Perception and Meaning in Career Conceptualization: Career Construction Theory and the Life Design Paradigm & Happenstance Learning Theory

By Jenifer L’Insalata

Existential philosophy reflects the desire to understand a deeper human condition through the emphasis of purpose and meaning. It is often reflected in the form of angst experienced by individuals in their daily lives and in the post agricultural societies. The industrialization and increased automation of work increases individual isolation and decreases a purposeful connection to work (Sterner, 2012). Thus, existential philosophy is applicable when seeking to identify patterns within contemporary work relations.

The philosophical emphasis on freedom, meaning, and death suggests that existential psychology is somewhat amorphous and can be applied to many aspects of a client’s wellbeing. Working to align with client’s values related to meaning and purpose presents a well-suited approach to working thought periods of adjustment. If an individual’s career trajectory is viewed as a series of adjustments related to work, existential philosophy becomes applicable when navigating adjustments within a complex system of employment related concerns (Sterner, 2012).

Sterner (2012) argues that in a postmodern workforce, less emphasis is placed on the alignment of traits when seeking career opportunities. Workers often seek career opportunities that reflect the fundamental existential pillars of purpose and meaning. There is a common duality that exists between the individuals and their environment in which the individual and the environment engage in reciprocal interactivity and influence. This creates a sense of tension as the point in which the individual stops and the social sphere begins is often ambiguous, creating a sense of fluidity and motion. Physics would ultimately describe the phenomenon as interacting field systems (Martin, 2003, & Wagmans, et. al., 2012) and the concept would extend into other domains of philosophy, psychology, social science, and economics.

Gestalt concepts in psychology and philosophy recognize that the individual is more then the sum of its parts by being both part of and different then its parts. In essence, the reciprocity between the individual internal and external filed of influence create a ‘whole’ in which perception switches between the internal and external by means of temporal states and sensory input (Wagmans, et. al., 2012, Kohler, 1947, & Ellis, 1930). It is this perception of pressure from the internal self and the external world that drive motivation, and the construction of meaning and purpose.

Contemporary Career Conceptualization

The contemporary concept of work has evolved as societal changes occur forcing the reevaluation of the ‘career’ to reflect such change. Prior to the 21st century, careers were akin to a linear trajectory or the movement up a defined career ladder (Swanson, & Fouad, 2015). Social and economic changes within a more digital, multicultural, and global economy shift the average career trajectory. Jobs have become less permanent and reflect the proliferation of temporary assignments (Brown, & Lent, 21013).

Today one’s career path often consists of several protein careers in which the individual constructs their own unique narrative (Swanson, & Fouad, 2015, & Brown, & Lent, 2013). Contemporary careers are no longer conceptualized as a ladder. Instead individual career progression often resembles a trellis in which a series of lateral, parallel, and perpendicular steps lead to a larger career goal.

Career Construction Theory and the Life Design Paradigm

Mark L. Savikas is one of many contemporary career theorists who expanded on the work of Super’s life-span, life-space theory. He proposed his Career Construction Theory and the Life Design Paradigm as a way to understand the broader connection of the ‘self’ to career and vocational paths. The origins of Career Construction Theory have roots in Super’s work, yet diverge to so some degree (Swanson, & Fouad, 2015) to emphasize the active role of the individual in vocational evolution.

Career Construction Theory and the Life Design Paradigm focus on the process through which individuals construct their sense of self, engage is self-determinism by deliberate vocational behavior, and construct personal meaning form their careers. The primary concept emphasized and active self-construction which begins during childhood. (Savickas, 2013, & Swanson, & Fouad, 2015).

The construction of the self is a multilayered process consisting of complex phases of reflecting and experiencing. Language represents a way to shape identity by providing a means to project subjective aspects of the self and who the individuals intends to be. During childhood, children serve as actors playing a social role (Brown, & Lent, 2013) within the context of their environment. Here beliefs surrounding personal abilities, values, and actions are incorporated into the self-schema which is then reflected back into their environment for appraisal (Lo & Abbott, 2019, & Tafarodi, 1998). This can also be illustrated and supported through Charles Colley’s looking glass theory.

As individuals mature, the sense of self becomes subjective. Savikas (2013) suggests that the individual embarks on a journey of self-discovery and become an agent. Self-discovery and subjectivity reflect the individual’s journey toward self-determination. The individual can progress through a hierarchy of goals and achievements that resemble a bureaucratic social structure. This self-discovery process mirrors Maslow’s hierarchical development toward self-actualization. The self as agent reflects a sense of career adaptability that has its evolutionary origins in Super’s concept of career maturity (Brown, & Lent. 2013, & Swanson, & Fouad, 2015).

Individuals move through their career path transitioning from actors to agents, and finally authors. Reflection of patterns throughout the individual life enables the construction of experiences and influences into a constellation of purposeful goals. The narration of experiences enables individuals to construct resumes and occupational plotlines that represent the sequence of career transitions and adjustments. This helps to crystalize meaning and purpose in the individual’s relationship to work (Savikas, 2013, & Brown, & Lent. 2013).

Savikas’ concept of career adaptability evolved out of Super’s concept of career maturity in which the individual moves through four dimensions related to concern, control, curiosity, and confidence. The concept of career concern and career indifference introduces the use of Holland’s RIASEC code during career and vocational education trajectories thar reflect the optimism of the individual as actor. The concept of career control and career indifference reflects the choice or apathy one might experience as a self-discovery agent. Career curiosity and career indifference further reflect the curiosity of career construction and adaptation. Career confidence and career inhibition reflects the self-efficacy of success or failure along a career progression illustrated by the individual as author (Swanson, & Fouad, 2015).

