The Changing Nature Of Careers Research Paper

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A large body of work on young adults’ transition from school to work and the establishment phase of their careers can be found in the extensive literature on occupational careers. However, relatively little empirical and theoretical work exists on the unique career issues faced by those workers in their mid- to late career stages, particularly with regard to the psychosocial dynamics of mid- and late careers. The need for additional work in this area is becoming more pressing with the shifting demographics to an older workforce, particularly the aging of the baby boom generation.

In addition, there has been a move away from the traditional linear career progression that was dictated primarily by the organization. This career progression focused on organizational-based rewards such as promotions and pension qualifications. More recently, protean-based careers, discussed by Hall and colleagues (e.g., Hall, 2004; Hall & Mirvis, 1995), which are controlled by the workers themselves and focused on their own personal values and goals, have become more prominent. Several authors have equated this new person-centered protean career model to the free agency market that has existed for a long time in professional sports. However, many mid- and late career workers who started their careers under the traditional model are not well prepared for the free agency market. Therefore, given the shifting demographics to an older workforce as well as the shifting responsibility of career management to the workers themselves, the need for increased interest and research on the unique issues faced by mid- and late career workers is obviously warranted and clearly justifies the inclusion of this research-paper in 21st Century Management.

In this research-paper, the limited existing literature on mid- and late careers is reviewed and summarized. First, the various career theories espoused over the last century are briefly summarized, in particular with regard to how mid- and late career workers are portrayed. Next, a context for the need for further work in this growing area is presented by discussing the changing nature of work, workers, and the workforce in the 21st century. The numerous influences on mid- and late careers at the individual, job, and organizational levels are also discussed. Next, a brief discussion of the practical implications that the changing nature of mid-and late careers has for organizations and organizational-based decision makers is provided. Future directions for mid- and late career theory and research are then presented. Finally, this research-paper ends with a summary and conclusion section, a list of additional entries in this book that you may want to review or refer to, as well as a list of notable further readings for those readers wishing to gain more knowledge on this topic.

The Evolution Of Career Theory

Sterns and colleagues (e.g., Sterns & Huyck, 2001; Sterns & Kaplan, 2003; Sterns & Sterns, 2005; Sterns & Subich, 2002) have noted in several of their writings that career theory has evolved dramatically over the last century from initially ignoring mid- and late career workers, to focusing on middle-aged and older workers only maintaining or exiting their careers, to more recently having a much greater appreciation with regard to the potential for continued growth at mid- and late career. The initial career models from the early 20th century focused exclusively on career exploration, entry, and establishment. Mid- and late career workers were essentially ignored. By the middle of the 20th century, theorists such as Super (1957) had proposed a fixed set of age-graded career stages that most workers were said to follow. For example, in Super’s model the five stages included growth (ages 0-14), exploration (ages 15-24), establishment (ages 25-44), maintenance (ages 45-65), and decline (ages 65+) stages. Schein (1990) proposed a somewhat similar three-stage model of socialization, performance, and obsolescence versus development of new skills. Thus, mid- and late career workers were essentially relegated to working merely to maintain their career until they eventually became obsolete to the point of decline and disengagement in the form of retirement. Younger workers, on the other hand, moved about seeking their lot in life during the exploration stage and moved their way up the career ladder during the establishment, socialization, and performance stages. However, it should be noted that Super (1980) later revised his stage theory to acknowledge that the five stages may occur at different times in individuals’ lives and may in fact occur several times throughout one’s life as individuals change careers.

Other models during this time focused on establishing how well workers “fit” within a given organization or career path. For example, Holland (1985) wrote about the career congruence of workers. He talked about six finite work environments: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional (hence, his well-known RI-ASEC model). His, and similar theorists, major contention was that to be successful in one’s career there needed to be a match between one’s primary personality and motives and one of the primary RIASEC work environments. While Holland’s work focused primarily on career selection by young adults, it was implicitly assumed that middle-aged and older workers would only find happiness at work when their own personalities were properly matched with the corresponding work environment.

