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date: 26 June 2022

The Psychology of Working: A New Perspective for a New Era

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter serves as an introduction to The Oxford Handbook of the Psychology of Working. The two foci of the psychology of working, a critique of existing discourses about work and career and a framework for a new perspective for understanding the psychological nature of working, are reviewed. A brief synopsis of each of the sections and chapters in this book is then presented, with a summary of how these contributions function, independently and collectively, to create the foundation for a dignified and inclusive discourse on the role of work in people's lives. The chapter concludes with suggestions for advancing the psychology-of-working perspective.

Keywords: psychology of working, working, career development, organizational psychology, poverty, social justice, career counseling

Working is a central aspect of life, providing a source of structure, a means of survival, connection to others, and optimally a means of self-determination (Blustein, 2006, 2008; Budd, 2011; Juntunen, 2006; Richardson, 1993, 2012). Across the globe, people devote considerable time and effort in preparing for, adjusting to, and managing their work lives. Many of the major crises affecting people and communities have been and continue to be related to working (Clifton, 2011; Wilson, 1996). These crises often affect nations and states at a macro level, and have a profound impact on the course and trajectory of individual lives (Sen, 1999; Wilson, 1996). Wars, famines, and risks to personal safety have all been directly related to access to work (Clifton, 2011; Sachs, 2005); in short, lack of work is a significant cause of social and economic disruptions as well as poverty. At the same time, working, when it is dignified and meaningful, can create the foundation for a satisfying life that allows people to support themselves and their families, and to find an outlet for their values and interests in the world of work (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 2002; Savickas, 2011; Super, 1980).

A close review of narratives, memoirs, fiction, and other forms of artistic expression underscores the centrality of work in people’s lives (Blustein, 2006; Bowe, Bowe, & Streeter, 2000; Budd, 2011; Terkel, 1974). The importance of working has not escaped the attention of psychologists in their roles as scholars, policy advocates, and practitioners (e.g., Blustein, 2008; Brown, & Lent, 2005; Fassinger, 2008; Fouad & Bynner, 2008; Hall and Associates, 1996; Savickas, 2011). The results of this attention have led to sustained studies of working, careers, and occupational well-being, yielding a rich literature encompassing a wide array of work-related issues and challenges (e.g., Brown & Lent, 2005; Duffy, Diemer, Perry, Laurenzi, & Torrey, 2012; Eggerth, DeLancy, Flynn, & Jacobson, 2012; Flores et al., 2011; Quick & Tetrick, 2010; Walsh & Savickas, 2005). In fact, much of the early work of applied psychologists (the forerunner of clinical, counseling, and industrial/organizational [I/O] psychology) was (p. 4) devoted to helping people sort out their work-based plans and helping organizations select the most appropriate candidates for an ever-increasing range of jobs (Koppes, 2007; Savickas & Baker, 2005). The applied specialties in psychology (with the exception of I/O psychology) soon became infused with a focus on mental health issues, which clearly helped to expand the impact of psychology and to benefit people in need of services.

Following the trend toward increasing specialization within psychology, working, as a context for human behavior, became increasingly compartmentalized throughout most of psychology, ultimately yielding a highly insular view of a portion of our lives that takes up a significant amount of time and energy. For example, with some notable exceptions (e.g., Axelrod, 1999; Lowman, 1993; Richardson, 2012; Socarides & Kramer, 1997), working is not a central part of most psychotherapy and personality theories. Furthermore, within North America (and in many other parts of the globe), psychological practice and scholarship on working increasingly has tended to focus on those with some degree of privilege and choice. These factors, when considered together, have led many scholars to critique existing discourses and to advocate for a more inclusive perspective of the role of work in one’s psychological well-being (e.g., Blustein, McWhirter, & Perry, 2005; Harmon & Farmer, 1983; Richardson, 1993).

In this chapter (and in many chapters within this Handbook), the term “psychology of working” is used to capture both the critique of the extant foci and emphases in the work-based psychological disciplines as well as the emerging perspective that seeks to encompass the full range of working experiences for the full range of individuals who work and who want to work. As a means of enacting the inclusive agenda of this movement, I have developed this Handbook project to bring together a community of scholars and practitioners to think carefully and critically about the complex challenges that people face in their work lives across a wide array of contexts and situations.

In this introductory chapter, I describe the foundation that exists for the psychology of working and outline the potential for this Handbook to expand and deepen the emerging discourse about the role of work in people’s lives. After presenting the basic premises of the psychology of working, I then review the sections and chapters, with the intention of setting the stage for the contributions that follow. I conclude with some observations culled after reading the chapters, with the intention of highlighting future directions for scholarship, practice, and theory development.

What Is the Psychology of Working?

The psychology of working, as a perspective, can be traced to the beginning of applied psychology, which focused extensively on working, both from individual and organizational perspectives (Koppes, 2007; Savickas & Baker, 2005; Zickar, 2004). Beginning with Parsons in vocational guidance and Munsterberg and others in personnel psychology, nascent psychologists in the early part of the 20th century initiated the study of work with the intention of broadening our understanding of this essential part of life. At the same time, many of the early psychologists who studied working also had an interest in applied practice. Vocational guidance scholars and practitioners were interested in helping people make wise choices about their future with the goal of enhancing the meaning and satisfaction of their working lives. Personnel psychologists were interested in a similar array of questions regarding person–environment fit, but from the perspective of the organization, with the intention of improving productivity, worker tenure, and job satisfaction. By the middle of the 20th century, both fields burgeoned, creating impressive bodies of scholarship, thoughtful theories, and well-respected practices. While the original distinctions of vocational guidance and personnel psychology soon gave way to a plethora of disciplines and subdisciplines, the common theme among these approaches was, and continues to be, the psychological study of working. One of the challenges, however, was in establishing a conceptual framework to integrate these disciplines and reduce the artificial splits that had emerged, separating the various psychological studies of working. In addition, the artificial splits functioned to separate the study of working from that of other domains of life, leading to a circumscribed focus that has adversely affected the entire psychological enterprise.

