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Developmental theory

The process of helping a person to develop and accept an integrated and adequate picture of themselves and of their role in the world of work. A central concept is that people develop through stages over their lifetime.

Contribution from Jenny Bimrose Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick

1) Introduction

The general principles underlying developmental approaches to careers guidance are that:

  • individual development is a continuous process;
  • the developmental process is irreversible;
  • these processes can be differentiated into patterns called stages in the life span;
  • and that the result of normal development is increasing maturity

The names most closely associated with this theory of vocational choice are Eli Ginzberg and Donald Super.

2) Eli Ginzberg

Ginzberg et al. (1951) proposed three life stages which broadly corresponded with chronological age

  • First came the fantasy stage which lasted up until eleven years old;
  • second, the tentative stage, lasting from ages eleven to seventeen, with the three substages of interest, capacity and value;
  • third, the realistic stage, which lasted from age seventeen onwards, with substages of exploration, crystallisation and specification.

3) Donald Super

Super was a doctoral student of Kitson at the University of Columbia. He thought Ginzberg’s work had weaknesses, one of which was the failure to take into account the very significant existing body of information about educational and vocational development (Osipow & Fitzgerald, 1996, p.111). Super (1957) and Super et al. (1961) extended Ginzberg’s three life stages to five (with slightly different sub-stages), arguing that occupational preferences and competencies, individual’s life situations (and hence their self-concepts) all change with time and experience. He also developed the concept of vocational maturity, which may or may not correspond to chronological age. Super (1957) extended Ginzberg's three life stages to five, with slightly different substages. He also developed the concept of vocational maturity, which may or may not correspond to chronological age. Super's five stages were:

  • growth, which lasted from birth to fourteen;
  • exploration lasting from age fifteen to twenty four with the substages of crystallization, specification and implementation;
  • establishment from twenty five to forty four, with substages of stabilization, consolidation and advancing;
  • maintenance from forty five to sixty four, with substages of holding, updating and innovating;
  • finally the fifth stage of decline from age sixty five onwards, with substages decelerating, retirement planning and retirement living

For Super, a time perspective was always centrally important to the career development process: It has always seemed important to maintain three time perspectives: the past, from which one has come; the present, in which one currently functions; and the future, toward which one is moving. All three are of indisputable importance, for the past shapes the present and the present is the basis for the future. But if I were forced to declare a preference in orientation to time, it would be for the future - even after more than fifty years of work experience (Super, 1990, p197)

He continued to develop his ideas over a fifty year period, with the life-career rainbow (1980, p289) representing a significant advance. It emphasised the importance the different roles that individuals played at different stages of their life (specifically child, student, leisurite, citizen, worker, spouse, homemaker, parent, pensioner) and the concept of life space (i.e. four major life theatres: home, community, education, work). Super used the concept of `roles' to describe the many aspects of careers throughout an individual's lifespan. Some key ideas include: the number of roles an individual plays will vary; all roles are not `played' by everyone; each role has differing importance at different times for individuals (e.g student); and success in one role tends to facilitate success in others (& vice versa).

The development of his ideas about self-concept and vocational adjustment resulted in a redefinition of vocational guidance as: the process of helping a person to develop an integrated and adequate picture of himself and of his role in the world of work, to test this concept against reality and to convert it into a reality, with satisfaction to himself and benefits to society (Super, 1988, p357)

His archway model (so called because it was modelled on the doorway of Super’s favourite Cambridge college) formally conceded the importance of contextual influences (e.g. social policy, employment practices, peer group, family, community, the economy) which operated on individual choice and attributed them equal importance to individual factors (e.g. values, needs, interests, intelligence, aptitudes). Super also acknowledged the contributions from a range of academic disciplines to our understanding of vocational choice (Super, 1990).

4. Criticisms

Brown (1990) notes the phenomenological, developmental and differential influences on the expansion and refinement of Super’s thinking, suggesting that it was because of these disparate influences that Super failed to integrate strands into a cohesive statement (Brown, 1990, p.355). Indeed, Super acknowledged that a weakness of his theory was its fragmented nature, anticipating its future development:

What I have contributed is not an integrated, comprehensive and testable theory, but rather a ‘segmental theory’. A loosely unified set of theories dealing with specific aspects of career development, taken from developmental, differential, social, personality and phenomenological psychology and held together by self-concept and learning theory. Each of these segments provides testable hypotheses, and in due course I expect the tested and refined segments to yield an integrated theory. (Super, 1990, p.199)

This fragmentation was identified as the most serious criticism of the theory (Super et al., 1996) in a chapter published after Super’s death in 1994: ‘Its propositions are really a series of summarizing statements that, although closely related to data, lack a fixed logical form that could make new contributions of their own’ (Super et al., 1996, p.143).

