Traditionally, a career meant the work one did over a lifetime. It
was how people identified themselves. In today's environment,
people have several careers and work for several organizations over
a lifetime. However, as technology, industries, and professions
blend, we may go back to defining career as the work of a lifetime
because everything in between will be so intertwined. No longer
will we be architects but rather "bioarchs," not CPAs but
accounting engineers, not teachers but learning evolutionists, and
so on, as work constantly morphs over a career. In part, how you
perceive your career can be defined by how you answer the question,
"What am I?" or "Who am I?" "I'm a doctor, a carpenter, a
salesperson, or service technician." "I work for Threadbare tires."
"I'm a banker." "I'm a writer." As these self-assessments evolve
over a lifetime, so do the careers that define them. If your answer
is "I worked 26 years for, " then your career is more likely
defined in terms of the organization than as a series of
The challenge to create career development opportunities becomes
proportionally complex and simultaneously simpler if you have a
variety of age groups in your organization. In one sense, you will
have to plan for the needs of varying employee constituencies in a
changing world. In another sense, that means you won't be trying to
plan for exceptions anymore because exceptions will be the rule.
Younger workers want flex time for their families, but so do older
workers. Younger workers will be starting new careers not knowing
much, but so will older workers who are moving into second careers
later in life.
Identify typical career cycles
Employees are likely to follow several typical career cycles.
Researchers and theorists have described how people progress
through their careers in various ways.
Daniel Levinson referred to the phases adults move through as
"seasons." He first studied men and then women. He described an
early adulthood era starting at around the age 17 and continuing to
around age 45; then he identified a middle adult era starting
around 40 and ending at about 65; and finally, he pointed to a late
adulthood era, from about 60 on. He also believed there were
transitions between the eras. Early life transition is a
developmental time between adolescence and early adulthood. Midlife
transition is the period between early and middle adulthood. And
there is another late adult transition between middle and late
adulthood. Transitions, Levinson says, are times for questioning
and rethinking as an individual moves into another period of his
life. As such, they are times of less stability and more change. He
specifies ages for these eras and transitions but notes that there
is variation between people.
During the novice phase, Levinson thought, individuals form a dream
about what they would like to become. He is perhaps most recognized
popularly for his discussion of transitions, and most specifically
the now-well-known midlife transition phase. That's the time many
people experience what is called a midlife crisis. Most people
would agree that Levinson's eras and transitions are not nearly as
pat as he describes them.
One of the easiest ways to think about career stages was proposed
by Donald Super, who said that people start with a period of
exploration from ages 14 to 24 when they get ready to make an
occupational choice. Establishment, from 25 to 44, occurs as
individuals stabilize and advance in their careers. Maintenance
happens during the ages of 45 to 65, when adults update their
knowledge and skills, think of new ways to complete their work, and
look for new challenges. When people slow down and move toward
retirement, Super says, they are in the disengagement career stage.
Each of the transitions between stages involves relooking and
Super and Levinson published their work decades ago, and since then
the workplace has become much more transitory and the worker
demographics have changed in many ways. Think about your own career
and the careers of others you know. Doesn't the basic idea of
moving from exploring to choosing to learning to becoming expert to
disengaging (psychologically or physically) make sense? These days,
many people go through this cycle not once but several times in a
career. In the case of career cycles, age doesn't seem to matter
nearly as much as it used to.
Life and career events
Although everyone is unique, most people have common life and
career events. Most of us experience marriage, have children,
develop careers, and lose loved ones. We all go through a process
of dying. We develop friendships, lose them, and develop more. We
may go through a midlife crisis.
Traditionally, it was relatively easy to guess a person's age by
the life events that had taken place. People married by a certain
age, had children soon after, joined the workforce seriously by
young adulthood, and moved out of their parents' houses. These
days, it would be much harder to predict age based on the timing of
particular life events. Nonetheless, most of us go through them,
and those events often cause reconsideration of important life
matters - such as career direction and satisfaction.
The same is true with career events. Traditionally, one would get
hired, go through an apprenticeship of some sort with a trusted
mentor, be promoted to a more senior position, transition into a
first-line supervisor job, and eventually move into middle
management. If a person got off track, he was perceived as behind.
These days, as in life events, career events are less predictable.
Many more people will have experienced an unhappy event called
downsizing. With flatter organizations, fewer people will
experience the moving from worker-to-management event. The symbolic
office-nameplate hanging event is going the way of virtual
workplaces. Fewer people will experience the trusty gold watch
retirement ceremony because 30-year careers with one organization
are rare. In the case of life and career events, age seems to
matter less than it ever has before.
Let's consider Kim's experiences. She will go through a career
cycle four times. Her first career is as an operations manager.
Right now, she has chosen that occupation and is learning on the
job. She learns fast and will be an expert within a few years, when
she will make the decision to become a small business owner, where
her operations management skills will help her. But in every other
way she will be starting again.
This time, the cycle will be much faster because Kim, though an
excellent operations manager, isn't very good at predicting
economic or market conditions, and her building supply business
will go under. She will have spent quite a little time in the
exploration phase this time because she started thinking about it
six months after she opened the doors to her business. At the age
of 43, she will have a choice to make: Go back to operations
management or move on to something different. Many of her skills
are transferable to other occupations.
Now her children will be in their teens, and she and her husband
have gone their separate ways, so security will weigh on her mind.
She will take a job as a logistics manager for a paper supply
company. It's a new industry for her, and she will have a lot to
learn. But by now she will have plenty of experience to draw on.
For the next nine years, she will learn the paper supply business
and become very comfortable in her work. She will consider this her
final career move. But the paper supply company will be bought by a
larger one, and during all the merger activities, she will begin
She won't lose her job; instead, she'll begin to embark on her last
career cycle by going back to school part time while looking for
alternative occupations. After she receives her master's in public
administration, she will find a job with a small municipal
government not far from where she lives. As the city's new
assistant public works director, she will have a lot to learn. But
she will have the rest of her working years to do it.
Kim will go through the career cycle four times over her career. In
each, she will explore, choose, and learn. She will become an
expert in three. She will be disengaged - voluntarily or
involuntarily - from all four. During that period of time, she will
also raise her two children, get divorced, have two minor surgeries
and one big scare, lose one parent and become a caregiver for the
other, and change from being a Yankee fan to being a Red Sox fan
(maybe the most traumatic of all). Note that when she starts her
last career at the age of 55, she will become a new learner again
and be thrilled about her new beginning.
Note: This article is excerpted from Career
Development Basics by Michael Kroth and McKay Christensen.
Michael Kroth is an assistant professor at the University of Idaho
in adult and organizational learning and a recipient of the
university's Hoffman Award for Excellence in Teaching. As a
longtime internal consultant, he developed and administered
corporate-level leadership development and succession planning
programs, has been the administrator of a corporate foundation, and
served as a director of corporate community affairs. He is a former
field editor for ASTD Links and is a member of the National
Speakers Association. Kroth's book Transforming Work: The Five
Keys to Achieving Trust, Commitment, and Passion in the
Workplace, coauthored with Patricia Boverie, is about the
indispensable necessity of passion for personal, organization, and
McKay Christensen is the president of Melaleuca, an $850 million
international consumer products company with more than 3,300
employees. Along with a PhD in education and two master's degrees,
he has a deep passion for servant leadership and leading in a way
that helps others reach their true potential. Christensen is the
author or coauthor of more than 30 published articles on leadership
and business principles.
2010 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.