Prior to a more detailed overview of the psychology of working, it is important to clarify what the psychology of working is not. First and foremost, it is not a theory, per se; rather, it is a perspective that grew out of a confluence of trends within psychology and within the broader intellectual world. The psychology-of-working perspective initially emerged from a critique of existing discourses about work and career that have been dominant in applied psychology and career development for the past few decades. The critique levied against traditional studies of (p. 5) career choice and development as well as traditional I/O psychology helped to carve out the contours of a new and more inclusive perspective. The perspective that is emerging is early in its development; however, this Handbook is designed to facilitate the growth of an inclusive, empathic, and just approach to understanding the role of work in people’s lives.

A second and equally essential point is that the psychology of working is not attached to any one scholar or group of scholars. The psychology-of-working perspective reflects decades of sustained critique of the traditional array of assumptions and perspectives about work and career. As reflected in this volume, the psychology-of-working perspective has emerged on the shoulders of courageous scholars who have identified the inherent biases in studying and intervening in the work lives of people with a modicum of privilege (e.g., Harmon & Farmer, 1983; Helms & Cook, 1999; Kornhauser, 1957; Richardson, 1993; Smith, 1983; Zickar, 2004). In addition, these critiques continue to emerge with new ideas for the expansion of psychological considerations of working and career, often without an explicitly stated overarching perspective (e.g., Helms &Cook; Szymanksi & Parker, 2003). One of the objectives, therefore, of this Handbook is to provide an opportunity for a sustained synthesis of critiques and new paradigms and perspectives.

In the sections that follow, I introduce the psychology of working by first focusing on its role as a critique of existing discourses. This is followed by a selected review of the most important attributes of the psychology-of-working perspective. When considered collectively, these two sections provide readers with a “briefing” of the major features of the psychology-of-working perspective, thereby setting the stage for the chapters that follow. Embedded in the discussion that follows is the rationale for the present Handbook and an overview of how the psychology of working can transform how psychologists, social scientists, and counseling professionals understand and intervene in the work lives of people across the full spectrum of power, privilege, and social location.

The Psychology of Working as a Critique

One of the trends in the psychological study of working over the course of the 20th century was the move from exploring working for the vast majority of people who worked and who wanted to work to the exploration of the work lives of people with some degree of volition and privilege. With some notable exceptions (e.g., Harmon & Farmer, 1983; Kornhauser, 1957; Richardson, 1993; Smith, 1983), the agendas of contemporary vocational psychology and I/O psychology, over time, have been on understanding and facilitating the work lives of people who tend to have some level of choice in how they will engage in their work lives. Within the sections that follow, I review specific critiques that have emerged from analyses of the impact of external barriers and diverse sources of oppression on human behavior and well-being.

Feminism and gender. One of the most important critiques came from feminist thinkers, who applied new ideas and political perspectives to the established norms about work and career, noting how the field had marginalized the lives of women who often faced daunting challenges in gaining access to training, employment, and dignified work (e.g., Barnett & Hyde, 2001; Betz & Fitzgerald, 1987; Brown, 2009). The feminist critique has generated a broad and more inclusive perspective that has sought to examine the connections and disconnections among various life roles (Fassinger, 2008). For example, feminist scholars highlighted the overt and covert ways that sexism constrained the development of interests and limited upward mobility for women in the workplace (Betz & Fitzgerald, 1987; Fassinger, 2008). The feminist critiques have also evoked thoughtful dialogues on the hegemony of market work over care work (Richardson, 2012). In addition, feminist scholars have creatively explored the complex relationships between personal and political issues (Brown, 2009).

Race and culture. Some of the seminal critiques of career development have emerged from incisive examinations of how race and racism function to constrain opportunities for people of color in many Western cultures (Carter & Cook, 1992; Helms & Cook, 1999; Smith, 1983). In short, the critiques emerging from scholars and practitioners concerned with race and culture have highlighted how access to opportunity is unfairly distributed, in large measure, due to racism and other forms of social oppression. These critiques also have generated a growing interest in how culture frames the discourse about work and careers (Stead, 2004). By examining the impact of race and culture in the psychological study of working, we have been forced to reckon with inherent biases in traditional, Western-based perspectives of work and career, thereby generating an essential foundation for an inclusive and politically embedded psychological study of working.

Sexual orientation. The discrimination that individuals face due to their sexual orientation has (p. 6) generated a necessary critique of the prevailing career choice and development perspectives and assumptions (Chung, 2003; Lidderdale, Croteau, Anderson, Tovar-Murray, & Davis, 2007). The stigma that is evoked by nonheterosexual orientations is particularly pernicious in many education and work-based settings, often resulting in significant challenges for people as they develop work-based plans and adjust to work (Croteau, Anderson, DiStefano, & Kampa-Kokesch, 2000). A key consequence of discrimination and living in fear of psychological and, at times, physical abuse is the constriction of opportunities for a self-determined work life. As such, giving voice to the experiences of LGBT individuals in the workplace also serves to raise concerns about the viability of the traditional career narrative.

Disability. One of the most consistent critiques of the focus on volitional careers and studies of relatively well-educated workers has emerged from the rehabilitation movement (Fabian & Leisner, 2005; Neff, 1985; Szymanski & Parker, 2003). By focusing on the nature of disability and handicapping conditions, scholars and practitioners have had to confront inequities at work and have faced clients who often have had less-than-optimal levels of choice in their work lives. In fact, some of the most articulate calls for an inclusive psychology of working have been advanced by Neff (1985) and others (e.g., Szymanski & Parker, 2003), who have advocated for a contextualized study of working in people’s lives. When considering the impact of disabling conditions at the workplace, we are confronted with several issues that are inherent in the contemporary vision of the psychology of working. For example, some disabling conditions constrain one’s options, via social barriers that are unrelated to the way in which a given disability may affect one’s work performance. In addition, the stigma that is often evoked by disabling conditions influences the ways that individuals make meaning of, and respond to, work-based challenges (Neff, 1985). In effect, the psychology of disability has set the stage for an inclusive and contextualized psychological study of working.

