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How time-flow shapes three meanings of midcareer.

Midcareer is sometimes referred to in broad terms, while on other occasions it is defined quite specifically. In these latter cases, it is confusing that the timeframe intended to represent midcareer varies widely from one writer to the next. This article has a twofold aim: to investigate different chronological references by career development theorists who use the term midcareer, and to discuss what practical usefulness there is in the patterns identified.

An inherent problem in specifying a midcareer timeframe, as expressed by Staudinger and Bluck (2001) is that:
 there is no clear demarcation of midlife, at least not
 as clear as the ones for childhood at the beginning
 and for old age at the end of life. Thus, the first
 intriguing question to answer is whether midlife
 indeed exists as a life phase, and if so, when it begins
 and ends. (p. 5)

The useful first proposition in this quotation is undermined by the 'intriguing question' which defers to dated sector views about relatively fixed life stages rather than getting on with re-theorising midcareer and midlife in today's concepts.

The timing of midcareer is long on opinions and short on evidence. K. K. Newman (1980) felt confident to pronounce, 'There appear to be four major transitions in a teaching career: the first year, the tenth year, the twentieth year, and retirement' (p. 1). Staudinger and Bluck (2001) cite two studies suggesting 'middle age is the period between 40 and 55 years', then summarising, 'Generally one might conclude that midlife begins somewhere around 40 and ends by 60 ... but at both ends there is a flexible, vague boundary' (p. 5). Degges-White and Myers (2006) also offer a summary of the 'when' of midlife:
 In recent years, researchers have used a variety of age
 ranges to capture, and describe, midlife development,
 including 35 55 (Gabbard and Menninger, 1989);
 40-60 (McQuaide, 1998b; MIDMAC, 1999); 39-50
 (Wethington, 2000); and 35-60 (Howell, 2001), but
 no single, universal age range has been defined as the
 midlife period (Staudinger and Bluck, 2001). (p. 136)

Amid this controverted timing of the occurrence of midcareer and midlife, three patterns of locating midcareer in terms of time-flow have been identified in the literature and are outlined below. It is not proposed that all discussions of midcareer fit into one of these three, but that these constitute three discernible patterns. No intention to privilege any one is implied by this outline; merely that these patterns can be found across a range of examples of writing about midcareer in various disciplinary settings.

Methodologically, the present data forms part of a larger project investigating professional career transitions into new work. The obvious need to set parameters for that work includes a literature review of what counts as midcareer.

The available literature crosses at several points between academic and more popular writing, and this is reflected in the examples used below. From the marked differences in this literature to the more prescriptive Super (1957) stages that still occupy a prominent place in some parts of career development theory, the findings suggest that Super's theorisation is inadequate and this part of his work should be put to one side. Using the literature data to inquire into midcareer is to take what is in effect a grounded methodological approach to both academic and more help-oriented writing (Lingard, Albert & Levinson, 2008). It honours the practical, focused attention of writers in the contemporary career development field in generating the patterns described below.

Theoretically, the approach taken here is a sociological one, rather than primarily psychological. The author has majored in and makes use of both disciplines. Sociology holds the tension between social or society-wide processes versus individual options available at various points in individual careers, as a central part of career analysis. The present findings describe a time-flow structuring of career, from which (or within which) individuals interpret their own needs, opportunities and derive particular motivations. This avoids a more restricted psychological analysis, giving priority to personal factors or traits for career movement and choice. The social roots of career behaviour are deeply embedded in family, cultural and other spheres of life, even when not made explicit in career development literature.


The first deployment of midcareer refers to number of years after career start. This usage distinguishes midcareer from entry into, or the start of, career or profession. Substantively, it identifies the worker as no longer a beginner; the person's previous education/qualification has now added actual work experience.

Macko and Rubin (2004) emphasise such a definition from career start or period of young adulthood, starting age 30; though like other nominated ages this does not find necessary agreement from other analysts. Macko and Rubin first describe professional women trying to combine paid career and other family plans, then they relate accounts of successful decision-making by women in their thirties.

Tamir's (1982) focus is the decade of the 40s as the period after early career, by which time individuals are no longer strongly referencing the starting point or period of career exploration or establishment of their careers. In critique of such time-based models, however, Lachman (2001) states that unlike many other periods or points in life, there are 'no ceremonies or public recognition of a person's transition into middle age' (p. 4). If midcareer is indeed 'un-boundaried' as Lachman suggests, does that mean that Tamir's 40 here, or Macko and Rubin's 30 years above, are merely convenient verbal or textual markers to provide headline titles (nice round decadal years)? Even then, why name those years and not others?