The 1970s represented a time of transition, when popular press authors such as Sheehy (1976) and Levinson (1978) began to question whether mid- and late careers were simply a time to maintain the status quo. Both authors helped to popularize the idea that midlife can in fact be a time of considerable transition and thus they helped to reshape both researchers’ and societies’ view of midlife career issues. In addition, they also began to question the use of the “White male model” of career development for women and minorities, who often experience very different career patterns from White men.

More recent career models, such as the protean career model and the lifespan developmental model, that have evolved over the last quarter century, have a much greater appreciation for the continued potential for growth and renewal of workers in their mid- to late careers. These models also mark a clear move away from the traditional linear career progression, recognizing that most workers’ careers, particularly today, do not follow a lockstep, linear, and age-graded path. Instead, these models acknowledge extensive individual differences in aging, which impact mid- and late career workers. The lifespan developmental model in particular puts forth the idea that individuals are influenced by a wide variety of factors, including biological and environmental influences that affect physical and cognitive aging, historical and generational events such as wars and economic depressions, as well as an assortment of unique individual factors and events that interact to determine an individual’s unique career progression. Individuals are seen as beginning with different potentials in various characteristics and progressing at differing rates in their development. Thus, it is not surprising that workers who are the same age may be at vastly different points in their careers.

In order to fully understand and appreciate the lifespan developmental model of careers, we must understand the broader context in which careers occur. That is, we need to look at the nature of work and its evolution over time. In addition, we must also look at how workers and the workforce have evolved. Only in doing so will we be able to begin to understand the myriad of possible career trajectories that those in midlife and beyond may experience and fully appreciate the biological, psychological, sociological, and maturational influences on individuals’ careers. Hence, we next examine the changing nature of work, workers, and the workforce in the 21st century.

The Changing Nature Of Work, Workers, And The Workforce In The 21st Century

Most industrialized nations saw a dramatic shift from agricultural- and manufacturing-based economies to service-based economies over the course of the last century. In addition, some theorists, such as Drucker (2001), have suggested a further move to knowledge-based economies in the not-too-distant future. Because of these changes, the nature of the work that most individuals perform on a daily basis has dramatically changed as well. Specifically, the focus is shifting from reducing the physical demands on workers as they age to the cognitive and psychosocial demands, including job stress, which older workers are more likely to face in the 21st century workplace. The need for near constant (re)training and the explosion of technology are just two examples of the changing nature of the 21st century workplace.

In addition, the workforce itself is dramatically changing. Within the next decade, the workforce over age 50 is predicted to grow at a rate almost four times that of the workforce as a whole. Thus, it is clear that mid- and late career workers will make up a continually larger portion of the workforce in the 21st century. In addition, the future workforce will also be more ethnically, culturally, and gender diverse than ever before. Global competition and continued outsourcing and off-shoring of jobs will also dramatically affect the makeup of the 21st century workforce. Thus, the question becomes, how will these changes affect the nature of mid- and late careers for middle-aged and older workers?

Career Issues Unique To Mid- And Late Career Workers

A variety of unique issues face mid-career workers. In fact, early mid-career workers may face different issues than late mid-career and late career workers. For example, early mid-career workers will most likely assess their career progress to determine whether job or career changes may be necessary to meet their desired goals. In addition, early career workers are also likely facing changing work and family balance demands. Their children are becoming more independent, while aging parents may be becoming more dependent. Job and career “embeddedness” factors (i.e, those things that keep us in a particular job or career) such as spousal employment, children’s schooling, job satisfaction and attachment, and social relationships at work are also likely to be different for those in early mid-career versus those in late mid-career or late career.

Meanwhile, those approaching late career may be wondering how much effort and ambition to invest as they are near the end of their career. These older workers will also likely be more focused on preparing for the transition to reduced work roles, through either complete retirement or some form of phased or bridged retirement. They may also be thinking about their legacy at work and to their profession, and as a result may be more interested in mentoring. This is a concept that the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson referred to as the generativity factor that many older adults experience. Thus, we next examine the wide variety of unique factors that impact midlife and older workers at the individual, job, and organizational levels.

Individual-Level Factors

Mid- and late career workers face a variety of physical and psychosocial changes that could impact their careers. Among the most salient are physical aging, cognitive aging, experience and expertise, and work-family balance.