Epistemology. From an epistemological level, critiques of existing psychological discourses, including the discourse about work and careers, have emerged from social constructionist perspectives (Burr, 1995; Gergen, 2009). One of the hallmarks of these critiques is the questioning of existing practices, theories, and underlying assumptions about a given phenomenon or body of knowledge. Beginning with the seminal articles by Savickas (1993) and Richardson (1993), the assumptions that have formed the basis of much of the study of working, careers, and psychological practice have been identified. The social constructionist critique encourages a more relativistic understanding of knowledge, acknowledging that the assumptions that guide a field of inquiry are shaped by relationships and culture (Burr, 1995; Flum, 2001; Schultheiss, 2003, 2007). In addition, the social constructionist perspectives seek to unpack how knowledge is constructed, identifying the social and political discourses that frame how questions are asked and how they are examined. (Further details on social constructionist analyses can be found in Blustein, Schultheiss, & Flum, 2004, and Chapter 3 in this volume.)

Summary. As reflected in this brief overview, critiques have been raised from multiple vantage points, with a number of common themes. First, the study of careers, per se, while creative and substantive in its contributions, has functioned to circumscribe the range and depth of how working is studied in psychology and how individuals and organizations can achieve well-being in their working lives. Second, the prevailing discourse in the study of working and career has resulted in the relative neglect of those without as much choice in their working lives. Third, with notable exceptions, many contemporary perspectives on working and career have tended to marginalize attention to the pervasive role of social barriers in creating unequal access to work. Fourth, again with some notable exceptions (e.g., Richardson, 2012; Savickas, 2011; Super, Savickas, & Super, 1996), the psychological study of working has become increasingly insular, creating ideas and practices that are not consistently embedded in the broader fabric of life. These critiques helped to establish a foundation for the development of a psychology-of-working perspective, as reviewed next.

The Psychology of Working as a Perspective

The development of the contemporary psychology-of-working perspective can be traced directly to the contribution by Richardson (1993), who argued convincingly that psychologists needed to reframe their foci to include (1) an emphasis on working rather than careers; (2) an expansion of prevailing epistemological perspectives to embrace social constructionism; (3) attention to both care work and market work; and (4) an exploration of working from an interdisciplinary perspective. These recommendations served to integrate (p. 7) numerous critiques and established a framework for an expanded and inclusive study of working. While the chapters included in this Handbook will elucidate the full scope of the psychology-of-working perspective, a brief overview of its most salient attributes is warranted in this chapter.

The role of values in the psychology of working. Prilleltensky (1997) published a seminal article arguing that psychologists need to be aware of the values that guide their work. Eschewing the notion that psychological science and practice are value free or value neutral, Prilleltensky noted that values and moral decisions permeate our work. According to Prilleltensky, psychologists ought to articulate their values and moral decisions and should be able to identify ways that these decisions are manifested in their work.

Infusing a focus on values and morals into the psychology-of-working perspective suggests several important implications. Given that working takes place in a social and political context that frames the nature of individuals’ experiences, the decisions that scholars and practitioners make about how to study work have vast consequences for individuals, families, and communities. For example, psychologists who are studying the best ways to train leaders in organizations may be asked to provide guidance on how managers can reduce grievances for violations of workers’ rights. In addition, studying the career choice and development of middle-class students attending relatively prestigious colleges manifests an inherent set of values. Of course, each of these endeavors is a legitimate expression of the applied aspects of our work, often resulting in significant positive outcomes for clients and communities. However, by ignoring the question of values, we risk making decisions about scholarship and practice that may function to create and/or sustain privileges for some and lack of power for others.

Core assumptions of the psychology of working. The psychology-of-working perspective has several core tenets that are intended to guide the study of working and the development of interventions for individuals, organizations, and communities. The list that follows is not intended to be exhaustive; rather, it summarizes the main points that have been articulated to date in the literature (e.g., Blustein, 2006, 2011; Fassinger, 2008; Fouad & Bynner, 2008; Juntunen, 2006; Richardson, 1993, 2012).

  • Diverse epistemologies, including logical positivism, post-positivism, as well as social constructionism, are viable strategies to use in understanding the nature of working. Rather than creating an implicit or explicit expectation that scholarship ought to endorse a particular modality of understanding the nature of the world, the psychology-of-working perspective chooses not to reify one vantage point over another. The choice of epistemologies ought to be based on the questions that are posed and the values that are inherent in a project. Recent research on issues of relevance to the broadly inclusive study of working advocated in this Handbook has relied upon diverse epistemologies, ranging from logical positivist (e.g., Duffy et al., 2012; Eggerth, DeLaney, Flynn, & Jacobson, 2012; Kenny, Blustein, Haase, Jackson, & Perry, 2006) to post-positivist (Blustein et al., 2010; Flores et al., 2011), and social constructionist perspectives (Stead & Perry, 2012).

  • Work is a central aspect of life. While obvious to most readers, the central role that work plays in life, in promoting or inhibiting well-being, and in establishing the basis for healthy, safe, and nurturing communities is clearly affirmed. The argument about the central role of work in life has been constructed around extensive research (Blustein, 2008; Quick & Tetrick, 2010; Richardson, 2012) as well as an examination of narratives, memoirs, bodies of art, literature, and music (Blustein, 2006; Budd, 2011). As reflected in our early evolutionary history, working is a central organizing aspect of life, one that connects people across historical and cultural boundaries (Blustein, 2006; Budd, 2011; Donkin, 2001).

  • Working is central to mental health. A related assumption that is central to the psychology-of-working perspective is that working has the potential to foster and sustain positive mental health. Considerable scholarship supports this view, including studies of the impact of unemployment and underemployment (e.g., Paul & Moser, 2009), in which mental health problems have been causally linked to the absence of working. In addition, the availability of dignified work has been associated with reductions in mental health problems, antisocial behavior, and other maladaptive behaviors (e.g., Blustein, 2006; Shore, 1998).

