career Decision-Making System has a section devoted to self-estimated abilities. The most often used objective assessment instruments are the Differential Aptitude Tests, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, and the General Aptitude Test Battery.


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  2. Brown, S. D., & Lent, R. W. (Eds.). (2005). Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
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  4. Quick, J. C., & Tetrick, L. E. (Eds.). (2003). Handbook of occupational health psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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