Impact of Physical Aging

Research has shown that as age increases there is a general trend toward decreasing energy, and, as a result, reduced capacity for physically demanding tasks. The implication of this, obviously, is that age-related physical changes may make it more difficult for older employees to perform physically demanding tasks. As such, occupations that require workers to perform very quickly or that require workers to perform physically demanding activities for long periods are generally less attractive as mid- and late career options.

Further, physical aging may make older employees more vulnerable to occupational hazards, as physical aging is generally intertwined with decreases in immune-system functioning and muscle strength. Typical occupations that may carry higher occupational safety and health risks for older employees include administrative support, production/craft/repair occupations, transportation and material moving, farming/forestry/fishing, private household services, and protective services. The risks are primarily in the areas of exposure to chemicals, being struck by heavy objects, exposure to violence, and repetitive motions. As such, these occupations are typically less attractive as mid-and late career options.

With physical aging, health care may become an important factor to consider for older workers who make mid- and late career decisions. Entering the 21st century, health-care costs have increased rapidly in the United States, as has the cost for health-insurance coverage. People who work for small businesses and who are self-employed usually have to pay more to get the same health benefit enjoyed by government or big corporate employees. Therefore, mid- and/or late career changes may function as a possible pathway to reach good-quality future health care. It should be noted that although the availability and quality of health care have been extensively discussed in general literature as well as in the popular media as factors that impact mid- and late career decision making, very few empirical studies in career change decision-making literature have examined these factors. Nevertheless, given the importance of health care to both older workers’ physical and financial well-beings, its potential impact for older workers’ mid- and late career change decisions should not be overlooked.

Impact of Cognitive Aging

When people grow older, even though their general knowledge remains stable or even increases, they tend to experience a reduction in cognitive resources. Specifically, cognitive aging features declines in processing speed, working memory, inhibition function, and sensations. These declines are the major reasons for age-related differences in cognitive performance. Given these declines, it may appear that older employees tend to have greater difficulty performing tasks that require retention of large amounts of information or that require rapid cognitive processing. This difficulty may be a major reason why people make career-path changes in their mid- and late career stages. This is especially true for certain occupations. For example, air traffic controllers usually retire from their jobs when they are 45 due to the high cognitive demands of the job.

To deal with the difficulties resulting from cognitive aging, it is important for mid- and late career workers to receive training in order to take advantage of new technologies to assist their work. Often time, applications of new technology (e.g., enterprise resource planning systems) relieve workers from excessive information processing by organizing and automating routine productive processes, thereby decreasing the cognitive load imposed on workers.

Impact of Experience and Expertise

One thing that we know typically occurs as people age is that they gain experience and often have higher levels of task-related expertise. As one would probably imagine, experience is typically associated with higher levels of work performance. This makes mid- and late career workers quite attractive to employers, as hiring them saves considerable training cost and their performance is better than new job incumbents, at least initially. This is particularly true for today’s workforce. Demographic projections have shown that by 2012, nearly 20% of the total U.S. workforce will be age 55 or older, up from just under 13% in 2000. With the pending retirement of the baby boomers, many analysts are predicting growing labor shortages. In fact, according to a recent research report provided by AARP, some employers are facing that problem now. In addition to the widely publicized shortages of nurses and other health-care professionals, organizations that rely on such specially trained individuals as teachers, engineers, and many other skilled workers are feeling the pressure of labor shortages. In light of the declining proportion of younger workers, older workers who engage in bridge employment can provide some beneficial labor market resources to overcome the growing labor shortages in the United States. Employers are more than ready to better utilize the productive powers and expertise of these experienced older workers.

Experience and expertise are also important when complex tasks are performed at work. Given the age-related cognitive changes described earlier, it would appear that older workers would tend to have greater difficulty performing cognitively demanding tasks. While it has been shown that older workers do have more difficulty performing such tasks, there have also been studies showing no age-related difference in the performance of these tasks. Scholars have suggested that older employees with higher levels of task-related expertise are able to develop strategies to compensate for their cognitive declines without impairing their task performance. As such, experience and expertise are particularly useful for mid- and late career workers to continue their careers without having to make a career path change or exit.

