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Friday, 14 January 2011 17:34

Career Stages

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The career stage approach is one way to look at career development. The way in which a researcher approaches the issue of career stages is frequently based on Levinson’s life stage development model (Levinson 1986). According to this model, people grow through specific stages separated by transition periods. At each stage a new and crucial activity and psychological adjustment may be completed (Ornstein, Cron and Slocum 1989). In this way, defined career stages can be, and usually are, based on chronological age. The age ranges assigned for each stage have varied considerably between empirical studies, but usually the early career stage is considered to range from the ages of 20 to 34 years, the mid-career from 35 to 50 years and the late career from 50 to 65 years.

According to Super’s career development model (Super 1957; Ornstein, Cron and Slocum 1989) the four career stages are based on the qualitatively different psychological task of each stage. They can be based either on age or on organizational, positional or professional tenure. The same people can recycle several times through these stages in their work career. For example, according to the Career Concerns Inventory Adult Form, the actual career stage can be defined at an individual or group level. This instrument assesses an individual’s awareness of and concerns with various tasks of career development (Super, Zelkowitz and Thompson 1981). When tenure measures are used, the first two years are seen as a trial period. The establishment period from two to ten years means career advancement and growth. After ten years comes the maintenance period, which means holding on to the accomplishments achieved. The decline stage implies the development of one’s self-image independently of one’s career.

Because the theoretical bases of the definition of the career stages and the sorts of measure used in practice differ from one study to another, it is apparent that the results concerning the health- and job-relatedness of career development vary, too.

Career Stage as a Moderator of Work-Related Health and Well-Being

Most studies of career stage as a moderator between job characteristics and the health or well-being of employees deal with organizational commitment and its relation to job satisfaction or to behavioural outcomes such as performance, turnover and absenteeism (Cohen 1991). The relationship between job characteristics and strain has also been studied. The moderating effect of career stage means statistically that the average correlation between measures of job characteristics and well-being varies from one career stage to another.

Work commitment usually increases from early career stages to later stages, although among salaried male professionals, job involvement was found to be lowest in the middle stage. In the early career stage, employees had a stronger need to leave the organization and to be relocated (Morrow and McElroy 1987). Among hospital staff, nurses’ measures of well-being were most strongly associated with career and affective-organizational commitment (i.e., emotional attachment to the organization). Continuance commitment (this is a function of perceived number of alternatives and degree of sacrifice) and normative commitment (loyalty to organization) increased with career stage (Reilly and Orsak 1991).

A meta-analysis was carried out of 41 samples dealing with the relationship between organizational commitment and outcomes indicating well-being. The samples were divided into different career stage groups according to two measures of career stage: age and tenure. Age as a career stage indicator significantly affected turnover and turnover intentions, while organizational tenure was related to job performance and absenteeism. Low organizational commitment was related to high turnover, especially in the early career stage, whereas low organizational commitment was related to high absenteeism and low job performance in the late career stage (Cohen 1991).

The relationship between work attitudes, for instance job satisfaction and work behaviour, has been found to be moderated by career stage to a considerable degree (e.g., Stumpf and Rabinowitz 1981). Among employees of public agencies, career stage measured with reference to organizational tenure was found to moderate the relationship between job satisfaction and job performance. Their relation was strongest in the first career stage. This was supported also in a study among sales personnel. Among academic teachers, the relationship between satisfaction and performance was found to be negative during the first two years of tenure.

Most studies of career stage have dealt with men. Even many early studies in the 1970s, in which the sex of the respondents was not reported, it is apparent that most of the subjects were men. Ornstein and Lynn (1990) tested how the career stage models of Levinson and Super described differences in the career attitudes and intentions among professional women. The results suggest that career stages based on age were related to organizational commitment, intention to leave the organization and a desire for promotion. These findings were, in general, similar to the ones found among men (Ornstein, Cron and Slocum 1989). However, no support was derived for the predictive value of career stages as defined on a psychological basis.

Studies of stress have generally either ignored age, and consequently career stage, in their study designs or treated it as a confounding factor and controlled its effects. Hurrell, McLaney and Murphy (1990) contrasted the effects of stress in mid-career to its effects in early and late career using age as a basis for their grouping of US postal workers. Perceived ill health was not related to job stressors in mid-career, but work pressure and underutilization of skills predicted it in early and late career. Work pressure was related also to somatic complaints in the early and late career group. Underutilization of abilities was more strongly related to job satisfaction and somatic complaints among mid-career workers. Social support had more influence on mental health than physical health, and this effect is more pronounced in mid-career than in early or late career stages. Because the data were taken from a cross sectional study, the authors mention that cohort explanation of the results might also be possible (Hurrell, McLaney and Murphy 1990).

When adult male and female workers were grouped according to age, the older workers more frequently reported overload and responsibility as stressors at work, whereas the younger workers cited insufficiency (e.g., not challenging work), boundary-spanning roles and physical environment stressors (Osipow, Doty and Spokane 1985). The older workers reported fewer of all kinds of strain symptoms: one reason for this may be that older people used more rational-cognitive, self-care and recreational coping skills, evidently learned during their careers, but selection that is based on symptoms during one’s career may also explain these differences. Alternatively it might reflect some self-selection, when people leave jobs that stress them excessively over time.

Among Finnish and US male managers, the relationship between job demands and control on the one hand, and psychosomatic symptoms on the other, was found in the studies to vary according to career stage (defined on the basis of age) (Hurrell and Lindström 1992, Lindström and Hurrell 1992). Among US managers, job demands and control had a significant effect on symptom reporting in the middle career stage, but not in the early and late stage, while among Finnish managers, the long weekly working hours and low job control increased stress symptoms in the early career stage, but not in the later stages. Differences between the two groups might be due to the differences in the two samples studied. The Finnish managers, being in the construction trades, had high workloads already in their early career stage, whereas US managers—these were public sector workers—had the highest workloads in their middle career stage.

To sum up the results of research on the moderating effects of career stage: early career stage means low organizational commitment related to turnover as well as job stressors related to perceived ill health and somatic complaints. In mid-career the results are conflicting: sometimes job satisfaction and performance are positively related, sometimes negatively. In mid-career, job demands and low control are related to frequent symptom reporting among some occupational groups. In late career, organizational commitment is correlated to low absenteeism and good performance. Findings on relations between job stressors and strain are inconsistent for the late career stage. There are some indications that more effective coping decreases work-related strain symptoms in late career.


Practical interventions to help people to cope better with the specific demands of each career stage would be beneficial. Vocational counselling at the entry stage of one’s work life would be especially useful. Interventions for minimizing the negative impact of career plateauing are suggested because this can be either a time of frustration or an opportunity to face new challenges or to reappraise one’s life goals (Weiner, Remer and Remer 1992). Results of age-based health examinations in occupational health services have shown that job-related problems lowering working ability gradually increase and qualitatively change with age. In early and mid-career they are related to coping with work overload, but in later middle and late career they are gradually accompanied by declining psychological condition and physical health, facts that indicate the importance of early institutional intervention at an individual level (Lindström, Kaihilahti and Torstila 1988). Both in research and in practical interventions, mobility and turnover pattern should be taken into account, as well as the role played by one’s occupation (and situation within that occupation) in one’s career development.


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