  • The psychological study of working includes in its purview the work lives of everyone who works and who wants to work. As indicated earlier, one of the fundamental assumptions of the psychology of working is the creation of a sufficiently large and welcoming tent to include everyone who works and who wants to work (Richardson, 1993). This assumption does not exclude the traditional focus on career choice (p. 8) and development, career management, or other perspectives that have framed the psychological study of careers to date. Rather, this point is designed to embrace the full scope of working across the globe, including jobs that represent the culmination of planning and significant education as well as jobs that are taken for survival (and all of the jobs that are located between these two poles). In addition, the psychology-of-working perspective includes in its mission issues pertaining to unemployment, underemployment, and adjusting to disabling conditions that adversely affect access to work.

  • Work and nonwork experiences are often seamlessly experienced in the natural course of people’s lives. As noted earlier, psychological theory and practice has become increasingly insular, leading to artificial splits that are not consistent with the lived experience of people. As such, the relatively seamless nature of life ought to be captured in scholarship and practice about working. In contrast to the increasing compartmentalization of psychology, the psychology-of-working perspective strives to reduce or eliminate a priori categories that separate psychological discourses. The optimal discourse would be one that examines the lived experience of working, which is conveyed in the language of people talking about their lives. As conveyed in memoirs and narrative excerpts (e.g., Blustein, 2006; Bowe et al., 2000; Terkel, 1974), working is inextricably connected to the rest of our lives. We inhabit multiple roles in life and these roles intersect with each other in organized and random ways, creating a rich tapestry of life experiences (cf. Super, 1980).

  • An experience-near understanding of the role of work in people’s lives is integral to the psychological exploration of working. To understand the complex and nuanced nature of working, psychologists would benefit from developing an empathic approach to the experiences that individuals face in their work-based tasks. Recent qualitative research (e.g., Flores et al., 2011; Fouad, Cotter, Carter, Bernfeld, & Liu, 2011; McIlveen, Beccaria, DuPreez, & Patton, 2010) has revealed deep levels of complexity and nuance in the ways in which people understand and make meaning about their working experiences, underscoring the importance of empathy and relatedness in research. In a broader sense, encouraging an experience-near connection to working has the potential to enhance counseling practice and public policy initiatives about working.

  • The psychology-of-working perspective seeks to identify how social, economic, and political forces influence the distribution of resources and affordances. By including a focus on macro-level factors, psychologists are able to understand how working serves as one of the most vital playing fields in life, the location of both dreams and disappointments. While traditional studies of working within vocational and I/O psychology have explored and identified social and economic barriers, the psychology-of-working perspective places considerations of these resources and obstacles at the forefront of conceptualizations, research, practice, and policy recommendations.

  • The psychology-of-working perspective embraces the fact that working occurs in various contexts, including the marketplace and caregiving contexts. As Richardson (1993, 2012) has so compellingly argued, work is not limited to employment for money, goods, or services; a truly comprehensive approach to working necessitates a focus on care work (caring for family members, loved ones, etc.), which is, and has been, a constant across time periods and cultures.

  • The psychology-of-working perspective embeds conceptualizations of working in cultural and relational contexts. Recent conceptualizations of working that have explicitly infused cultural and relational frameworks have yielded informative perspectives about unemployment (e.g., Stead & Perry, 2012), social class (McIlveen et al., 2010), care work (Richardson, 2012), and poverty (Blustein, 2011b). In these formulations, culture and relationships are seen as the vehicle through which people make sense of, and attach meaning to, their lives.

  • As a framework, the psychology of working has the potential to enrich existing theories. The broad and inclusive scope of the psychology of working provides an opportunity for existing career choice, career counseling, psychotherapy, organizational psychology, and career management theories to expand their impact and explanatory reach. As a meta-perspective, the psychology of working offers traditional theories with the conceptual rationale and tools to generate new formulations that can expand their relevance as the world of work continues its radical transformation.

  • Optimally, working has the potential to fulfill core human needs. Numerous scholars have sought to identify the needs that working can fulfill (e.g., Neff, 1985; O’Brien, 1986). When considering these various taxonomies from an integrative (p. 9) perspective, the following three sets of needs have been identified (Blustein, 2006):

    • Need for survival and power: Harkening back to our hunter-gatherer roots, working, at its core, is integral to our survival. In addition, working has the potential to enhance one’s power in the world, via material acquisition as well as the attainment of status and prestige.

    • Need for social connection: For many people, working provides extensive opportunities for relationships (Flum, 2001; Schultheiss, 2003). Furthermore, working serves as one of the major theaters for interactions with others, including relationships that are supportive as well as relationships that are problematic. In addition, working provides an informal connection to the social world via the sense of contribution that people experience in their work (Blustein, 2011a).

    • Need for self-determination: At its best, working provides people with opportunities to engage in activities that are interesting, stimulating, and meaningful, thereby fostering a sense of self-determination (Ryan & Deci, 2000). In addition, self-determination can be attained via extrinsically motivating tasks that are useful in helping people attain goals that they value.

Current Status of the Psychology-of-Working Perspective

As reflected in these tenets, the psychology- of-working perspective offers a potentially transformative framework for enhancing and expanding the way in which work is understood in psychological research, practice, and public policy advocacy. At its core, it is an inclusive perspective that seeks to reduce the privileging of affluence in contemporary psychological discourses about working. The initial forays into the psychology-of-working perspective have generated considerable scholarship and program development efforts. While some of these contributions have been linked explicitly to the ideas embedded in the psychology of working, others reflect a more subtle shifting zeitgeist that reflects an intellectual climate that is increasingly welcoming of a critical examination of the traditional career narrative.

