Career stages

“You’ve got to get to the stage in life where going for it is more important than winning or losing.”
-Arthur Ashe

The Business Dictionary ( defines career stages as, “Identifiable periods in one’s work life which are distinguished by one’s changing activities, concerns, motives, and needs.”  In his book, Career Mastery, Harry Levinson writes that most individuals go through three career stages.  He identifies these stages as the Identity Stage (ages 21-35), the Generativity Stage (ages 35-55) and the Consolidation Stage (ages 55 and above).  These stages seem to be based upon Erik Erickson’s (1950) eight stages of life, and Levinson admits as much.  A brief web search on “career stages” indicates that there are several other models as well.  One study I read indicated there are four stages: The establishment stage (ages 21 to 26), the advancement stage (ages 26 to 40), the maintenance stage (ages 40 to 60), and the withdrawal stages (age 60 and over).  Another study listed five stages: Growth (ages 4-13); Exploration (ages 14-to-24); Establishment (ages 25-to-44); Maintenance (ages 45-65); and Disengagement (age 65 and over).

No matter the specific theory, the common belief is that an individual’s career follows an arc.  That arc starts with the individual learning about their career, gaining skills, gaining knowledge, creating their network, and making a name for themselves.  At the top of that arc, the individual has made a name for themselves and must decide whether to maintain the gains in their current career or start a second (or third, etc.).  At the end of the arc, the individual must come to grips with declining physical and mental agility, often a reduced desire (or ability) to compete, and a winding-down of one’s career.

To be honest, I was intrigued by much of what I read.  For example, I have never considered that my career might have a decline.  As I noted in an earlier post, I believed my career would look more like a ladder (or at least a line sloping steeply upward).  The theory indicating that careers often have a climb and then a descent was eye-opening.  Further, the fact that it is normal to reach a stage where one may not compete as well was something I had not considered.  The obvious implication is that it is in a person’s best interest to recognize what stage they are in and have a plan in place for their current stage and how they will move to the next stage.

When I mentioned this to a colleague, they thought I was talking about creating an exit strategy with the intent of “getting out” before I can’t keep up any more.  But, that isn’t what I mean.  Rather, what I am suggesting is that we should recognize there will be transitions.  Further, we should actively seek out those transitions and be prepared for them.  These transitions can be times of great angst or times of great discovery (or both).  However, if we are expecting them we should be able prepare for them by training, refreshing our skills, recommitting to our core values, and perhaps changing our path.

The bottom line is that a career shouldn’t be about your title. Quite frankly, unless you own the company, you have very little control over your title.  Instead, it should be about feeling useful and providing value to yourself, your organization, and society while earning a decent wage.  In our youth, we can provide value by putting forth great amounts of energy and enthusiasm, accomplishing the impossible, and slaying sacred cows.  As we reach mid-career, we can provide value by providing leadership, being the calming influence, and helping direct the enormous energy of those younger than ourselves.  As we reach the latter part of our careers, we can provide great value by sharing the wisdom we’ve gained through time and by helping prepare the generation of individuals who are just entering the workplace.

As we age, the difference shouldn’t be the amount of value we add, rather it should be in how we add value.  The only way to truly become obsolete within an organization is to stop rolling with the changes, and continuing to try adding value the “old way” when the time has come to play a different role.

Call To Action:

Do some reading about career stages (I’ve included several links in “Read To Lead”).  Take some time to discover where you believe you are in your career arc.  Then, take some time to figure out if you are working to add value in ways that are a) consistent with your career stage and b) valued by your organization.  If you aren’t, create some strategies to become better aligned with your career-stage and your organization.  If you would care to share your discoveries, please feel free to use the comments section.  I’d love to read about them and I can’t help but think others would, too!

Read To Lead:

  • — This is a very useful article that discusses the career-stage theory of Dr. Donald Super.  Of the four on-line articles listed, I liked this the best because it not only identifies Dr. Super’s stages, but adds several thought provoking questions and suggestions regarding how to use the theory in your development.
  • — This brief article identifies four career stages and identifies what training and development issues might be suitable for each stage.  I liked this article because of its brevity, and the concise descriptions of what each stage is seeking.
  • — This article gives a brief history of research dealing with career stages, compares and contrasts several of the major theories and researchers, and provides implications for practice and further research.  I liked this article because it compared and contrasted several career stage theories, and because it also identified several questions and shortcomings of the research.
  • I also found a great deal of information for this post in Harry Levinson’s book Career Mastery: Keys to Taking Charge of Your Career Throughout Your Work Life The first chapter contains a great deal of useful information regarding career stages and learning more about yourself.  Click on the title to buy your own copy, or visit your library to see if you can borrow one. I would highly recommend it. His approach is very honest, straight forward, and concise. I believe you will find a lot of his information to be very valuable and worth the time to read.

There are many more sources of information regarding career stages and how they might impact your career planning and development.  If you find one that you feel is interesting or useful, please feel free to share it in the comments section.

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