Some of the literature describing midcareer as a period after career start has an outmoded feel. Sterns and Huyck (2001) note that since 'the late 1970s, theories of career progression began to be criticized for following a linear fife plan, the pattern in which education is the task of the young, work is for the middle-aged, and leisure of the elderly' (p. 454). That is, traditional career models are better read as projections of middle-class, male, white existence in affluent Western societies. While having some application to that group in the mid-twentieth century (though much less today), this has never accurately represented career experience outside this socio-demographic habitus. Career analysis based on these assumptions is as likely to be only intermittently useful, and may even be damaging for a broader clientele.

These texts, one oriented to midcareer women and the other to midcareer men, are practical rather than scholarly, aiming to empower their probable readership. Another writer such as Conroy (1979) looks at the period encompassed within the school-work transition up to midcareer. Although obscuring the supposed start of midcareer, this again emphasises the onset of midcareer after a not fully specified elapse of time from the start of individual paid working life. In each instance a common pattern of referring to midcareer is adopted that defines it as occurring after the start of career or after a period of early career. A practical rather than academic orientation may not consciously analyse time orientation in career choices in any particular way. The point of such writing is to address a group for whom attention to fife changes is useful. However, such an approach may be too accepting of career as the duty of the individual without moderating agency assertions in fight of structural conditions of late-modern change.


A second way the idea of midcareer is seen in the literature is as a period of time, longer or shorter, that occurs at some (variously defined) midperiod on the career path. The reference point in this usage distinguishes midcareer reasonably equally from both start and end points of career. Substantively, the distance from either end of the career path makes close referencing to either point ill-defined because of either absence or variability of midcareer events (such as promotion, demotion, burnout, job transition or second career choice). Individuals re-query the sufficiency of both their academic qualifications and experience in their labour market position.

These between definitions are often based on the 40s and 50s decades as the midcareer and midlife period. Staudinger and Bluck (2001, p. 6) speak of midlife as 'the most central period of life, that which is referred to generally when aiming at adulthood, without qualifying it as either "early" or "late". Its exact boundaries are unclear' (p. 6). Degges-White and Myers (2006) elaborate:
 For some, midlife is a period of life for which there
 are flexible boundaries and no single, universal set
 of delimited age parameters (Staudinger and Bluck,
 2001). Quadagno (2001) observed that 'midlife' has
 only recently been defined, and explained that the
 development of a phase of life called 'midlife' was
 due to increasing longevity and the trend for a couple
 to spend as much as two decades or more together
 after the launching of their children. (pp. 133)

The MIDMAC (1) (1999) researchers believed midlife was poorly defined and understudied, and considered the period from 30 to 70 years of age as midlife, focusing within that on 40 to 60 years of age. Such usage overlaps with the third definition discussed in the next section (where midcareer is meant as the period after the midpoint of career) in starting to incorporate later career years, but the main emphasis remains between, with the degree of 'betweenness' varying primarily in whether a broader or narrower swathe of time is preferred.

The plethora of midcareer boundary times chosen, however, points again to a wider lack of satisfactory midcareer theorisation, revealing the inadequacy of closely specified career stages as Super's (1957) establishment and maintenance stages of 25-44 years and 45-65 years, even with continuing attempts at refinement (for example, Ebberwein, Krieshok, Ulven & Prosser, 2004). Despite this criticism it is not a problem for the present discussion whether readers follow Super's preference to speak of a person having one career and multiple occupations, or prefer to speak of multiple careers.

Thus, midcareer is sometimes used to mean either ill-defined or differently defined lengths of time around the midpoint of career, with greater or less extension depending on the authors. In some understandings it covers most of adult working life, but on a more restricted understanding it is a much shorter period either side of some implicit midpoint. In this midperiod individuals may be active in either progressive ways (e.g. retraining) or less constructive ways (e.g. depression, substance use), in their working lives or in non-work aspects of themselves. McQuaide (1998a), for example, narrates accounts of women actively developing and changing their lives and finding renewed energy in several ways, but this tends to be a newer literature.

Older, less optimistic discourses of midcareer roles and norms continue to be the cultural narrative context of Western career development literature. Neugarten, Moore and Lowe's (1965) useful-enough sociological elaboration of age and time norm expectations shows such norms acting as structural constraints. From a present-day perspective, however, their work has a static quality, failing to challenge negative personal decline accounts implicit in their description, nor offering space for agential narratives, the influence of ethnicity or gender, or other rapid societal changes. In spite of (or rather dialectically linked to) this kind of structural interpretation of modern career, their account also fails to challenge insistently up-beat assertions of individual career possibilities.