The social justice aspects embedded in the critiques of traditional studies of careers have informed considerable shifts across the spectrum of theory, research, and practice. For example, social justice considerations are now more explicitly infused into new texts (e.g., Hartung & Subich, 2011; Watson & McMahon, 2012), review articles and chapters (e.g., Fassinger, 2008; Fouad, 2007), and theoretical initiatives (Richardson, 2012; Vondracek, Ferreira, & Santos, 2010). In addition, an emerging body of scholarship is exploring how differential access to the opportunity structure creates a domino effect that functions to sustain inequity and injustice (Blustein, McWhirter, & Perry, 2005; Toporek & Chope, 2006).

Other initiatives emerging from the sociopolitical critique inherent in the psychology of working are evident in research on unemployment and dislocated workers (e.g., Blustein, Medvide, & Wan, 2011; Fouad et al., 2011). In addition, a number of incisive articles examining work-based immigration have used a psychology-of-working perspective, yielding important insights about irregular migrant workers (e.g., Marfleet & Blustein, 2011) as well as Latino/a immigrants entering the United States (e.g., Eggerth et al., 2012). While examinations of poverty and social class have been part of the career discourse for decades (cf. Super, 1957), recent initiatives have been more numerous and substantive, including important contributions by Diemer and Ali (2009), Noonan, Hall, and Blustein (2007), and McIlveen et al. (2010).

Furthermore, innovations in counseling practice have been generated from an explicit incorporation of the psychology-of-working perspective. One particularly compelling example is the work by Hees, Rottinghaus, Briddick, and Conrath (2012), who explored the needs of dislocated workers using ideas culled from the psychology of working. In addition, an integrative counseling perspective has been developed using the psychology-of-working framework, providing a conceptual rubric for inclusive psychological practice that integrates the full scope of clients’ issues into the counseling process (Blustein, Kenna, Gill, & DeVoy, 2008). Furthermore, Richardson’s (2012) recent articulation of a model for counseling for work and relationships, while emerging from a broad array of conceptual and theoretical vantage points, includes many of the salient features of the psychology-of-working perspective.

Psychoeducational interventions that have been developed to intervene with client populations living in at-risk contexts also have been informed by many aspects of the psychology-of-working perspective. For example, a number of new programs that have been developed within urban educational communities have thoughtfully blended a focus on (p. 10) critical consciousness and race and racism along with traditional career development interventions (Ali, Yang, Button, & McCoy, 2012; Blustein et al., 2010; Perry, DeWine, Duffy, & Vance, 2007). Within the assessment world, Duffy and his colleagues have developed a sophisticated psychometric tool designed to measure an individual’s experience of work volition (Duffy et al., 2012).

One of the most important trends that have emerged within vocational psychology is the revived use of the terms “work” and “working.” Consistent with the advice of Richardson (1993) and supported by traditions within fields as disparate as labor relations and occupational sociology (e.g., Budd, 2011), psychologists, counselors, and scholars are increasingly referring to work to capture a fuller scope of activities in both the market and caregiving contexts (e.g., Bhat, 2010; Duffy et al., 2012; Fouad, 2007; Richardson, 2012; Shen-Miller, McWhirter, & Bartone, 2012). While some may suggest that the precise term that is used is not necessarily central to the inclusiveness and relevance of our work, I believe that care should be exercised not to reify the term “career,” which may function to constrain the mission for psychologists, social scientists, and practitioners interested in working (Blustein, 2006).

As this brief review of the conceptual framework and initial research/program development initiatives of the psychology of working has revealed, a groundswell of new ideas, practices, and policy recommendations is emerging from all quarters of psychology and the helping professions. The perspective that has been advanced is now taking shape and is poised to foster important innovations in research, theory, practice, and public policy. To facilitate this growing transformation in how psychologists and related professionals think about and intervene in the work lives of their clients and communities, I have solicited contributions from scholars who have joined this effort to take this perspective to the next level of depth and impact. The chapters of this Handbook, which are summarized next, provide clear, knowledge-based foundations for the continued exploration of the psychological nature of working.

Overview of the Handbook

The Handbook has been structured around five broad themes, based loosely on a priori considerations about working and careers derived from the literature as well as my own experience as a practitioner and scholar. The first theme is an exploration of the theoretical and epistemological framework for the psychology of working. The second theme is devoted to the context of working, with a focus on the diverse ways in which race, gender, sexual orientation, poverty, and family frame the entire enterprise of working. The third theme examines the psychology of working from the vantage point of organizational psychology and the management perspective on careers. The fourth theme is devoted to counseling practice and psychotherapy. The fifth theme is focused on public policy and community-based implications.

Theoretical Foundations

The initial section begins with the current chapter, which is designed to create the foundation for the chapters that follow. The next chapter, by Isaac Prilleltensky and Graham Stead, provides a comprehensive overview of critical psychology, which reflects an essential intellectual stream that has contributed to the psychology of working. As detailed earlier in this chapter, the diverse critiques that have stimulated the development of a more inclusive perspective convey an exemplar of critical thought. Prilleltensky and Stead provide an insightful analysis of the critical psychology movement, beginning with a critique of some of the underlying assumptions of psychological discourse. Included in the Prilleltensky and Stead chapter is a critical analysis of individualism, positive psychology, mechanistic approaches, and ethnocentrism, among other traditions, which have shaped the ways in which work is understood in psychology. Prilleltensky and Stead also have raised a number of recommendations for the development of a liberating psychology of working.

The next chapter, also by Graham Stead, furnishes an extensive examination of epistemology and discourse analysis in relation to the psychological study of working. Stead’s discussion provides a summary of various streams of ideas that have contributed to a social constructionist perspective, including relational theories, discourse and language analyses, and power. This chapter expands Richardson’s (1993) early contribution on the role of work in people’s lives, thereby enhancing the utility of careful epistemological analyses of the psychological study of working.

Another critical theoretical foundation is represented in the theories of career choice and development, which have formed the backbone of vocational psychology. In the fourth chapter, Jane Swanson explores these theories via the lens of the psychology of working, reviewing the traditional (p. 11) theories along with emerging theories. Swanson’s chapter begins with a comprehensive review of person–environment fit theory, social cognitive career theory, the theory of work adjustment, and lifespan developmental theory. She follows this review by exploring theories that have been informed by the psychology-of-working perspective, social constructionist thought, narrative theory, and other critical perspectives.

