Evolving Senses of Ego and Adolescent Vocational Identity Formation

Posted by: Jeffrey Landine on May 2, 2012 2:44 pm

In our last blog, Jeff described how Mark Savickas explains identity from a constructivist perspective, within which the individual uses their cognitive linguistic abilities together with information from the societal/cultural context to arrive at a constructed vocational identity. Adherents to this approach suggest that the connections between internal psychological dynamics and the messages and demands of society interact to give rise to identity.  In this blog, I (John) will briefly discuss another approach to identity formation known as the structural stage approach and point out components of this perspective that contribute to vocational identity formation.

The structural stage approach focuses on intrapsychic configurations that change over time.  At each particular stage of development, this configuration (typically the ego) enables the individual to interpret and make sense of their social/cultural world.  Structural development follows a particular and sequential pattern over time. Each successive configuration helps the person to have an increasingly complex way of making sense of their experiences.   To describe this process of change, the structural stage approach uses Piaget’s idea of accommodation. When new information can no longer be integrated into existing structures or cognitive schemas, the schema are changed. 

Jane Loevinger, one of the leading structural stage theorists, viewed the ego as the component that undergoes predictable and hierarchical configuration and change over time.  The ego maintains its unity, identity, and permanence by selectively excluding observations that are inconsistent with its current state.  Loevinger’s theory focuses on the structure of the ego (how it is configured) and not its content.  Her theory describes how individuals make sense of and integrate their experience as they age chronologically.  During adolescence, Loevinger suggests that the ego moves away from conformity (finding others with whom the individual can identify) towards non-social conformity (or towards individuality). The developing person becomes increasingly self-aware of their inner life. During the conscientious stage of ego development, the person moves from conventional standards as taught by parents and society to internalized personal standards.  The person now becomes concerned with long-term, self-evaluated goals and ideals; differentiated self-criticism, and a sense of responsibility.  During the developmental years, the ego moves from being impulsive (early stage) to a more flexible structure that operates according to internalized standards of conduct and integration (later stage).  

How does Loevinger’s structural stage theory contribute to our understanding of vocational identity during adolescence? First, Loevinger’s theory is about an evolving sense of selfhood or the ego.  This evolving sense of self contributes to our understanding of who we are at any point in time, or in other words, our identity. More specifically, the evolving sense of selfhood enables adolescents to embrace issues in society that could not be embraces at earlier stages.  It is this capability that enables them to formulate perspectives that contribute to the content of their vocational identity. For example, during the conscientious stage, individuals are capable of formulating long-term goals and ideals. This feature enables adolescents to conceptualize the type of life-style they aspire to and the different adult roles, including the work role that best facilitates this lifestyle.  Additionally, they are able to exercise differentiated self-criticism. This feature helps individuals to see their self-traits from a more complex perspective such that they recognize they have capabilities in some areas but not all areas. This ability to differentiate enables individuals to understand what it is that they can offer in the work role.  To conclude, the structural features of the adolescent ego contribute to the formation of a vocational identity by enabling them to think about issues of vocation differently than was previously possible. This ability enables them to translate their self-traits into occupational terms thus enhancing their vocational identity.  I suggest career counsellors consider assessing the stage of their clients’ ego development particularly if they are experiencing discontinuities in their career development journey.


Kroger, J. (2007). Identity development:  Adolescence through adulthood. (2nd ed.). Thousand Islands, CA: Sage Publications.

McAdams, D. P. (2009). The person: An introduction to the science of personality psychology. (5th ed.).   Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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