A third representation of midcareer appearing in the career development literature emphasises transitions in terms of beyond an imagined career midpoint. This refers to an increasing awareness (by either advisor or client) of how much time remains of career, earning capacity, getting to the top or achieving in other ways such as 'making a contribution'. Midcareer in this third sense denotes having 'used up' the first half of career. Individuals gradually or swiftly shift to a different cost-benefit calculus of value in work, retraining, having to adapt to new technologies and managerial regimes, and other priorities. In this third stage, the reference point is distinction from career end, endpoint nearness, and lessened connection to career start. B. K. Newman (1995), for instance, focuses on 'midcareer adult career changers', writing:
 One of the fastest growing populations in the career
 change market is that of older adult workers, those
 career changers in their 40s and 50s. Such older
 workers face significant issues that are not always
 encountered by younger career changers: fear, ageism,
 loss of identity, and emotional as well as financial
 risks. A realistic assessment of these important issues
 may yield some fruitful insights and directions for
 the older career changer. (p. 64)

Newman's explicit time definition of 'over 40' in his title, and phrases such as 'the older career changer' fit this chronological framing of midcareer as the further-along phase of career journey. His rubric for considering the two-decade period of 40s and 50s years to be midcareer, albeit with due sympathy and with a career practitioner's eye, indicates consciousness of negative discourses here. People in this two-decade cohort have worries and concerns that are 'real and significant, equally important are the strengths and advantages they bring to the volatile workplace of the 1990s' (Newman, 1995, p. 66).

Bedsole (1983) records a midcareer-to-retirement focus in reporting on a faculty development seminar:
 Focal areas included funding of faculty development
 and program development, the history and issues
 concerning faculty development, career development
 plans and growth contracts, the special needs from
 the period of midcareer to retirement, the context
 and overall assumptions for faculty development,
 programs for the improvement of teaching, and the
 expanded use of sabbaticals and study leaves. (p. 1)

The italics added to this citation highlight the present argument that this conception of midcareer is not merely a midperiod or a midpoint, but the doorway to the second half of staff careers that is under consideration.

Another example of the perception that midcareer or midlife constitutes the beyond of the halfway career point can be seen in Boulmetis (1997): 'The career transitions adults experience during midlife and later are substantial because they encompass issues of identity, finances, gender, tradition, self-worth, and loyalty' (p. 12). Again the added italics highlight the unforced conjunction of 'midlife' and 'later'. Kim and Moen (2001) use 'late midlife', while Yeh's (2008) study of Taiwanese engineers used the idea of career stages in explicitly referring to 'midcareer and older engineers' (p. 82).

Thomas and Vickers (1996) address men's midlife in their book, What Really Matters in the Second Half of Life. For these authors, it is not some static chronological model of phases or stages, but plans and expectations that count. Degges-White and Myers (2006) use a 35-65 year span to 'better describe the experiences of adult women as they move through the middle years of their lives and to provide the opportunity to compare three decade-long age groupings' (p. 136). Such examples further demonstrate the third usage focus on midcareer and midlife as moving into or merging with the second half of career.

The point here is not that this use is right or wrong, merely that it is a strategy, a rhetoric that frames midcareer differently from the previous two uses. Different perceptions of midcareer may mean the identification of issues and solutions may differ as well.


Describing these three uses of midcareer as meanings in the present article's title makes the point that a wide range of career writers use the term midcareer in these time-flow ways, rather than choosing formal definitions of midcareer. Others, as we have seen, pragmatically choose cut-off years since formal career-stage definitions do not work. The three meanings presented in these findings are, nevertheless, de facto definitions, even if not formal ones. These writers are responding to the evidence they see around them as they focus on one or other of the client groups whose needs inspire them to write. Collectively this gives a kind of 'wisdom of crowds', similar to the approach described earlier as reflecting aspects of a grounded theory approach.

Are these multiple midcareer meanings, then, a sign of conceptual inadequacy and instability? If so, a lesson might be drawn from the definitional controversies over the question, 'What is a profession?' that so bothered mid-century sociology of professions: definitional instability in itself may signal larger theoretical issues in framing the phenomenon under inquiry. At one level, the multiple definitions of midcareer indicate shortcomings of current definitions in so far as they are not theoretically based; this is simply the state of analysis at present. However, at another level the present findings can be viewed together as a refinement of the concept of midcareer itself achieved through distinguishing time-flow usage within the literature.