Impact of Work-Family Balance

Nowadays more and more couples enter the labor force at the same time, creating a large number of dual-earner families. When it comes to mid- and late career issues, considerable stress may develop in families where both husbands and wives have professional careers that are important to them—the so called dual-career family. In these families, husbands and wives who have given their career a high priority are likely to be well established in their careers by mid-adulthood. They probably have considerable responsibilities, may have to work long hours and take frequent business trips, and may need to relocate if they are to advance in their careers. Common career-related concerns of these families may occur on four levels: intrapersonal (identity and stress), interpersonal (competition and sharing tasks), organizational (work schedules, career interruptions, and advancement), and societal (lack of support and lack of role models). However, similarly, benefits of this lifestyle can be identified at the same four levels as well: intrapersonal (increased self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment), interpersonal (higher job satisfaction and intellectual compatibility), organizational (more resources and better benefits), and societal (legislative support and growing social acceptance). Indeed, compared to their husbands, wives from dual-career families in their mid-career bear more stress, as they are the ones who are expected by societal norms to keep a work-family balance. This has led to an increase in different career patterns for women, where they spend the first 10 or 15 years of adulthood focusing on their career and then cutting back or stepping out of the workforce temporarily sometime around their mid- to late 30s to have a child before it is too late.

Another work-family related issue that features the particular need of work-family balance is care giving responsibility. In today’s workforce, the number of workers who are caring for family members at both ends of the life span—children and elders—is growing quite rapidly. These employees are called “the sandwich generation.” Several social and demographic trends have contributed to the phenomenon of the sandwich generation in the United States, including delayed childbearing, the aging of the American population, the aging of the American workforce, the increasing number of women in the workforce, decreases in family size and changes in family composition, and rising health-care costs. Neal and Hammer’s (2007) research has shown that similar to dual-career families, wives in the sandwich generation perceive more family-to-work conflict than their husbands do. Further, they found that members from the sandwich generation preferred jobs that allow flexibility either in one’s daily work schedule or in location in order to be able to provide family care. Moreover, members from the sandwich generation also preferred working for organizations that have family-friendly workplace policies for them to attend to their family-care needs. Given that the typical age of members of the sandwich generation ranges from 35 to 50, these preferences in terms of jobs and organizations are likely to substantially influence these employees’ mid- and late career-related decisions.

Job-level Factors

The nature of work itself is also changing. While some jobs are still very physically demanding, overall, jobs are becoming less physically demanding and more cognitively demanding. As a result, many workers worry more about keeping up with technology and interpersonal demands at work, as opposed to the physical demands of the job. In addition, issues such as job stress, boredom, obsolescence, and increasing technology demands can all push older workers to seek new employment at middle age. However, as just noted, middle-aged workers are also more likely to be embedded in both their job and career, thus making it less likely that they will change jobs or careers at this point in their work life. Next, we discuss several job-level factors that may impact mid- and late careers.

Impact of Job Characteristics and Stressors

Jobs differ considerably on a number of dimensions, including autonomy, task identity, task significance, feedback process, and required skill variety. In addition, some jobs have higher levels of stressors than others do. All these factors embedded in one’s job are likely to influence one’s mid- and late career path. For example, when the required skill variety to perform the job is high, older workers may have problems in keeping up with new technologies. As such, people who perform this type of job may be more likely to choose to retire early or to switch to a career where constant skill updates are not required. Previous research has also shown that workers in their mid- and late careers generally prefer working alone and having greater autonomy in job-related decision making. Therefore, a job with low autonomy may lead older workers to seek new employment opportunities that allow for greater autonomy.

Further, workers may respond to specific job stressors differently depending on the stage of their career. One such stressor is job insecurity. Since older employees stand to lose much more financially if laid off and may have limited prospects for reemployment as compared to younger employees, they may exhibit more negative psychological reactions to job insecurity. Previous studies have also found that older employees responded more negatively to role conflict compared to younger employees. The fact that role conflict was more bothersome to older workers was possibly because balancing these conflicts may have required higher levels of cognitive or physical resources than older employees possessed. Overall, mid- and late career workers may engage in active job searching or directly entering retirement in reacting to these stressors.

Impact of Job Satisfaction

Numerous studies have shown that age is associated with increasingly positive job satisfaction. This positive relationship may be due to the covariation of age with job circumstances that produce job satisfaction. For example, a number of variables that are also associated with job satisfaction, such as work experience, organizational tenure, job level, and income tend to be correlated with age. Older workers typically have longer tenure and more work experience and have advanced to higher occupational levels providing them with jobs that offer many of the outcomes that contribute to increased job satisfaction. The positive relationship between age and job satisfaction may also be due to the systematic changes in the central life interests and emotional functioning of adults that unfold as workers age. For example, older workers may report more satisfaction with their jobs because they have mellowed with time. Further, it has been suggested that aging is associated with a gradual lowering of expectations and aspirations. As such, as workers age, they adjust their standards from overly idealistic to more realistic. This allows older workers to be sufficiently satisfied with situations that would not have been satisfying at an earlier point in their careers.

The overall implication of this positive relationship between age and job satisfaction for mid- and late career development are twofold. First, it indicates that the older the workers are, the less likely that they will make career changes due to job dissatisfaction unless they approach the window of time when retirement becomes a socially acceptable and an economically viable alternative. If that is the case, they will probably transition to retirement. Second, if job satisfaction is generally achieved in mid- and late careers, it should facilitate the possibility of bridge employment in the same career field. This way, more accumulated job knowledge and expertise will be retained in the labor force and will help to address the growing labor shortages in the United States as previously discussed.

Organizational-Level Factors

Unlike the military sector where clear “up-or-out” criteria for promotions, and hence career success, still exist, such steadfast demarcations appear to be fading in the civilian sector. Age norms regarding the expected level of career achievement that should be attained by a certain age, while still evident in some professions, are beginning to be questioned with regard to their influence on actual behavior. In addition, most workers no longer follow the stereotype of a long and stable career with one or two employers, followed by retirement. Instead, we see a much wider set of acceptable transitions from early to mid- to late career and eventually into retirement.

Career mobility and career stability are also key factors for workers in their mid- and late careers, as noted by Feldman (2007). Middle-aged and older workers tend to have more stability in both their personal and work lives. As a result, they are less likely to change jobs or careers than younger workers are. Organizational level factors such as perceived age bias and discrimination and organizational downsizings and declines in the demand for certain types of labor are also likely to influence workers’ desire to change their job or career at later ages. Thus, we briefly review the importance of both organizational climate and downsizings on mid- and late career development.

Impact of Organizational Climate

Organizational climate has received a great deal of recent attention in organizational research, although the trend has been to examine climate with respect to specific organizational domains. For the purposes of this research-paper, however, the most relevant form of climate is simply the organizational climate with regard to older employees. Is the organizational climate such that older employees are treated with respect and dignity or are they simply cast aside? Does the organization value the experience and wisdom of older employees? Is the organization willing to make adjustments in jobs when older employees reach a point when they may not be able to perform their job as fast as younger employees? While research has not yet examined these questions in depth, we believe that organizational climates likely differ in this regard and that such differences affect mid- and late career workers. It is possible, for example, that such climate differences impact the self-perceived value that individuals have of themselves as organizational members acting within an organizational context—so called “organizational-based self-esteem” (OBSE). When the organizational climate toward older employees is negative, this may lead older employees to have low levels of OBSE. In such situation, older workers are more likely to retire or change jobs in order to preserve their self-concept.

Impact of Organizational Downsizings and Declines in Demand for Certain Types of Labor

Perhaps the most visible sign of career turbulence in the late 20th century was the heightened loss of jobs. It has been estimated that 43 million jobs were lost in the United States between 1979 and 1995. Moreover, the pace of job loss accelerated in the 1990s, with 3.2 million jobs lost per year on average—an increase of nearly 40% over the 1980s. This extensive job loss has been attributed to technological advances that render many jobs obsolete. The pursuit of increased efficiency in an intensively competitive global economy has also led to the rising rate of organizational downsizing through mergers, acquisitions, and the relocation of manufacturing bases.

