Occupational Choice

For many individuals and for a long time, occupational choice has been seen as the goal of career development. Theory and practice focused on either occupational choice or career development, but more recently these have been integrated into more complex conceptions of career. Historically, occupational choice is a comparatively new phenomenon. Up until the twentieth century, most people’s occupations were determined by their station (position in the society) and their family circumstances. Occupations were usually inherited and passed on through generations within families. This was so prevalent that many family names in English-speaking countries are actually occupation titles, such as Baker, Farmer, Cook, Carpenter, Potter, Taylor, Ryder, and so on. The vestiges of this form of career are evident in the development of family dynasties traditionally associated with property and agriculture but more recently with large corporations in which owners pass leadership on to their progeny across generations. However, increasing industrialization and its sociological impacts resulted in major changes in the structure of the labor market, including the decline of some traditional occupations and the establishment of new occupations associated with machine operation and increased urbanization. It was not possible to “inherit” an occupation if the occupation had not existed previously. Progressively more people had to choose occupations.

In fact, early in the twentieth century it was recognized by social reformers such as Frank Parsons that occupational choice constituted a very significant way in which individuals could actually improve their life circumstances. If people could choose rather than inherit occupations, then this was a major opportunity for them to better their lives on the basis of talent and motivation rather than just birth or station. Later in the twentieth century, others with a social reform agenda in Western societies also saw the potential of occupational choice and opportunity as crucial in the development of disadvantaged groups such as minorities, those with disabilities, women, and indigenous peoples. Indeed in the counseling literature relating to occupational choice, a major theme has become the relative priority of social change in comparison with individual fulfillment.

The paradigm for such choice was that of matching characteristics of the person with those of particular occupations. The concept of “career” was the progressive development of a person’s working life within the occupation originally chosen after leaving school, college, or university. A rigorous example of the matching paradigm originated in the University of Minnesota and became known as the theory of work adjustment (TWA). The fundamentals of this theory were that good occupational choices would be made when there were correspondences between characteristics of individuals and those of occupations. Thus if there was a good match between the abilities of an individual and the performance demands of an occupation, then it was likely that the person would be successful in working in this occupation. The TWA called this “satisfactoriness.” If the personal preferences of an individual corresponded with the rewards offered by an occupation, then it would be likely that the person would like working in this occupation. The TWA designated this as “satisfaction.” As a result, a suitable occupational choice was understood to be one in which the person was both satisfactory in performance and satisfied in preference.

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