As indicated earlier, work life serves as a major source of identity, provides us with an official position, and influences lifestyle and social interactions; therefore, choosing an occupation is a serious matter. Although most people think occupational choice is largely the province of young adults, much of what we will consider also holds true for middle – aged and older workers who are seeking to change occupations either voluntarily or because they lost their jobs. As you will see later, more adults are changing occupations than ever before and have to rethink the kinds of jobs they want to hold. Moreover, as the downsizing trend in corporations and the economic recession continue, many adults may be forced to look for new employment in different fields.
From a developmental perspective, the decisions people make about occupations may change over time. As people face different life issues or achieve new insights about themselves, they may well decide that their best bet would be to change occupations. In addition, occupational choices may reflect personal or social clocks (see Chapter 1); individuals of different ages may feel different degrees of pressure to make a certain occupational choice. Regardless of age, personality and interests are important factors in deciding on an occupation. Let’s turn our attention to one of the theories explaining how and why people choose the occupations they do.
Holland’s Theory of Occupational Choice. Although we tend to think of occupational choice as something
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done during adolescence or young adulthood, recent theories and research have increasingly adopted a life course perspective (Sterns & Gray, 1999). However, the main theoretical frameworks for occupational choice have taken a trait-factor approach, which focuses on aspects of one’s personality (see Chapter 9).
Holland (1985, 1987, 1996) developed a theory based on the intuitively appealing idea that people choose occupations to optimize the fit between their individual traits—such as personality, intelligence, skills, and abilities—and their occupational interests. He categorizes occupations in two ways: by the interpersonal settings in which people must function and by their associated lifestyle. He identifies six work environments in which individuals can express their vocational personalities; they are summarized in Table 12.1. Each one is best suited to a specific set of occupations, as indicated in the right – hand column of the table. Remember that these are merely prototypes. Most people do not match any one personality type exactly. Instead, their work- related personalities are a blend of the six.
Holland’s theory exists at the level of interest, not at the level of performance requirements per se. He predicts that people will choose the occupation that has the greatest similarity to their personality type. By doing this, they optimize their ability to express themselves, apply their skills, and take on new roles. Having a good match between personality and occupation maximizes occupational satisfaction. This model is useful in describing the career preferences of African, Asian, European, Native, and Mexican American adults; it is also useful for both males and females (Barrick, Mount, & Gupta, 2003; Day, Rounds, & Swaney, 1998). Research also shows that when people have jobs that match their personality type, in the short run they are more productive workers, and in the long run they have more stable career paths (Holland, 1996). Similarly, in a study of 171 African American nursing personnel, Day and Bedeian (1995) found that personality traits significantly predicted job performance and how long employees remain with the same organization.
Holland’s theory does not mean that personality completely determines what occupation one chooses. The connection is that people who act or feel a certain way typically choose certain occupations. Most of us would rather do something that we like to do than something we are forced to do. Thus, unless we have little choice because of financial or other constraints, we typically choose occupations on that basis. When mismatches occur, people usually adapt by changing jobs, changing interests, or adapting the job to provide a better match.
Although the relations between personality and occupational choice are important, we must also recognize the limits of the theory as it relates to adults’ occupational choices. If we simply consider the gender distribution of Holland’s personality types, adult men and women are represented differently (Costa, McCrae, & Holland, 1984). Regardless of age, women are more likely than men to have social, artistic, and conventional personality types. In part, gender differences reflect different experiences in growing up (e. g., hearing that girls grow up to be nurses whereas boys grow up to be firefighters), differences in personality (e. g., gender – role identity), and differences in socialization (e. g., women being expected to be more outgoing and people-oriented than men). However, if we look within a specific occupational type, women and men are very similar to each other, and closely correspond to the interests Holland describes (Betz, Harmon, & Borgen, 1996).
We know very little about how Holland’s types vary in different ethnic groups, mostly because such groups have not been included in the studies investigating the links between personality and occupation. However, more recent research using a different methodology has found that the relation between interests and ability with occupational choice is lowest for African Americans and highest for Mexican Americans (Tracey & Hopkins, 2001). Finally, Holland’s theory ignores the context in which occupational decisions are made. For example, he overlooks the fact that many people have little choice in the kind of job they can get, because of external factors such as family, financial pressures, or ethnicity.
Holland’s theory also ignores evidence the dynamic quality of the match between personality type and occupation—in other words, how it changes during adulthood (Adler & Aranya, 1984; Jepsen & Dickson, 2003). Holland takes a static view of both personality and occupations, but it must be recognized that what occupation we choose is not dictated solely by what we are like. Equally important is the dynamic interplay between us and the sociocultural context we find ourselves in—just as one would suspect, given the biopsychosocial model presented in Chapter 1. Occupational selection is a complex developmental process involving interactions among personal, ethnic, gender, and economic factors.