In addition, many organizations have changed their structure and their human resources practices in significant ways. It has been suggested that an increasing number of employers will be characterized by a small, permanent core workforce supplemented by a larger number of contingent, part-time, and contract workers. As such, one resulting trend of the organizational downsizing is that the number of traditional White-collar jobs available in the labor market has significantly decreased and has been largely replaced by hourly service work positions. Nevertheless, organizational downsizing may create a flatter hierarchy in the organization with self-managed, cross-functional teams responsible for most decisions and may provide opportunities to eliminate unprofitable ventures and seek more promising enterprises.

Given the organizational downsizings and declines in demand of traditional White-collar jobs, older workers who entered mid- or late careers during this time may have fewer career choices available. Further, while one is able to change career paths in mid- and late career, the possibility of trading up may be quite slim. However, mid- and late career workers who can function across different job roles, organizational hierarchies, and national boundaries may thrive in this business environment, because they fit to the exact need for substantial speed and flexibility to respond to intensely competitive market forces produced by the global economy.

The Transition To Retirement

As Greller and Simpson (1999) note, “One could not reasonably look at late career without examining the literature on retirement. Retirement may be viewed as either the end of late career or an integral part of it” (p. 325). After reviewing the research in this area, Greller and Simpson later conclude, “For the broad population, a successful late career is the most likely prelude to a successful retirement. A frustrating, disrupted, and personally diminishing late career from which one was compelled to exit provides a poor basis for whatever may come next” (p. 328). Hence, how older workers conclude their late careers has significant implications for life after full time work. Thus, it is critical that we better understand what contributes to successful mid- and late careers if we wish to also improve the transition and adjustment to retirement.

As authors such as Beehr and Bowling (2002) have noted, the definition of what it means to be retired is a rapidly evolving concept. For example, traditionally it has been assumed that retirement meant that someone was no longer working for pay. However, many older workers now “retire” (sometimes referred to as early retirement) from a well-established career, only to transition into a reduced work role, to a different career, or possibly to a more traditional nonwork role as a retiree. The reduced but continuing work role is typically referred to as bridge employment, which most often consists of part-time and/or temporary work that may or may not be in the same career or line of work as that engaged in prior to “retirement.” Unfortunately, the antecedents and consequences of engaging in bridge employment are not as well known.

While older workers typically begin transitioning out of the workforce by their late 50s to mid- 60s, some individuals continue in their careers, or begin new careers, at this late age. Bronte (1993) conducted a qualitative, interview-based study of individuals who had very long careers, well into their 80s and 90s, in order to determine the factors that lead to such unusual career longevity. Based on the many in-depth interviews she conducted with these elderly workers, she was able to classify the wide variety of career experiences into three broad career patterns. The first is those whom she called homesteaders. The homesteaders were those individuals who continued in the same job for their entire career. These were often in professional jobs such as scientists or artistic professions with extensive autonomy. They continued in their singular career primarily due to a high sense of engagement and a feeling that there was still potential for growth, even at their relatively old ages.

The second group was labeled the transformers. These individuals typically made one major job or career change either early in the exploration stage of their career or toward the end of a well-established career. This change afforded them the financial and personal stability to pursue other interests later in life. The third group of elderly workers was labeled explorers. These individuals had many career changes, with the reasons being quite varied. Thus, it is clear that it is possible to continue one’s career, or start a new career, at a very late age if the individual is motivated, and the environmental and organizational conditions are amenable to doing so. Unfortunately, too often older workers are encouraged to leave their career, by both employers and their family and friends, before they may be ready, simply because it is what most people do.

However, recent survey research of baby boomers by organizations such as the AARP indicate that many older workers are interested in continuing work in some form once they retire from their “career jobs.” Whether most would consider this the start of a new career is debatable, but should this desire to continue work past traditional retirement age come to fruition, it will clearly have a variety of interesting implications for employers to consider, which we explore next.

