Psychology Theories for Work in the 4th Industrial Revolution

Career is word that sums up a person’s whole life with regard to work and learning.  The word “career” does not have to mean “profession”. No matter how young or old, inexperienced or advanced, every person has a career that involves work of some kind–paid, unpaid, voluntary, full-time, part-time, casual, contract, self-employed, etc.  Work, in all its forms, is inherent in humanity.

The New Paradigm: Psychology of Working

Theories are one thing but paradigms are another. Paradigms are grander, as an all encompassing perspective that may subsume theories. The Psychology of Working (Blustein, 2006; 2013) is the paradigm for this era of the 4th Industrial Revolution.  In the Psychology of Working, Boston College Professor David Blustein articulates a psychological vision of work that retains its humanity.  Blustein directs psychology to use its theories of work for those who need it the most.

Holland and the RIASEC Theory of Interests and Work Environments

The Holland RIASEC theory (Armstrong, Day, McVay, & Rounds, 2008; Holland, 1959, 1997; Nauta, 2013; Spokane & Cruza-Guet, 2005) of individual differences (i.e., career interests as traits) in career interests is one of the older and empirically tested theories.  The extraordinary volume of knowledge generated through the theory is just about saturated. It is very popular with career development practitioners because of an array of practical applications.   You should know about the RIASEC interest typology: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional.  These interest types (and environment types) can quite accurately describe a person’s occupational preferences.  Notwithstanding the flux of the contemporary world of work, Holland’s RIASEC retains in value as framework to guide learning about those enduring features of interests and work environments.

Super and the Lifespan/Lifespace Theory

Lifespan/Lifespace theory (Super, 1957, 1990, 1992), like Holland’s RIASEC, is one of the grand old theories that has stood the test of time, empirical scrutiny, and practical applications. It is a developmental theory that complements broader theories of human development as stages (e.g., Erikson).  You should know about this theory because it pertains to transitions between developmental stages throughout life, and transitions between educational and work contexts. Developmental perspectives are increasingly relevant in context of an ageing population and workforce.

Social Cognitive Career Theory

Social Cognitive Career Theory (Lent, 2004, 2005, 2013; Lent & Brown, 2013; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994) is the most popular theory on the market with respect to how people enact career decisions. It has been around for decades as has stood up to empirical scrutiny.  It addresses not only the constructs of career development (e.g., self-efficacy, goals, interests, personality) but also links the constructs together in processes. Learning is a core process of SCCT; therefore, its tenets guide how to use learning activities and contexts to motivate career behaviour.  SCCT generates hypotheses for research and usefully guides practices. Get to know this theory because it is comprehensive and applicable in multiple contexts.

The Emerging Narrative about work

Narrative approaches to work (McIlveen & Patton, 2007b) use theories and constructs such as life themes (Savickas, 2005, 2013) and dialogical self (McIlveen, 2012, 2017; McIlveen & Patton, 2007a). Narrative is about meaningfulness and making meaning about work with other people. Most of the literature about narrative approaches pertains to career counselling practice and there is some interesting work about essay and self-reflection in learning contexts such higher education (Healy, McIlveen, & Hammer, 2018; Lengelle & Meijers, 2014; McIlveen, 2015; Meijers, 1998, 2002; Meijers & Lengelle, 2012, 2015; Winters, Meijers, Reinekke, & Baert, 2011).  These narrative approaches will become increasinly useful as the meaning and purpose of work becomes more important to people.

There are some wonderful textbooks that address the main theories, including Career Development and Counseling: Putting Theory and Practice to Work (Brown & Lent, 2005, 2013) and the APA Handbook of Career Interventions (Hartung, Savickas, & Walsh, 2015). These books are useful for learning about the main theories and include special topics. For a summary of the theoretical constructs that explain career-related behaviour, see my paper Career Development, Management, and Planning from the Vocational Psychological Perspective (McIlveen, 2009). This paper provides a limited description of each of the main phenomena in the field (e.g., career interests, decision-making) and theories.


Armstrong, P. I., Day, S. X., McVay, J. P., & Rounds, J. (2008). Holland’s RIASEC model as an integrative framework for individual differences. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(1), 1-18.

Blustein, D. L. (2006). The psychology of working: A new perspective for career development, counseling, and public policy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Blustein, D. L. (2013). The psychology of working: A new perspective for a new era. In D. L. Blustein (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the psychology of working (pp. 3-18). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Brown, S. D., & Lent, R. W. (Eds.). (2005). Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Brown, S. D., & Lent, R. W. (Eds.). (2013). Career development and counseling putting theory and research to work (2nd ed. ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Hartung, P. J., Savickas, M. L., & Walsh, W. B. (Eds.). (2015). APA handbook of career intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Healy, M., McIlveen, P., & Hammer, S. (2018). Use of my career chapter to engage students in reflexive dialogue. In F. Meijers & H. Hermans (Eds.), The dialogical self theory in education: A multicultural perspective (pp. 173-187). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

Holland, J. L. (1959). A theory of vocational choice. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 6, 35–45.

