I remember one of my earliest classes in college was an anthropology class, well to be honest it was three anthropology classes.  I got to the University of Central Florida late and the anthropology classes were all that was left.  In one class it compared all religions by how they answer questions.   I was so enthralled by this new line of thinking it was the only page of notes I kept for years afterwards.

 I may still have it around somewhere.  The questions were things like: Why do we exist?  What is the ultimate authority? Who gets to make decisions? etc..   It was eye opening to me in that these questions could be answered by societal structures like government or even atheism.  For example, the answer to the question of ‘what is the ultimate authority can be the Bible, the Federal Legislation, or the self depending on if you were answering the question based upon the perspective of judeo-christian beliefs, the federal government, or being an atheist.

In part of my Career Development Facilitator training I was introduced to Super’s Rainbow. While studying it I couldn’t help but think back to my class all those years ago.  Super’s rainbow is a visualization of a theory developed by Donald Super.  Super was a career development theorist who created a developmental model centered around how personal experiences and life stages interact with occupational preferences.  To overly simply the theory it’s a way to look at your career through the lense of an end goal of work life balance.   This got me thinking about how the answers to these life stages may be different from the perspective of the employer vs. the employee.  If you want to do a deep dive on Super’s career development theory, there are several great online sources of information, so I won’t spend the time rehashing it, but I would recommend you check out the information.    


A typical graphical representation of Super’s Career Rainbow: Image Credit: Dr. JoAnn Harris Bowlsbey at 2014 APCDA Conference.

Ok, so what are the life and career development stages and how do employers really think about them?  Here they are…

  1. Growth (Age: birth – 14)

Characteristics: development of self-concept attitudes, and general world of work

According to this first life stage, the theory is that children develop their capacities, atti­tudes, interests, socialize their needs, and form a gen­eral understanding of the world of work.

This stage includes four major career developmental tasks: becoming concerned about the future, increasing per­sonal control over one’s own life, convincing oneself to achieve in school and at work, and acquiring com­petent work habits and attitudes.

Employers more and more are seeing this as the most important area for training the next generation of workers primarily for the last part of the theory, which is all they are interested in or have ever been interested in.  It’s also why elementary education is structured the way it is, for the needs of the industrial age.  Ringing bells to signal breaks.  Stand in line, do what your told, raise your hand. Learn to read instructions, learn to write.  In the modern information age the skills employers want are very different: teamwork, problem solving, and independence are what’s in demand.  Employers with large workforces want all the older lessons as well as the newer ones.  They also want to have greater direct oversight and influence than they have had in the past.  It’s not about about little Johnny knowing how to read, it’s about little johnny knowing how to do five different jobs at the same time and play nice with others.  This is how the employers see youth.  

  1. Exploration (Age 15 – 24)

Characteristics: Trying out classes, work, hobbies; tentative choice and skill development

The theory for the exploration stage is the period when we attempt to understand ourselves and find our place in the world of work. This IS the period of time when we all hear “What do you want to do when you grow up”.   The theory continues that through classes, work experience, and hobbies, we try to identify interests and capabilities and figure out how we fit with various occupations.

This stage involves three career development tasks that all boil down to figuring out what you want to be, determining exactly what you need to do to become that person, and then doing it.  This is basically the reason we structure high school, trade school and/or college the way we do.  

This is really the first stage of disconnect between the desires of employers and the needs of the individual.  Employers don’t’ really care about any of this exploration or education.  The challenge for employers is that the professional jobs are becoming so unique that it’s impossible to make a match.  The student is thinking “Engineer” and the employer is thinking  “automation controls specialist for fluid management of wastewater with XYZ certifications needed to work on these systems”.  

  1. Establishment (Age 25 – 44)

Characteristics: Entry-level skill building and stabilizing work experience

In this third period, the worker has a job in their chosen field… hopefully.   According to Super’s career development theory, this stage involves three developmental tasks.  The first is simply stated as learning how to do a good job.  The second is to building a positive reputation in your field.  The third goal, as I interpret it, is to get on the career advancement train.  For most people this means additional responsibilities that lead to ascending to the early stages of management.  

The disconnect between employers and the professional at this theoretical stage is that there is rare opportunities for advancement, although there are plenty of opportunities for additional responsibilities.  But a track that leads to management aligns to my space elevator analogy.  If you are not at the right place in the right time, then there is limited chance you can secure a ticket because they are so rare at least for an average ‘good’ worker.   That’s just management positions.  