The Context of Working

As reflected in the ongoing critiques of traditional vocational and I/O psychology, the context for working is characterized by considerable inequity, racism, sexism, ageism, and heterosexism. In short, the playing field is far from equal. In this section, several scholars explore selected social barriers with an eye toward identifying the complex ways that oppression shapes the nature and trajectory of one’s working life.

In the first chapter in this section, Lisa Flores uses multicultural and psychology-of-working perspectives to examine the impact of racism in working. In an expansive analysis, Flores highlights how racism affects work-based disparities, health, well-being, and job satisfaction. Flores builds on a perceptive review of relevant demographic data and a critical appraisal of a wide array of work-related phenomenon in arguing that race is central in considerations of equity, access, social justice, and dignity in the workplace.

Building on one of the earliest critiques of the traditional career discourse, Neeta Kantamneni’s chapter discusses the role of gender in preparing for, and adjusting to, the workplace. Kantamneni reviews the complex ways that gender, gender role socialization, sexism, and discrimination affect the experience of working for men and women. Kantamneni highlights some of the notable ways in which gender-related phenomena influence both men and women, noting how socialization and sexism function to constrain the work lives of people. Kantamneni concludes with a number of perceptive recommendations for counseling practice and continued research.

Next, Mary Anderson and James Croteau present an insightful review of the literature on sexual orientation and working. Perhaps the most hidden of the diverse forms of social oppression, heterosexism has adversely shaped working environments in multiple and often insidious ways. As reflected in Anderson and Croteau’s work, the infusion of a psychology-of-working perspective has the potential to transform how we think about sexual orientation and the world of work. Their insightful and informative chapter provides a needed roadmap for a psychology of working that embraces and affirms sexual orientation diversity.

A core concern of the psychology of working is the lack of access due to constraints in the opportunity structure and poverty. Following this vantage point, Saba Rasheed Ali describes the role that social class plays in all aspects of education, training, and working. She summarizes compelling data on working and poverty, highlighting the low wages and lack of opportunity that plague the lives of the poor. Ali then reviews the ambivalent relationship that vocational psychology has faced in including social class and poverty in its theories and practices. She concludes with numerous constructive recommendations for practice, public policy work, and research that will expand an inclusive discourse on work and poverty.

Mary Sue Richardson and Charles Schaeffer then explore the literature on family and working, summarizing their ideas about market work and care work in a fully developed dual model of working. Richardson and Schaeffer’s contribution makes a compelling case that studies of working have privileged market work over care work, leading to a neglect of this essential mode of working that involves nearly everyone across the globe. The Richardson and Schaeffer argument is that balanced attention to and affirmation of market work, paid care work, and unpaid care work can foster the sorts of theories and practices that can reduce sexism and enhance the quality of life for both men and women.

The aging of the workforce is endemic in many nations around the globe, leading to challenges and transformation among workers and the workplace. Harvey and Anthony Sterns provide an expansive tour of the literature on aging and working, highlighting how an aging workforce can continue to contribute to the social and economic world. They review the literature on working and aging from organizational and self-management perspectives, respectively. In addition, they highlight the importance of creating functional and welcoming workplaces as a means of fostering a dignified and safe work life for older workers.

As indicated at the outset of this introduction, the literature on disability and working has provided one of the key foundations for an inclusive psychology of working. Ellen Fabian’s chapter continues this trajectory by providing a contemporary examination (p. 12) of the literature on disability and working. Her chapter examines the complex issues evoked by disabling conditions (including, but not limited to, physical disabilities, psychiatric conditions, and developmental disabilities) from the vantage point of the psychology of working. In addition, Fabian reviews various legislative agendas designed to support people with disabling conditions as they negotiate the world of work. As reflected in Fabian’s comprehensive chapter, the strength and vitality of the disabled community’s advocacy provides important lessons for an expansive legislative and public policy agenda that will ensure greater equity to the resources that support dignified and meaningful work.

Organizational Implications

In an attempt to reduce artificial splits in the psychological study of working, I have included two chapters from outstanding scholars of management and I/O psychology in this Handbook. In the first chapter, Douglas (Tim) Hall and Phil Mirvis build on the long and storied history of the study of careers within the world of management with a creative application of the psychology of working to a host of challenges that have been evoked by the transformative changes in the world of work. Hall and Mirvis examine three fundamental questions in their chapter: (1) What is my work? (2) What is my work identity? and (3) What is success? Through examining these questions, Hall and Mirvis expand the discourse in career management to include a broad array of problems, populations, and positions.

Building on a critical perspective infused with values about justice and inclusion, Michael Zickar provides an essential chapter that presents a transformative discourse for I/O psychology. By embedding a critical historical perspective into his analysis, Zickar reviews selected aspects of the first century of scholarship and practice in I/O psychology, noting the roots of the profession and the challenges inherent in infusing a workers’ perspective into a field that has committed itself, for the most part, to the welfare of employers and their organizations. Zickar concludes with a number of thoughtful recommendations for integrating the psychology-of-working perspective into I/O psychology with the intention of creating an experience-near study of work within organizations that affirms diversity and inclusion.

Counseling and Psychotherapy

The practices of counseling and psychotherapy have been and remain central in efforts to improve the welfare of individuals. Within the working context, counseling and psychotherapy have had a complex history that has resulted in a very rich literature on career counseling and a far less abundant literature on exploring the role of working within traditional mental health counseling and psychotherapy. The two chapters in this sections are designed to reinvigorate both the career counseling and psychotherapy disciplines. The first chapter in this section, by Sherri Turner, Julia Conkel Ziebell, and Robin Alcala Saner, expands the traditional career choice and development counseling model to embrace clients with less-than-optimal levels of volition. Turner and her colleagues initially reviewed the counseling challenges among traditionally disenfranchised client populations, including the poor, homeless, LGBT individuals, and individuals with disabling conditions. Integrating observations from their analyses of best practices with marginalized groups, Turner et al. concluded their chapter with recommendations for working with clients who face less-than-optimal options in the world of work and who may also face oppression in various contexts of their lives.