  • Osipow and Fitzgerald (1996) consider the original version of the theory was too general to be of much practical use, with its conceptual value being limited by its sweeping style - though this weakness had been addressed by subsequent refinements (p.143). They argue that a particular weakness is the failure of the theory to integrate economic and social factors that influence career decisions (p.144).
  • This concern is echoed by Scharf (1997) and Brown (1990), who propose that Super’s theory does not adequately address the particular challenges that women and ethnic groups present career theory (Brown, 1990, p.355; Scharf, 1997, p.153).
  • Brown (1990) also specifically criticises the theory for its failure to account adequately for the career development of persons from lower socio-economic groups (Brown, 1990, p.355).
  • Linked with these criticisms is an important concern identified by Osipow and Fitzgerald (1996) that ‘in recent years relatively few new empirical tests of the theory have been conducted’ (p.144).

Despite weaknesses, Brown (1990) suggests that Super’s theory ‘occupies stage centre, along with Holland’s thinking. There seems to be no reason to doubt that it will continue to be of considerable importance in the future’ (p.356).

Brown 1990

Brown, D. (1990) ‘Summary, comparison & critique of the major theories’, in Brown, D., Brooks, L. & Associates (Eds), Career Choice & Development, San Francisco, Jossey Bass, pp338-363.

The process of helping a person to develop and accept an integrated and adequate picture of themselves and of their role in the world of work. A central concept is that people develop through stages over their lifetime.

Ginzberg et al 1951

Ginzberg, E., Ginsburg, S.W., Axelrad, S., & Herma, J.L. (1951) Occupational Choice: an approach to a general theory, New York, Columbia University Press.

The process of helping a person to develop and accept an integrated and adequate picture of themselves and of their role in the world of work. A central concept is that people develop through stages over their lifetime.

Osipow et al 1996 a

Osipow, S.H. & Fitzgerald, L.F. (1996) Theories of Career Development (4th Edn), Needham Heights, Massachusetts, Allyn & Bacon.

The process of helping a person to develop and accept an integrated and adequate picture of themselves and of their role in the world of work. A central concept is that people develop through stages over their lifetime.

Sharf 1997

Sharf, R.S. (1997) Applying Career Development Theory to Counseling, Pacific Grove, California, Brooks/Cole.

The process of helping a person to develop and accept an integrated and adequate picture of themselves and of their role in the world of work. A central concept is that people develop through stages over their lifetime.

Super 1957

Super, D. E. (1957) The Psychology of Careers, New York, Harper and Row.

The process of helping a person to develop and accept an integrated and adequate picture of themselves and of their role in the world of work. A central concept is that people develop through stages over their lifetime.

Super 1980

Super, D.E. (1980) A Life-Span, Life-Space Approach to Career Development in Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 16, pp282-298.

The process of helping a person to develop and accept an integrated and adequate picture of themselves and of their role in the world of work. A central concept is that people develop through stages over their lifetime.

Super 1988

Super, D.E. (1988) Vocational adjustment: implementing a self-concept, Career Development Quarterly, 36, p188-194.

The process of helping a person to develop and accept an integrated and adequate picture of themselves and of their role in the world of work. A central concept is that people develop through stages over their lifetime.

Super 1990

Super, D.E. (1990) A Life-Span, Life-Space Approach to Career Development in Brown, D. Brooks, L. & Associates (2nd edn) Career Choice and Development San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp197-261.

The process of helping a person to develop and accept an integrated and adequate picture of themselves and of their role in the world of work. A central concept is that people develop through stages over their lifetime.

Super et al. 1996

Super, D.E., Savickas, M.L., & Super, C.M. (1996) ‘The life-span, life-space approach to careers’, in Brown, D., Brooks, L, & Associates (Eds) Career Choice & Development, (3rd Edn), San Francisco, California, Jossey-Bass, pp121-178.

The process of helping a person to develop and accept an integrated and adequate picture of themselves and of their role in the world of work. A central concept is that people develop through stages over their lifetime.

Super et al. 1961

Super, D.E., Tiedeman, D.V. & Borow, H. (1961) ‘Vocational development: a symposium’, Personnel Guidance Journal, Vol. 40, No.1. pp11-15.

The process of helping a person to develop and accept an integrated and adequate picture of themselves and of their role in the world of work. A central concept is that people develop through stages over their lifetime.

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