Holland, J. L. (1997). Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments (3rd ed.). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

Lengelle, R., & Meijers, F. (2014). Narrative identity: Writing the self in career learning. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 42(1), 52–72. doi: 10.1080/03069885.2013.816837

Lent, R. W. (2004). Toward a unifying theoretical and practical perspective on well-being and psychosocial adjustment. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 51(4), 482. doi: 10.1037/0022-0167.51.4.482

Lent, R. W. (2005). A social cognitive view of career development and counseling. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work (pp. 101-127). Hokoben, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Lent, R. W. (2013). Social cognitive career theory. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling putting theory and research to work (2nd ed. ed., pp. 115-146). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Lent, R. W., & Brown, S. D. (2013). Social cognitive model of career self-management: Toward a unifying view of adaptive career behavior across the life span. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 60(4), 557-568. doi: 10.1037/a0033446

Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., & Hackett, G. (1994). Toward a unifying social cognitive theory of career and academic interest, choice, and performance. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 45(1), 79-122. doi: 10.1006/jvbe.1994.1027

McIlveen, P. (2009). Career development, management, and planning from the vocational psychology perspective. In A. Collin & W. Patton (Eds.), Vocational psychological and organisational perspectives on career: Towards a multidisciplinary dialogue (pp. 63-89). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

McIlveen, P. (2012). Extending the metaphor of narrative to dialogical narrator. In P. McIlveen & D. E. Schultheiss (Eds.), Social constructionism in vocational psychology and career development (pp. 59-75). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

McIlveen, P. (2015). My Career Chapter and the Career Systems Interview. In M. McMahon & M. Watson (Eds.), Career assessment: Qualitative approaches (pp. 123-128). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

McIlveen, P. (2017). Dialogical self: Co-investigator in career self-research. In M. McMahon (Ed.), Career counselling: Constructivist approaches (pp. 153-163). London, UK: Routledge.

McIlveen, P., & Patton, W. (2007a). Dialogical self: Author and narrator of career life themes. International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance, 7(2), 67-80. doi: 10.1007/s10775-007-9116-6

McIlveen, P., & Patton, W. (2007b). Narrative career counselling: Theory and exemplars of practice. Australian Psychologist, 42(3), 226-235. doi: 10.1080/00050060701405592

Meijers, F. (1998). The development of career identity. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 20, 191-207.

Meijers, F. (2002). Career learning in a changing world: The role of emotions. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 24, 149-167.

Meijers, F., & Lengelle, R. (2012). Narratives at work: The development of career identity. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 40(2), 157-176. doi: 10.1080/03069885.2012.665159

Meijers, F., & Lengelle, R. (2015). Career learning: Qualitative career assessment as a learning process in the construction of a narrative identity. In M. McMahon & M. Watson (Eds.), Career assessment: Qualitative approaches (pp. 41-48). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Nauta, M. M. (2013). Holland’s theory of vocational choice and adjustment. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career Development and Counseling. Putting theory and research to work. Second Edition. (2nd ed., pp. 55-82). Hoboken, NY: Wiley.

Savickas, M. L. (2005). The theory and practice of career construction. In A. Brown (Ed.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work (Vol. 1, pp. 42-70).

Savickas, M. L. (2013). Career construction theory and practice. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work (2nd ed., pp. 147-183). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Spokane, A. R., & Cruza-Guet, M. C. (2005). Holland’s theory of vocational personalities in work environments. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work (pp. 24-41). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Super, D. E. (1957). The psychology of careers. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Super, D. E. (1990). A life-span, life-space approach to career development. In D. Brown & L. Brooks (Eds.), Career choice and development (pp. 167-261). San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Super, D. E. (1992). Toward a comprehensive theory of career development. In D. H. Montross & C. J. Shinkman (Eds.), Career development: Theory and practice (pp. 35-64). Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas Publisher.

Winters, A., Meijers, F., Reinekke, L., & Baert, B. (2011). The self in career learning: An evolving dialogue. In H. J. M. Hermans & T. Gieser (Eds.), Handbook of dialogical self theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

About the Author: Dr Peter McIlveen leads the Australian Collaboratory for Career, Employability, and Learning for Living (ACCELL). ACCELL is a multidisciplinary research team focused on adaptive capacity and career development learning, and the psychology of working. Twitter: @petermcilveen