Supporting Late Career Changers: Applying Super's Theory and Offering New Tools
By Jane Frisch
Starting a new career or making a career change later in life can be exciting but also brings many challenges. As people live and work longer, many people will consider training for new careers later in life. How can career professionals support these individuals?
Donald Super’s Lifespan, Life Space Theory can provide a useful framework for understanding the unique needs and concerns of late-life career changers. Super’s theory describes how career development intersects with the many roles an individual plays throughout their life. Super also believed that our self-concept, or the way we see ourselves and believe others see us, is important to our satisfaction with our career choices (Brown Jordan & Marinaccio, 2020).
Super’s Life Career Rainbow
Although Super acknowledged that people may return to the exploration stage later in life, many of our societal norms, such as attending college in the late teen/early 20’s years, follow his original model. Clients who begin new career paths, especially those that require extensive training, may feel a sense of incongruence as they complete developmental career tasks at different points in their life spans than their peers. Career professionals can help these clients navigate their feelings by recognizing and addressing these challenges during the counseling process. Super’s Life Career Rainbow provides a useful visual tool to help clients see where they are in their career development process as compared with their peers. Using this tool can allow the career service provider to explore how the client’s self-concept has been impacted by this incongruence. Naming and validating the feelings that late career changers are experiencing can help them move towards acceptance that their journey looks different from that of their peers.
Career service providers may also need to help late career changers manage feelings of grief. Clients who are starting a new career in their 40’s or later may feel that they are behind many of their same-age peers who began their training in their 20’s and are now in the maintenance phase of career development. Clients may feel regret that they did not begin their training earlier and may feel a sense of loss because they will have less time to achieve their career goals than their peers. Career professionals can help clients reframe these thoughts and recognize how the skills they have gained through life experience can be assets to their new careers. Super’s Life Career Rainbow can aid career service providers as they help late career changers explore the roles that were important to them earlier in their lives and identify skills they developed in those roles.
Super’s Life Career Rainbow can also help clients develop a more realistic plan for their remaining working years by visually depicting a person’s life span. Clients may need help processing feelings of grief when they realize that they may not be able to achieve some of their goals due to time constraints. Allowing space for clients to express these feelings and validating their experiences can help clients develop new, more realistic goals that support their emerging self-concept.
Balance and the Need for a Healthy Lifestyle
Recognizing where a client is in his or her lifespan can also help them understand how this impacts their physical needs. Clients who are making major career changes will need to invest significant time and energy into training and establishing themselves in a new career. This may be physically challenging for older adults who may find themselves trying to juggle paid work with attending school or completing internships, and trying to maintain healthy lifestyle habits. Career professionals can help clients recognize the needs and limitations of their bodies and help them create realistic plans that can help them work towards their goals while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Addressing Life Role Conflicts
Clients may find that embarking on a new career conflicts with other life roles, such as parent or life partner. As they devote increased time and attention to developing new skills and building relationships in their new career field, they may find it difficult to accept that they can no longer devote as much time to other life roles. The client may find that they have less time to spend in these other roles and, if these roles are important to a client’s self-concept, it may be difficult for them to accept that they can no longer perform them at the same level. Starting a new career may also place stress on their relationship with their spouse or friends who are in a different career phase and want to spend more leisure time with the client. These external factors can lead to cognitive dissonance as the client’s self-concept is challenged. Career counselors can help clients reframe their relationships with others and use role plays or other interventions, such as clarifying values, to help clients learn and practice setting new boundaries that better support their new role as a worker.
Allocating time to the worker role can be especially challenging for women, who have traditionally taken on more caretaking responsibilities. They may be balancing caring for children and aging parents with schoolwork or increased work demands and feel frustrated that they cannot keep up with younger peers. The client may have valued her ability to always be there for her family and feel distressed when she must skip an event or ask someone else to help her parents so that she can complete an assignment. Career professionals can help clients validate their experiences and manage feelings of frustration by increasing their use of self-compassion (see guided practices and exercises at self-compassion.org; Neff, n.d.) and by helping them learn to set and maintain clear boundaries (see Nedra Glover Tawwab’s 2021 book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace). Career professionals can also help women explore how their family and friends can support them as they work towards their goals by asking for help.
Helping Clients Reach Their Full Potential
Older adults who embark on new careers bring a wealth of life experience and skills to their new professions. Career professionals can play a significant role in helping these individuals reach their full potential when they understand the challenges their clients face and learn new ways to support them in their journeys. Applying Super’s Life Career Rainbow and helping clients learn skills to balance their career goals with their needs for a healthy lifestyle and the demands of various life roles are important keys to aiding late career changers.
Brown Jordan, A. L., & Marinaccio, J. N. (2020). Facilitating career development student manual (revised 4th ed.). National Career Development Association.
Glover Tawwab, N. (2021). Set boundaries, find peace: A guide to reclaiming yourself. TarcherPerigee.
Neff, K. (n.d.). Guided practices, self-compassion.org. Retrieved January 17, 2023, from https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#
Jane Frisch, MS, LPC, CCC, is a therapist at Wings of Change Counseling, LLC in Coopersburg, PA and will be launching her own private practice, Jane Frisch Career Counseling this summer. She can be reached at email@example.com and https://www.linkedin.com/in/janefrischms/overlay/contact-info/
Mary Rose Tichar on Tuesday 05/02/2023 at 09:15 AM
Thank you, Jane, for sharing your insights with us, that are based on solid career theory. Your article is supportive and insructive and I appreciate you taking the time to remind us of what is important for people at different stages of their lives.