Happenstance Learning Theory

In a similar manner, contemporary career theorist John D. Krumboltz considered the everchanging influences and interests that shape career progression. He introduced the Happenstance Learning Theory which acknowledged career progression as a free flow of exploration that need not be planned. His theory focused on achieving satisfaction in the individuals personal and professional life by participating in various beneficial activities such as lifelong learning and remaining open and alert to alternative opportunities (Krumboltz, 2008). 

The happenstance of unpredictable events leads to outcomes that no one could predict or foresee. This echoes the idea of an unknow destiny permeates Krumboltz work. Krumboltz believed that human behavior is the product of both planned and unplanned experiences from which the individual learns and develops skills, beliefs. Preferences, sensitivities, and emotions. The idea of destiny enters by way of the life experiences and influences which the individual cannot control. Individuals are able to alter their destiny by choosing to focus on a particular aspect of their situation and employ a particular belief or behavior. Individuals who are open to various options and outcomes are able to capitalize on the unknown and engage in self-initiated actions related to personal strengths learned over the lifetime (Krumboltz, 2008). 

The idea of destiny is rooted in the existential postmodern concept of purpose and meaning. The notion of freedom and choice reflect the dimensions of adaptability to circumstance and hazard. Destiny in essence is designed to question the freedom and choice related to the deterministic notion of external forces (Dion, 2009).

Krumboltz was highly interested in understanding the various influences on human behavior. He cites the work of several noteworthy theorists including Ellis, Bandura, Watts, Zimbardo, and Schroeder to illustrate the various influences.  Genetic influence illustrates aspects of heritability that connect brain function to social behavior. Twin studies connect psychological variables of interests, aptitudes, and career interests to genetic predisposition (Krumboltz, 2008). Genetics also acknowledges that predispositions make up some of the internal influence that is beyond the control of the individual.

Learning experiences are constant throughout the lifetime and stem from observations about the larger world. Learning shapes generalizations and enables individuals to self-identify with a particular way of being and cement beliefs based on social feedback. Associative forms of learning enable children to observe the environmental behaviors of others as well as the corresponding consequence. Judgments are made that relate to preferred behavior by means of emulation. Here the family environment and socioeconomic status, and media influence the types of learning experiences available (Krumboltz, 2008, Thelamour, et. al., 2019). 

The environment in which an individual finds themselves has a powerful influence on beliefs and behaviors. The concept of individual attachment illustrated through Bowlby’s attachment theory connects patterns of behavior to environmental conditions and self-concept. Bonds with key individuals throughout the lifetime influence the level of lifelong anxiety and confidence (Krumboltz, 2008, Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010, & Gibson & Schwartz, 2008). The experiences within one’s community and social environment further solidify identity, values, and belonging.

These influences and many more combines with dimensions of social inequality that provide or limit opportunities for individuals as they follow areas of developed interest. Individuals align themselves with education, mentors or leaders, and environments that reflect their particular life space at any given moment. This alignment or happenstance of circumstances enable people to find themselves in roles unrelated to their initial career ambitions or intended career fields. Personal fulfillment is found through the expansion of knowledge and interdisciplinary learning across many spheres of environmental influence. This enables the individual to develop a rich arsenal of experiences that enable fluid movement throughout the career trajectory. (Krumboltz, 2008). 

Comparison and Application

In many ways, both Career Construction Theory and the Life Design Paradigm and Happenstance Learning Theory view career progression as a personal journey. Both theories recognize the influence of life experience, situations, and circumstance on career and vocational outcome. Over the course of the lifetime various fields of influences shape the individual and create a ‘whole’ or ‘self’. The individual is both consisting of sum of their influences and experiences yet separate from their influences and experiences as outlined in gestalt philosophy. Reactions or adaptations to the internal and external drive the progression of a career journey.

Key differences in the theories lie in the active or passive role of the individual. Career Construction Theory and the Life Design Paradigm views the individual as an active participant in building and shaping their career potential. This is keenly noted in Savikas’ (2013) self-deterministic framework as the individual fulfills the role of actor, agent, and author of their career progression. Three key types of interventions occur throughout the vocational lifespan. Vocational guidance reflects the matching of traits and aptitudes developed during early roles of individual as actor.  Career education refers to the various stages of career readiness and vocational development as the individual assumes agency. Career counseling focuses on stories and themes throughout the individual life narrative and personal design paradigm through a narrative interview that guides further career progression (Swanson, & Fouad, 2015).

Happenstance Learning Theory views the individual as a passive participant who employees various personal strengths to capitalize on unpredictable circumstances and situations. This enables individuals to adapt and move through transitions of life in general. The flexibility of happenstance enables career transformation during difficult times such as economic decline and periods of unemployment (Krumboltz, 2008).

Our Present Predicament

As we enter another period of economic uncertainty and instability, career and vocational counseling will impact the wellbeing of many individuals. The use of both Career Construction Theory and the Life Design Paradigm and Happenstance Learning Theory provide insight to fulfillment and transition. Both theories are strongly rooted in the existential and gestalt philosophy that acknowledges the influence of external spheres and the conflict between freedom and determinism.  Using the narrative interview derived form a stage like progression of constructed and deliberate choices allows counselors to better understand the needs and goals of the individual. The fluidity of happenstance and circumstance enables individuals to reduce anxiety related to the unknown and situations that are outside of their control, while finding meaning and purpose in their relationship to work.


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