Practical Implications And Applications

Many practical implications are evident from the previous discussion for individuals, jobs, organizations, and the society. For individuals in midlife, an array of decisions must be made. Should one continue working at all once the traditional retirement age is reached? If so, in what form? Will it be possible to continue work, albeit in a reduced capacity, with his or her current employer? Should one seek out new organizations or even new careers? Of course, these decisions must be made in the context of the individual’s family life. Moen and her colleagues (e.g., Kim & Moen, 2001; Moen, 1998; Moen, Kim, & Hofmeister, 2001) have shown that most couples try to time their retirement so that both spouses retire at or near the same time. However, family demands (e.g., children’s college tuition costs or sickly elderly parents) can alter the best-laid plans.

Meanwhile organizations will be facing a slow-growing labor market, potentially unable to meet their labor demands. As a result, organizations will need to make some difficult decisions. Should they work to retain older workers? Should organizations provide incentives to keep older, more experienced workers from contemplating retirement? Should they develop mentoring programs to tap the wisdom of older workers who are quickly approaching retirement? Can jobs be restructured to make them more appealing and accommodating to middle-aged and older workers? Hence, choosing among these many options will be a major challenge for organizational decision makers in the 21st century.

Finally, society will also affect individuals’ mid- and later career plans and experiences. A sudden downturn in the economy may force older workers to continue working beyond their desired retirement age or alter their plans to change careers late in life. In addition, many economists are predicting that Social Security and Medicare will soon be running a deficit. These issues are certainly going to impact older workers’ plans for retirement.

Based on what we know about the changing nature of the workplace as well as family life, innovative programs have been developed in an effort to address and reduce the impact of some of these changes. The following list includes programs that particularly apply to mid- and late career workers:

  1. Flexible-time schedules allow people to select their own work hours, thereby giving employees flexibility to attend to children and/or the elderly.
  2. Job-sharing programs allow hours and requirements to be divided between two people. These programs can be used to help create bridge-employment opportunities for employees transitioning into retirement.
  3. A cafeteria approach to benefits allows workers more freedom of choice of benefits, such as health insurance, life insurance, disability insurance, and retirement-investment plans.
  4. Family-leave programs provide paid or unpaid time off for family issues, such as illness of one’s spouse, child, or aging parents.
  5. Educational programs help older workers better plan for and transition less abruptly into retirement.
  6. Employee assistance programs (EAPs), including on-site or contractual counseling services, offer preventive and short-term, problem-focused counseling. For example, through EAPs, organizations may offer services to older employees who are going through difficult transitions such as children moving out or the death of a spouse.
  7. Early and phased retirement programs provide older workers with more time for trying new career directions.
  8. Partnership-building programs facilitated by the government among public universities, organizations, and older-worker advocacy groups (e.g., AARP) provide skill-enhancement training for older workers.

Future Directions For Research

While the previous discussion was based on the currently available literature, there is still relatively little empirical and theoretical work on the unique career issues faced by those workers in their mid- to late career stages. Therefore, much more research is still needed to examine the changing nature of mid- and late careers. We next discuss some directions that may be fruitful for future research.

First, future research should pay more attention to the differences among early mid-career workers, late mid-career workers, and late career workers. As we mentioned earlier, the motives for their careers as well as their career environment could be considerably different. Thus, multiple career-development and change patterns could exist among them. The value-based holistic model of career proposed by Brown (1996) is well suited to the study of this topic. This model argues that how people prioritize their values determines their choices of career and approaches for career development. Further, this model emphasizes that the prioritizing order of values changes over time depending on the person’s developmental stage as well as the environmental factors, such as family demands and organizational attributes. According to this model, we can understand different career-development and change patterns at people’s different career stages through examining their specific value systems at that time. Further, by acknowledging people’s dynamic value systems, this model implies that both between-subjects and within-subjects differences will be observed in career choices at different career stages. Clarifying these differences is very important and will help in developing corresponding career counseling and intervention programs to improve workers’ career choices, particularly during the latter stages of their career.