Francesca Suffield on Tuesday 05/02/2023 at 07:49 PM
Thank you for the article, Jane. I work with a cohort of clients who often find themselves unable to continue in their current role and have to draw on other aspects of their lives to reinvent themselves and find a new pathway.
Joana Joe Daou on Wednesday 05/31/2023 at 12:36 PM
After reading this article, I do see the same trends in my professional life with other adults whom I work with who want to switch into another role professionally. It is true when the article states that there is time and energy that one needs to invest in when trying to pursue another career path. As a future school counselor, working as a teacher with high school students, it is important to take into consideration what a person's interests are and having students think outside of the box when thinking about what they like to do now and also to take into consideration what a person wants to do later in life.
Nancy Perez on Saturday 06/03/2023 at 10:16 PM
As someone who has changed their major a lot in college and has had various different career interest, it is true about spending time in changing careers. I would want to let my students know that it is okay to have an interest in changing careers, especially if they no longer love what they do. This has been the case for many working adults since COVID, and by changing their careers many have been able to find a new passion and relieve some stress they had faced before. However, as a school counselor I would let my students know about some realities they may have to face when doing so as it could become a very overwhelming process.
Christopher J. Needham on Sunday 06/04/2023 at 11:29 AM
As a person who is in the process of changing careers later in life, I understand the feelings and challenges completely. It is great to know that career counselors actually help individuals like me work through these challenges. Super's Life Career Rainbow does hold true for me as well because I am in the maintenance phase of my job/career development. Fortunately, I have been able to juggle all the challenges involved in making the career change I intend to make. This was a great article for someone like myself.
Nicole Krause on Sunday 06/04/2023 at 06:28 PM
After reading this article, I have learned how changing careers can impact a person's self-concept. I never knew what career path I wanted to embark on until my senior year in high school, where luckily my AP Psychology course influenced me to go into the mental health field. All of my friends knew exactly what they wanted to do years before me, so I felt that I didn't have my life "figure out." Now that I have gotten older, I have realized the impact that our society's expectations have on people knowing their career goals as such a young age and for late career changers. I have been told that if you don't know what you are going to do at 17,18,19 years old, then you may be seen as unmotivated. However, changing career paths in one's later years in life can be frightening and isolating as one can feel regret and a sense of loss of themselves. I will apply this newfound knowledge to my future students to explain that you do not have to figure out your life's course at such a young age. People change their career over the course of their lifetimes and their experiences lead them to new opportunities.
CHRISTINE GRIFFIN on Monday 06/05/2023 at 08:36 AM
This article resonates with me as I have changed careers many times due to life circumstances. My plans after college were very different than what became my reality, and then my role changed with the onset of a family. I agree that as you have more life experience, you are given a perspective that hopefully matches up with a job where you can apply what you have come to know. Super's theory of the Life Career Rainbow is a solid visual tool to bring a sense of balance in this area, not only for the individual exploring a new career, but also for the career counselor to put information into view.
Anderson Nance on Monday 06/05/2023 at 09:25 AM
This article was a great read. Lots of insight for a group who is usually over looked for the younger generation. I liked that you included helping clients understand the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. In my experience working with and knowing individuals whom were late life career changers, so often do they get caught up in the stress that they lose their self care amongst the multitude of things they are now balancing. little do they realize until its too late that they goals weigh heavier when they aren't taking care of them self or relaxing. Thank you Jane
Jane Frisch on Monday 06/05/2023 at 12:32 PM
Thanks for all of your thoughtful comments! I am glad that my article was helpful and has generated some great discussion. I am passionate about this subject as counseling was a career change for me and I have lived experience with many of the challenges I covered in the article. I am extremely grateful for the supportive community I have found in the NCDA!
Jillian Esposito on Monday 06/05/2023 at 06:53 PM
I greatly enjoyed reading this article about supporting those who are changing their career later in life. I feel there is not much research on how to support clients who are changing careers. I really appreciated the tips about supporting clients with acceptance, grief, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, or reframing their personal relationships. It was amazing to read an article that supports American's later in life. With mental health crises in America, it felt reassuring to read an article that I truly believe can positively impact so many adults.
Kayla Wunder on Monday 06/05/2023 at 09:49 PM
New careers can be intimidating. Career Counselors strive to help their clients find their feelings and address the, during the process of counseling. Validating one’s feelings can help encourage acceptance of the differences of their journey. Super’s Rainbow can help create a realistic plan for clients that are experiencing grief and that they are “too late” to start their journey. Career professionals play a vital role in guiding and helping to support older adults meet their full potential.
Pucci Angell on Tuesday 06/06/2023 at 08:08 PM
As someone who is going through a career change a little bit later on in life, I found this article to be extremely refreshing. I felt that I have found myself thinking some of these same exact thoughts, sometimes wondering if I am making the right decision. My favorite line in the article is the one that talks about the using the skills we have gained through our life experiences as assets in our new careers.
Evan A. Cornell on Wednesday 06/07/2023 at 09:06 AM
As someone who is just now entering the professional workforce, this article provided an informative perspective on a topic I've never really considered. It's never too late to make a career change, and people's goals and dreams can change over the course of their lives.