Current thinking about vocational identity has been shaped primarily by Erik H. Erikson’s theory of psychosexual development. All of Erikson’s eight stages of life span development have implications for career development, as demonstrated by his many references to the central importance he assigned to the individual’s ability to create a successful work role within the opportunities and limitations imposed by the interpersonal and sociocultural context. Nevertheless, career researchers have focused their attention on the stage of identity formation and on its immediate precursor, which is the stage during which children develop a sense of industry. Children who successfully establish a sense of industry have the beginnings of the capacity to feel useful; they begin to feel confident in their abilities to make things (and to make them well); and they gain confidence in their abilities to learn what it takes to be a well-functioning and productive member of society. It should thus not be surprising that developing a firm sense of industry in childhood is a necessary condition for developing a self-chosen identity during adolescence and young adulthood, particularly for developing a firm vocational identity.
Although thinking about the career development implications of children’s behaviors and experiences may require an expansion of much of the current theorizing about career development, there is a growing body of research that supports the idea that children learn about the world of work quite early in life and that they formulate ideas about what they want to be when they grow up and, perhaps even more important, about what they don’t want to be (and do). There is also growing evidence that children who experience success and recognition as a consequence of their efforts and achievements have a good chance to succeed in acquiring a sense of industry, which not only is a precondition for the development of identity but has also been shown to benefit their school performance and protect them from various forms of deviancy.
The successful acquisition of a sense of industry thus serves as a springboard for a process that is absolutely essential for the development of a vocational identity, namely, exploration of the world of work and occupations. This may start out as relatively random and fortuitous and then progress to include more systematic and sophisticated exploratory activities. Gradually, adolescents are able to focus their explorations not only on the pertinent dimensions of likely occupations but also on their perceptions of how their own interests, abilities, and values correspond to both the demands and the rewards that various occupations have to offer.
Individuals are assumed to start out, as they emerge from childhood, lacking a well-defined identity. This is referred to as identity diffusion. For many young adolescents, this is followed by identity foreclosure, which occurs as they adopt the beliefs, goals, and values of significant others. Because young adolescents do not have the necessary experience (i.e., they have not engaged in sufficient exploration) to have a selfchosen identity, foreclosure identity is considered to be a premature commitment to an identity, and often adolescents eventually relinquish their foreclosed identity in favor of a period of moratorium or active (re)exploration. If successful, they can then emerge with a self-chosen identity, which is referred to as identity achievement. Although this developmental course is normative, it is not invariant. Some individuals do not foreclose, some may go back to diffusion following a moratorium period, and some never achieve a self-chosen identity.
Although it is generally accepted that adolescence and early adulthood are the periods of life in which identity development represents a primary developmental task, it is also clear that especially in the vocational domain, identity development does not stop there. Changing economic conditions and advances in technology have eliminated whole occupational categories (e.g., telephone operator) and, concurrently, have forced countless individuals to abandon their vocational identities, explore alternative occupations, and develop new vocational identities. Even within broad occupational categories, advancement or promotion may also lead to changes in vocational identity. As more individuals pursue midlife career changes or serial careers, their views of who they are and what they do (i.e., their vocational identities) invariably change as well. Thus, it is clear that the task of vocational identity formation should never be considered finished once and for all. Individuals have the capacity to reinvent themselves and their careers from early adolescence through old age.
Adolescence has been identified as the period when most of the “work” of identity formation takes place, but questions have been raised regarding the significance of achieving a firm sense of vocational identity (i.e., making a firm commitment following a period of exploration) during adolescence. One line of reasoning is that because many adolescents spend most of their time in school and school-related activities, they may be relatively ignorant of the world of work and thus may be unable to make an informed commitment, even if they have engaged in a period of exploration. Countering that view is research that has demonstrated that part-time work involving moderate hours, which is experienced by the majority of adolescents in the United States, has a positive impact on adolescents’ realism about work and vocational choice, thus facilitating the achievement of a vocational identity. Moreover, some researchers have demonstrated that a significant number of adults developed rather firm ideas when they were quite young about the type of work they wanted to do and their current occupations are consistent with these early ideas.