AJ Franklin and Mary Beth Medvide devote their chapter to tackling the daunting task of considering how to infuse affirming views about work, social justice, and diversity into psychotherapy theory and practice. Based on a masterful synthesis of career development theories, selected psychotherapy theories, and the psychology of working, Franklin and Medvide meet this challenge by developing a foundation for an inclusive paradigm for integrative counseling practice. Their chapter concludes with a detailed case example and recommendations designed to foster needed developments in integrative practice.

Community-Based Interventions and Public Policy

One of the key attributes of the psychology of working has been an expansion of practice outside of the consulting room and a corollary expansion of scholarship outside of the university research lab and library. In short, the social justice ethic that underlies the psychology of working is clearly focused on creating systemic changes in all of the institutions that influence the working lives of people. The first chapter in this section, by Maureen Kenny, is devoted to an exploration of the relationship between education and work. Kenny provides an exhaustive review of the crisis in contemporary education, noting the challenges that exist in (p. 13) infusing work-based learning into the educational enterprise. She then reviews an extensive body of literature examining such issues as career academies, school-to-work research, career development education, and work-based issues inherent in current considerations of educational reform. Kenny concludes with a thoughtful articulation of research agendas and policies that are suggested by her review and by a consideration of the psychology-of-working perspective in relation to the needs of the education community.

The next chapter, by Cindy Juntunen and Tamba-Kuii Bailey, explores the contexts of training and employment. Juntunen and Bailey review the complex work-related transitions that adults face as they negotiate increasingly unstable education, training, and occupational contexts. Juntunen and Bailey highlight the advantages of a comprehensive array of interventions and programs that offer individuals relational support, opportunities for continued training, and broad systemic changes in their resources and affordances. The Juntunen and Bailey contribution is particularly eloquent in its use of a psychology-of-working perspective as a link between traditional vocational psychology scholarship and the real-life challenges of clients and communities.

The role of public policy in creating facilitative and/or inhibiting conditions for the attainment of a meaningful and upwardly mobile working life has received considerable attention in recent years. Spencer Niles and Edwin Herr, two of the leaders in career development and public policy, have prepared a compelling chapter that affirms the importance of a clear and compelling public policy agenda as a means of promoting social change. Niles and Herr summarize some of the most notable exemplars of policy initiatives that have fostered access to counseling services and to humane educational and work-based opportunities. They note as well the challenges that exist in creating the rationale and establishing the research framework to support public policies that will enhance opportunities for the entire array of people seeking meaningful and dignified work.

The Way Forward: Connecting the Dots

As I indicated at the outset of this chapter, I have sought to bring together a community of scholars to consider the challenges that have been raised in the psychology-of-working critique of existing discourses in our field. These chapters, both individually and collectively, articulate a perspective and a point of view that has the real potential to transform psychological studies and interventions regarding working. Moreover, the authors have creatively established the posts for an expanded and inclusive tent for scholars and practitioners interested in promoting fair and dignified work opportunities.

Once we have expanded the tent, what is the way forward for the psychology of working? In the section that follows, I consider the broad and integrative view of this collective body of work, which may help to articulate the lines between the dots.

One of the most tired (yet accurate) clichés in our field is that the world of work is changing rapidly and in unexpected ways. This observation is certainly evident in these chapters, but the impact of the changes is complicated by the growing acknowledgment that the “grand career narrative” (Savickas, 2002) is over for an increasing proportion of working people across the globe. (Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that the grand career narrative was not relevant for most working people, even during the boom period after World War II. see Blustein, 2006, for further details on this position.) So, what will replace the grand career narrative? Some aspects of the new narrative can be derived from the chapters in this Handbook.

Individual Interventions

From an individual perspective, it seems clear that people will need to be well trained, flexible, and highly motivated to manage their work lives in a context of rapid change and, for many working people, a context of shrinking or stagnant opportunities. In addition, the question of career choice volition will continue to be complex and dynamic. The collective perspectives derived from the chapters suggest that we probably need to consider a multidimensional perspective wherein volition will wax and wane based on economic conditions, affordances, labor market availability, individual skill sets, and other social, economic, political, and psychological conditions. Given the movement toward greater instability with respect to unemployment and underemployment, it would seem important to reconceptualize how individuals manage their work lives as well as how people can obtain support for work-based problems.

While the traditional discourses of career counseling, career management, and career development education are relevant for many, there is a need for a new set of ideas and solutions to the problems that people face in finding and sustaining dignified work. Perhaps the most complex question is how psychologists and counselors can help individuals (p. 14) develop the complex and changing sets of skills that they will need to survive and optimally thrive in the new world of work. When considering the observations of many of the chapter authors, success in the world of work will require dexterity, flexibility, creativity, resilience, relational support, and high levels of literacy and numeracy skills. In addition, success at work will require a social world that affirms and creates opportunities for dignity and access in one’s work life. In my view, the literature and perspectives conveyed in these chapters suggest that the solutions that were developed for 20th-century work-based problems may not be sufficient for the problems of the 21st century. Therefore, while many will still benefit from career counseling, traditional psychotherapy, and work-based education, other interventions will need to be developed.

The skeleton of 21st-century work-based intervention is taking shape in the new models that have been introduced by Savickas (2005) and Richardson (2012). These two perspectives are constructed around the notions of change, contextualization of work, and agency. In addition, the theories by Lent et al. (2002) and other cognitively based theorists (e.g., Reardon, Lenz, Sampson, & Peterson, 2009) will be essential as counselors and other providers help clients to develop rich and useful constructions about themselves and about their educational and work lives. However, the nature of the counseling interventions will need to continue to evolve and shift as the needs of clients become more complex. For example, integrative interventions that blend work-based counseling and mental health counseling are clearly needed for clients who are caught in the maelstrom of unemployment and underemployment. In addition, counselors and psychologists will need to learn more about job search and skill development strategies as clients increasingly look for ways to become more competitive in the labor market. Although individual efforts are clearly needed, the broadened psychology-of-working perspective that is embedded in these pages points to the need for broad, systemic changes in order to create more opportunities for people, as summarized next.