Another challenge for most employees is the great reset button whereby every time there is a new manager with a mandate for change, or a bad quarter, or a consolidation via a buyout people are let go.  Wall Street may be happy but the employee who is building their career just got side railed.  Consistency in the modern workforce is limited and many employees are in a cycle of trying to reestablish themselves professionally again and again.  This makes stabilizing and securing one’s career tremendously difficult.  For the most part this is where the professionals learn they will most likely be stuck as an individual contributor for the entirety of their professional lives.  

  1. Maintenance (Age 45 –64)

Characteristics: Continual adjustment process to improve position

From the career development theory’s perspective this is the age in which the professional worker is holding on, keeping up, and innovating.  I.e. these workers are trying to keep up with what is going on and maybe continue to add value but generally it’s a much more measured pace than the younger phase.  From a career development theorists perspective this is the workhorse engine of the professional world that just needs a bit of grease to keep moving forward.  This grease can be an occasional cert or product training.  

On the other side of the fence this employee age group is the ‘hard choices’ target area for most employers.  These folks are very expensive and the employer knows it.  Sometimes there is lock-in, i.e. the sales rep who can take millions in business with him or the project manager who is highly specialized in a specific niche technology, but mostly this is where the professional really has a bullet aimed at their back at all times.  These are the middle managers who have been decimated over the last few decades.  Now they are the highly paid individual contributor who are using their 100K plus salary to pay their mortgages, their car payments, their kid’s college, and over-fund a retirement that went underfunded for the first ½ of their career.  They are always at risk of someone coming in and doing more for less and the employer is always looking for that person who can do the job at ½ the salary.  

  1. Decline (Age 65+)

Characteristics: Reduced output, preparation for retirement

Super’s theory has ‘Decline’ as the final stage.  It’s ostensibly the period of transition out of the workforce. In this stage, that’s all about trying to get out of the workforce.  From a career theory point of view it’s all about the graceful exit.

The reality of this stage is that it doesn’t exist, at least not until much later than the cited 65 years old.  It’s because of the nation’s retirement funding challenges with the move to the 401K, the extension of youth keeping kids at home, and many other factors such as quality of life that the later stage employee either wants or needs to keep working.   For the most part employers love this stage.  It’s because the employee’s generally have great work ethic, deep industry knowledge, and an ability to work with limited benefits (why select a candidate who needs health insurance when you can have someone on Medicare?) or minimal financial demands (because of other income sources)or both.  

Unless they really made some life mistakes or had some serious financial challenges the senior professional employe may just need enough money to get themselves something they want. It could be a few cruises a year or maybe a nice RV.  This is why you see so many ‘consultants’ who are 65 years old.  They have their health care, possibly a pension and social security, limited financial needs and can control their own schedule.  On the other hand, the senior professional who needs to catch up their retirement or support family members may need to keep working but be appreciative of what the employer is giving them because they know finding another job would be very difficult at their age.   Employers know this population can offer some deals from a workforce cost perspective and they will take advantage of it, some even build their organizations around it.  

Ethnocentricity is a challenge in Anthropology and apparently it’s a challenge with career development theory.  If your perspective is all workforce focused and not employer focused then you’ll only have ½ a theory.  It would be interesting to revisit all of Super’s work based upon what employers expect out of the different phases of their workforce’s lives.  For now, Super’s rainbow may be a neat way to visualize our lives and needs, but we can never forget the employer functions as clouds over that rainbow.  Just like real clouds sometimes it can have a silver lining and sometimes it can be dark and indicative of an oncoming storm.   I guess the best career preparation is to figure out a work life theory that includes an some sort of umbrella for when those clouds dump some rain, because sooner or later it always rains, that’s why Rainbows even exist.

Posted by Mike Peluso

Mike Peluso writes about the collision between between the business / professional world and life. He also writes about the journey involved with the Peluso Presents efforts including the Blog, Books, and Podcast so that others may benefit from his efforts. From Mike: I spend hundreds of hours working on these articles every year with no compensation other than support I get through donations. You can support with a tip and by Subscribing to the Podcast (and writing a review on iTunes would be really appreciated as well!) One time tips: www.paypal.me/pelusopresents https://venmo.com/pelusopresents

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