Second, much more research is needed to examine the impact of the growing multicultural workforce on mid- and late career issues. When there was more homogeneity, at least on the surface of our society, it was easier to believe that one pattern of career development or one theory of career could be right for everyone. However, our present multicultural population makes clear the importance of viewing people in their unique cultural context and background. Today about one third of new entrants to the labor force are people from minority backgrounds. Exploring their specific needs for career choice and development via understanding their cultural identities will facilitate both theory development and counseling practice in this field. It should also be noted that culture is quite a broad concept. Ethnicity is certainly not the only one that shapes people. The career choice and development of people with strong religious affiliations, people who are homosexual, people with disabilities, and people with substance-abuse problems are also likely to be affected by their unique experiences in their group.

Third, future research should also focus more on examining barriers to mid- and late career development. Although problems such as underemployment, stressful and even traumatic work experiences, sexual harassment, illiteracy, substance abuse, physical abuse, work incivility, poverty, and ethnic, age, and gender discriminations are often viewed by most as social problems, they are also barriers for successful career transition and development. Understanding how they interact with each other and affect one’s career development in mid- or late career stages will help us paint a more comprehensive picture of mid- and late career development. For example, older workers who have experienced high stress on their preretirement jobs are more likely to directly retire than to engage in bridge-employment jobs. However, if they live in poverty, they may have to take postretirement jobs to make their living. This type of post-retirement employment is certainly very different from the bridge employment that we usually discuss.

Fourth, future studies should also focus on investigating involuntary career changes in mid- and late career development. Although most occupational changes are made voluntarily, it is estimated that about 13% of changes are involuntary. People who lost their jobs are likely to have the most difficulty with the process of change as well as the least rewarding outcomes. It has been reported that 70% of voluntary career changes lead to higher income, whereas 70% of involuntary career changes lead to a decline in income. It has also been found that older workers, even with a college education, often spend longer (4-6 months) than average (2-3 months) to find a job. Therefore, mid- and late career workers seem to be at a disadvantage compared to early career workers when facing involuntary career changes. Nevertheless, the underlying mechanisms that manifest this disadvantage still need to be clarified. For example, is it because of the lack of skills, higher start-up salary, or the stereotype of lower performance? Mediational models need to be explicitly tested.

A final general suggestion we have for future research is to use multiple theoretical perspectives when examining mid- and late career change and development patterns. Although most theories used in this research area have received consistent empirical support, each of them may only provide valid hypotheses or explanations for a specific scope of subpopulations, relationships, or developmental trends. As we noted earlier, there are both between-subjects and within-subjects differences in mid- and late careers. Therefore, using only one theoretical perspective to derive research hypotheses may lead to dismissing valid systematic variance as random errors and capitalizing on the sample used for the research.

Summary And Conclusion

While there is an abundance of research and theory on career entry and establishment, a paucity of research and theory exists on the nature of mid- and late career development. However, it is clear that the nature of mid- and late careers themselves is dramatically changing. No longer is it up to the organization to guide a worker’s career. Instead, workers in the 21st century will need to be more proactive and contemplative in the career-related decisions they make. In addition, demographic projections clearly indicate that more workers than ever before will face these unique issues at mid- and late career.

Therefore, we briefly reviewed the evolution of career theory from the early 20th century, where middle-aged and older worker career issues were essentially ignored, to the more modern theories, which have a greater appreciation for the continued potential for growth of middle-aged and older workers. We also provided a summary of the major individual, job, and organizational-level influences on mid-and late careers under the rubric of the changing nature of work, workers, and the workforce in the 21st century. Individual-level factors discussed included the impact of physical and cognitive aging, experience and expertise, as well as work-family-balance demands. Job-level factors related to job characteristics, stressors, and satisfaction were also reviewed. Organizational-level factors such as organizational climate and downsizing were also examined for their impact on mid- and late careers.

We next discussed the changing nature of the transition from late career to retirement and how this process has recently become blurred. Finally, we concluded the research-paper with practical implications and applications, as well as several directions for future research in the area of mid- and late careers. In doing so, we hope the reader has gained a greater appreciation for the unique issues faced by mid-and late career workers, as well as the changing nature of mid- and late careers. In addition, we hope the applications section will help career counselors better address the unique needs faced by mid- and late career clients and that the future research directions we have provided will guide future theories made about this increasingly important area.


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