As such, it offers, on the one hand, correction for deterministic aspects of Super's (1957) developmental stage theory. On the other hand, previous work challenging Super's rigidity by using flexible typologies like Schlossberg's transition model (Goodman, Schlossberg & Anderson, 2006) at least partly allowed integration of gendered, racialised and other forms of experience into career analysis that the developmental approach handled poorly. The present findings suggest a middle theorisation between the extremes of the useful but very plastic flexibility of Schlossberg's model and the prescriptiveness of Super's stage theory.

Again there are two sides to this. On the one hand, the present findings are grounded in human biological timelines. Actual personal careers echo the lifespan, rather than corporate ladder notions of career. On the other hand, the findings show that career writers using one of these three midcareer meanings avoid prescribing the 'when' of midcareer, implicitly or explicitly reading midcareer in relation to the start and endpoints of life-career progression. This slows constructionist sociological tendencies as much as it slows psychology focused individualistic interpretations of personal decisions. However, to elaborate this midcareer theoretical framework and build further on these findings is beyond the present task.

Instead, continuing the discussion of practical implications of these career time-flow findings is the more modest objective in the remaining paragraphs. Treating these new midcareer concepts as merely refinement does not necessarily disturb underlying assumptions.

Dangers of Old Thinking

By itself, defining midcareer time periods is not a route out of the problems associated with the existing concept of midcareer. It does not overcome issues of periodisation and generalisation of supposed life stages that affect much midcareer and midlife analysis. For career practitioners, it may not reverse discourses of cultural negativity simply by generating a finer-grained consciousness of time-flow in careers. Only with a stance critical of traditional adult life-stage approaches are new and useful directions for practical career development likely to emerge from these distinctions. The refinements do not inherently create greater practitioner reflexivity, and may provide the unreflective practitioner or career development educator with a greater sense of scientific certainty or precision than conventional assumptions justify.

Midcareer, in whatever variation is used for a particular research focus, still shares the issues of the concept of career itself. As Evetts's (1992) explanation of career reification showed, career is not a 'real' thing like a book or an apple. Career is a concept--one might say a hyper-real thing--a metaphor used to join the dots of otherwise disparate or cumulative events or experiences. Unsurprisingly, the career concept originally drew on corporate beliefs and work patterns of earlier modern society in interpreting work experiences. However, as society's institutional arrangements change over periods of decades and longer, or the concept is exported to other national settings, career can easily be further reified, continuing as a quasi-official 'truth' but lagging behind the reality of changes occurring in employment patterns. 'Getting ahead' or succeeding may not figure at all, or may be only one imperative in personal life paths, and not necessarily as central as some career trajectories imply.

New Experiences Contradict Old Assumptions

The larger practical dilemma is created from the unstated assumptions on which discussions of career change are often predicated: beliefs about unilinear flow of time, a trajectory of upward progress, the coherence of the career track, individual experience and agency rather than peer-group, family influences, multi-track working lives, compromise or unexpected events. It is only in traditional, large corporate contexts that older assumptions are relevant since they frame midcareer from the perspective of an individual who has a traditional, single occupation pattern of career development.

Practically, however, many contemporary examples obviously do not fit older career trajectories:

* Someone who re-enters the workforce after a period of 10 to 15 years after, for instance, raising children or dissolving a marriage.

* An individual who has made one or more occupational changes.

* An individual who has decided to pursue retraining and a new occupational direction after 10 to 15 years in a single occupation.

* An individual who is discharged from military service after 20 years, and is a new entrant to the civilian workplace, just starting out in a new occupation.

The three time-flow distinctions can seriously disturb underlying traditional assumptions about career, but they do not do this automatically. In practice, effort is needed to help overcome continued minimising of gender, class, cultural and other constraints and differences affecting individual career opportunities.

Back to Midcareer Time-Flow Orientation

Thus, the three variations of midcareer sketched here may continue to reflect the rigidity which the standard reified concept of career exhibits, in resisting the changed circumstances for which traditional career beliefs are increasingly insufficient and partial descriptions. Career is thus not merely a concept, but in its reified form it exercises a controlling cultural influence that constrains analysis and reflection even as parts of society and work life around it morph into other, newer forms.

