Identity development and careers in adolescents and emerging adults: Content, process, and structure

Erik J. Porfeli, Bora Lee, Fred W. Vondracek

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

19 Citations (Scopus)


Vocational identity is an important construct in a number of career theories. In examining the history of vocational identity in career theory, it is readily apparent that it is linked with the history of the conceptually closely related construct of self-concept. Moreover, some prominent early theorists did not view self-concept and identity as independent constructs. For example, Super conceptualized identification as part of the process of selfconcept formation, and while he did not explicitly incorporate the construct of vocational identity into his theory, he believed that “identifying with” or “matching” oneself against individuals in certain occupations was the process that would lead to occupational choice (Super, 1963). Tiedeman and his colleagues viewed self-concept and identity formation as part of the organized patterns of psychological functioning that interacted reciprocally with occupational behavior and the development of work roles (e.g., Dudley and Tiedeman, 1977; O’Hara and Tiedeman, 1959; Peatling and Tiedeman, 1977; Tiedeman and O’Hara, 1963) Erik Erikson (1959, 1968) is generally acknowledged as the intellectual father of current conceptions of identity in developmental and vocational psychology. Although he did not explicitly define vocational identity apart from identity in general, he called attention to the central role of vocational choice with his often-cited declaration that “in general it is primarily the inability to settle on an occupational identity which disturbs young people” (Erikson, 1959, p. 92). Throughout his voluminous writings, Erikson speculated about the epigenetic processes involved in the formation of identity, but he did little to operationalize his conception of identity and of the underlying exploration and commitment processes, undoubtedly in part because he had little interest in doing empirical research. A significant impetus to empirical research came from Marcia’s (1966, 1983) articulation of the identity status model, including his definitions of the identity achievement, foreclosure, moratorium, and diffusion statuses and an interview procedure to assess them. A self-report measure for assessment of the identity statuses further enhanced the ability of researchers to empirically examine identity (Adams, Bennion, and Huh, 1987). The result was a significant increase in identity research (e.g., Blustein, Devenis, and Kidney, 1989; Blustein and Phillips, 1990; Galinsky and Fast, 1966; Grotevant and Cooper, 1986; Grotevant, Thorbecke, and Meyer, 1982; Jackson and Meara, 1977; Munley, 1975, 1977; Skorikov and Vondracek, 1998, 2007c; Vondracek, 1992, 1993, 1995). Coincident with the surge in identity status research, lively discussion arose in the professional and scientific literature about the relative merit of investigating and measuring global identity versus measuring domain-specific (e.g., vocational) identity (Archer, 1985; Flum and Blustein, 2000; Goossens, 2001; Kroger, 2007; Skorikov and Vondracek, 1998; Vondracek, Silbereisen, Reitzle, and Wiesner, 1999). Although the relative salience of identity domains may vary across cultures and socioeconomic contexts, research has generally confirmed that vocational (occupational) identity development is a priority in adolescence (Bosma, 1992; Kroger, 1993; Silbereisen, Vondracek, and Berg, 1997; Skorikov and Vondracek, 1998; Solomontos-Kountouri and Hurry, 2008). Moreover, progress toward establishing a vocational identity has been associated with good grades in high school and engagement in extracurricular activities (Vondracek, 1994), as well as with reduced likelihood of problem behaviors during adolescence (Skorikov and Vondracek, 2007). Identity research inspired by the formulations of Erikson has dominated developmental psychology and it has been the most productive avenue for research on vocational identity. Nevertheless, another impetus for vocational identity research was Holland’s conceptualization of vocational identity as representing “the clarity of a person’s vocational goals and self-perceptions” (Holland, 1985, p. 28). The MVS of Holland, Gottfredson, and Power (My Vocational Situation; Holland, Gottfredson, and Power, 1980) has been criticized, however, because it excludes the exploration dimension of identity (Vondracek, 1992), which most identity researchers believe is an essential aspect of identity development (Luyckx, Goossens, Soenens, and Beyers, 2006). Nevertheless, Holland’s MVS (Holland et al., 1980) has been shown to be a reliable measure of career decidedness. The shortcoming of the MVS in measuring the full complexity of vocational identity is most likely not a unique situation. During the past decade, an increasing number of researchers have questioned the adequacy of the identity status paradigm in identifying all salient dimensions of identity in general, and vocational identity in particular. The identity literature can be appreciably organized into research devoted to identity process, content, and structure (Bersonsky, Macek, and Nurmi, 2003; Kroger, 2002; Scottham, Cooke, Sellers and Ford, 2010). The study of vocational identity can be organized similarly. The process of vocational identity involves the actions and cognitions associated with vocational exploration and commitment to a worker role. The content of vocational identity centers on the substance of projecting the self into a worker role. This content can include one’s personal narratives projected into work terms (e.g., Savickas, 2011), feelings and cognitions about becoming and being a worker (Ibarra, 2003), and the importance of work, work values, and personal work goals. The structure of vocational identity is indicated by its degree of crystallization, accessibility, and clarity. Identity content, structure, and process are at the center of identity development. Process progress, structural integrity, and content elaboration occur in tandem and are related but they are independent dimensions. Process does not entirely determine identity content and identity content does not fully define its structural integrity. Identity process, content and structural integrity are, however, suggestive of one another. More in-depth exploration and wholehearted commitment to work is suggestive of a worker identity that, in content terms, is perceived as generally favorable, important, and an increasingly central aspect of the self-concept and, in structural terms, is durable and accessible during times of change and struggle. Vocational identity process and structure say little, however, about the nuanced substance pertaining to how the self is projected onto work and into the worker role and vice versa.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of Vocational Psychology
Subtitle of host publicationTheory, Research, and Practice, Fourth Edition
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781136500008
ISBN (Print)9780415808170
Publication statusPublished - 2013 Jan 1
Externally publishedYes


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance(all)
  • Business, Management and Accounting(all)
  • Psychology(all)

Cite this

Porfeli, E. J., Lee, B., & Vondracek, F. W. (2013). Identity development and careers in adolescents and emerging adults: Content, process, and structure. In Handbook of Vocational Psychology: Theory, Research, and Practice, Fourth Edition (pp. 133-153). Taylor and Francis.