Public Policy Agendas

In addition to the Niles and Herr chapter, several other contributions in this Handbook have articulated important public policy issues that may be particularly helpful for working people. As articulated in previous publications (e.g., Blustein, 2006; Blustein et al., 2012), a broad and concerted effort to creating full employment is essential to expand opportunities. In addition, psychologists, other social scientists, and helping professionals need to make a case with local and national leaders about the centrality of work in people’s lives (cf. Richardson, 1993). Continued efforts at linking education and work will be helpful in creating schools and educational institutions that prepare people for 21st-century jobs. Improved training and adult education are also critical to enhancing opportunities for all working people, who increasingly face a labor market that expects and rewards lifelong learning.

These ideas are not necessarily new or radical. Scholars have been advocating these policies for decades, with varying degrees of success. So, how will this Handbook help to move forward a more effective public policy agenda? In the sections that follow, I propose some ideas, derived in large measure from these chapters, that may help to strengthen our arguments and impact.

Research Agendas

Critical to the policy enterprise is a need for research that will inform policy challenges. As reflected in many of these chapters, a psychology-of-working agenda has the potential to stimulate more inclusive research that includes diverse epistemologies and objectives. For example, integrative research on the impact of unemployment at the individual and community levels may help to document the broad and pernicious impact of unemployment and underemployment. In addition, research that describes in detail the insidious role of social barriers such as racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and heterosexism in the workplace may help to underscore the need for policies based on values of fairness and justice.

The psychology-of-working perspective that is represented in these chapters provides ideas and assumptions about work that are inherently grounded in a value system that affirms change, justice, and maximizing the well-being of individuals and communities. The traditional discourses in vocational and I/O psychology have generally (although not always) eschewed a research agenda that has an implied or explicated political perspective. In contrast, many of the authors in this Handbook were able to articulate research agendas that embraced an explicit value system. While the values that make up the psychology of working, naturally, will vary considerably, one cohering theme is the endorsement of greater access to education, training, and work opportunities. As such, research that adopts a psychology-of-working (p. 15) perspective may be able to tackle some of the thornier issues facing people at work without the implicit barrier of an elusive objectivity. This is not to suggest that scholars should become journalists or advocates without rootedness in science and scholarship. Rather, the psychology-of-working perspective that is emerging from a collective view of these chapters is constructed around the belief, as articulated by Prilleltensky (1997), that science has the potential to liberate people from oppression and to foster caring communities.

In addition to policy-based research, an integrative review of these chapters suggests the continued importance of exploratory and theory-driven research. While the topics framing this research agenda are expansive, a few themes can be discerned from the contributions herein. One theme is the exploration of the diverse ways that people construct meaning about work and about the contexts of their work lives. Building on a growing line of scholarship in vocational psychology (e.g., Ali et al., 2012; Kenny, Blustein, Chaves, Grossman, & Gallagher, 2003), continued research that identifies the internal and external resources and barriers that people face as they negotiate work-based tasks is warranted. Another theme revolves around the development of theories that are useful, relativistic, yet sufficiently structured to support further scholarship. As an exemplar, recent initiatives emerging from relational theories provide an illustration of the sort of theoretical enterprises that emerge from a more inclusive focus on working (e.g., Blustein, 2011a; Richardson, 2012).

While research and theory development efforts similar to the ones outlined above have been evident in our field for decades, a collective view of the chapters within this Handbook offers some ways of enhancing the impact of these efforts. One of the most important suggestions is to think broadly and critically about the issues and problems that are posed in research. The diverse theoretical and epistemological views articulated in these chapters provide some useful guidelines about how to unpack existing assumptions that guide the intellectual currents in a given line of work.

A hallmark of this Handbook is its disciplinary pluralism. I have explicitly sought the input of scholars interested in working from across the spectrum of psychological specialties. The vision that is conveyed by these Handbook chapters is inherently inclusive; indeed, one of the common elements in the chapters is the inclusion of literature from outside of the author’s own specialty. These sorts of integrative analyses have resulted in a body of work that has a wider reach than traditional psychological scholarship about work and careers. Building on the integrative nature of these chapters, it would seem useful for teams of scholars from various specialties within psychology and outside of psychology to collaborate and create new research and practice initiatives. The importance of culture, race, and other social identities emerged here as a central theme that warrants careful consideration in research and theory development. Given the centrality of work in people’s lives and in the welfare of communities, I also suggest disseminating results in trade publications and other popular media outlets. The classic publication by Wilson (1996) entitled “When Work Disappears,” which was published as a trade book, is an excellent example of a research-oriented contribution that entered the public discourse about work and poverty. With the broad and inclusive vision underlying the psychology-of-working perspective, it may be possible for psychologists who are writing about work to bring research findings of social relevance to the public via academic venues as well as more popular outlets.

Closing Comments

In my view, each of these chapters offers creative, insightful,, and highly informative overviews of a given body of literature within the working context. While each chapter addresses a circumscribed line of work, the collective vision that emerges from this Handbook provides a clear and accessible knowledge base for the continued development of the psychology-of-working perspective. As the Editor of this Handbook, I have been humbled in attracting a roster of major scholars and leaders in their respective fields to contribute to this endeavor. My hope is that readers will be as moved as I have been in reading these stellar contributions. And, hopefully, readers will feel inspired to continue the work of these scholars and of those who preceded them in creating an expansive and socially just vision of working.


I would like to thank Alice Connors-Kellgren, Saliha Kozan, and Bailey Rand for their comments on an earlier version of this draft.


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