Staudinger and Bluck (2001) comment on the vagueness of what time period midcareer or midlife covers by noting it is open to be read in different ways, stating that interpretations may be 'affected by one's current age, as well as the historical period' (p. 5). They go on to say:
 There is no consensus that any single biological
 or social event constitutes the lower boundary of
 middle age, and retirement can be seen as an upper
 boundary, for some cohorts, only in men ... Some
 have suggested that middle age is the line between
 when the youngest child leaves home and when the
 spouse dies ... Although specific events as these play
 critical roles, individuals measure their age and life
 phase using a combination of social, psychological,
 and biological markers that are only sometimes tied
 to particular events. (p. 6)

In contrast to this caution, some organisational literature foregrounds managerial imperatives of productive and efficient use of employees in large organisations. Late twentieth century structural change for this midcareer group (such as redundancy or downsizing) brought the reality of job change to a much wider cohort of society, affecting not just working-class jobs but middle-class careers too. Morison, Erickson and Dychtwald's (2006) Managing Middlescence is typical in its simplistic assumption of the obviousness of when midcareer is, focusing on the human capital significance of this group when they state: 'Midcareer employees--those between 35 and 54--make up more than half of the workforce' (p. 78). In reality, no single event or ritual provides markers of change to midcareer, even within one society, certainly not for all socio-economic groups, ethnicities or genders, let alone across different societies (Gullette, 1998; Lachman, 2001).


The present purpose has been to briefly render problematic the assumption 'we know what midcareer is and when it occurs', by inspecting examples of usage in career development writing. Three different readings of midcareer have been identified--apparently a straight-forward finding, but there are important theoretical implications. Some comments pointed to how these implications might form the basis of an alternative theory of midcareer, offering a mid-path between the inflexibility and lack of evidence for Super's stages and the extreme flexibility of transition typologies such as Schlossberg's model.

In the end it is not solely a question of when does midcareer or midlife happen, but what embedded discourses of time and values cause certain years or times to be selected. Practitioner attention to assumptions that may remain unstated helps challenge the supposed universality, individualism, progression and coherence of life-stage career trajectory theorising. As the breadth of post-1970s critique has shown, midcareer is a deeply cultural concept at the same time it is intended as a scientific one.

Through attention to the simple elapse of time, a useful and practical platform is established to observe how people create personal identity and agency in the face of national and cultural beliefs and constraints. The flow of time functions differently for individuals than corporations. What workers and researchers assume about society and what midcareer is and ought to be is influenced not solely by models and trajectories, but by whether individuals' lifework and personal changes are perceived as after, between or beyond midcareer.


This section is designed as brief professional review of the article. It provides relevant study questions and answers for readers to test their knowledge of the article.

What is significant about the three time orientations described in this article?

Answer: In the first place, the article simply records a chronological patterning observed in the literature, so that others can consider these patterns according to a range of perspectives, and interpret what they think they mean. Second, at least one contribution this may offer us is looking at careers as finite, constantly being reassessed as individuals sense their age/life/ career position. Are clients orienting after, between, or beyond midcareer? A third idea that needs to be remembered here is that individual perceptions are not a purer truth' compared to models and theories, since individuals themselves think about the point they are up to in their career by referencing what they believe are society's models and norms. So inspecting assumptions is paramount.

How do the three orientations of midcareer engage with Super or Schlossberg?

Answer: From yet another angle, Super's stages model is challenged in its claim to universality. It may be that the attraction some have found in his periodisation may be drawn more neutrally from recognising a generic chronological process as has been discerned here. Which of the three patterns are used by individuals to orient to that process, and what changes in their assumptions this makes, is of considerable significance. Schlossberg in contrast to Super does not tie her base model to time-flow, even though her transitions occur in the flow of time, and as such her process approach could more easily absorb elements of time-orientation outlined here.

Is there a practical 'take home' message from the discussion?

Answer: Yes, as we practise careful reading of what is happening in individual lives and careers this should include how people talk about this midcareer time orientation, and how others (including organisations) around them also talk about these same people in relation to the start, middle and end points of their careers. Do clients--or should we make a point of doing so--consider client situations in relation to the flow of time? Then the task of surfacing time-flow assumptions and social prescriptions or narratives in such talk has a valuable extra dimension.


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Burns, Edgar

La Trobe University


(1) The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development. See

EDGAR BURNS has taught at the Eastern Institute of Technology in New Zealand from 1993 to 2006, most recently splitting his time between his roles as Faculty Research Mentor and Senior Lecturer teaching sociology and research papers across business, counselling, social work and psychotherapy degree student groups. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Sociology Program of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University, researching profession-to-profession career transitions.

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Author:Burns, Edgar
Publication:Australian Journal of Career Development
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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