Jeff and I continue to highlight approaches to understanding identity formation and how this formation impacts vocational decision-making. In this blog we focus on Erikson’s psychosocial approach. Erikson proposed eight psychosocial stages that outline significant developmental activities that individuals accomplish at certain times during their lifespan. The first stage that deals with identity takes place during the adolescent period and is referred to as the identity versus role confusion stage. Erikson described identity as a personal sense of “self-sameness” that continues over time. In this blog we want to focus on some of the cognitive dynamics that take place during this stage and how these dynamics may impact vocational decision-making.
This approach to identity considers two broad domains in the response to why adolescents address the issue of identity: the personal and the societal. Two variables within the personal domain concern human growth and cognitive development, while the societal domain concerns the societal/cultural setting and its expectations for adult roles. The beginning of puberty marks the growth of a mature body and brings a qualitatively different way of thinking, what Piaget termed formal operations. This type of thinking is most characterized by the ability to think in the abstract about ourselves and the world. The person is now able to think about their future and what it may hold. Erikson believed that the best identity formation takes place when the individual finds social roles within the larger society that provide a good fit for his/her biological and psychological aptitudes and interests. One such role is the vocational role to which the person aspires. To make decisions about this role, the individual engages in a backward reflection on the previous developmental stages and begins to imbue them with new meaning. Given the role of episodic memory, the person links a series of these memories and gives them a more abstract interpretation than previously given. This meaning influences the vocational identity that is formed. For example, if a person has been involved in activities that involve working with an adult/parent in an occupation such as plumbing the individual now is able to move beyond the “how to” stage of using a saw or a tape measure to consider on a more abstract scale the possibility of how these skills and interests might fit into the requirements for an occupation. This thinking ability then allows the person to think about a future in which these skills and interests are used, and when combined with an appropriate educational program can lead to an occupation. For example, a person may have experience working within realistic work environments that involve the use of tools and manual skills, and depending on the level of responsibility and education she/he aspires to, may begin to use such aptitudes and interests to pursue technology or professional qualifications in an area such as engineering. The ability to think abstractly is a pre-requisite to engaging in vocational planfulness, i.e. the ability to project oneself into a future role and to take action to implement it.
Identity formation builds on resolutions to preceding stages, thinking qualitatively differently about previous experiences, and using the reflection back to project a possible future in an occupational role. In this manner, the individual meets the expectations of society externally and meets their inner expectations of self to provide satisfaction in the adult role. During the adolescent years, individuals must navigate societal demands to find appropriate ways to enter adult roles. Failure to find ways to enter the adult world results in role confusion.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA