It's not many generations ago that workers expected to have a job for life, most probably one that followed in the footsteps of their father, and his father before that. In many of today's richer societies, it's all different. Longer education and greater individual choice mixed with mergers, take-overs and bankruptcies mean that people's careers are typically punctuated by a series of distinct transitions or chapters. But how do people perceive these transitions and do such perceptions vary between cultures? To find out, Katharina Chudzikowski and her colleagues interviewed a mix of over a hundred nurses and blue- and white-collar workers from five countries - Austria, Serbia, Spain, USA and China.
Their stand-out finding? Workers in the United States didn't ever attribute a career transition to an external cause, such as conflict with a boss. Not once. Instead they tended to mention internal factors, such as their desire for a fresh challenge. By contrast, workers in China almost exclusively stressed the role played by external factors. Meanwhile, workers in the the European nations were more of a mix, attributing their career transitions to both internal and external factors.
The researchers said a lot of the transitions reported by the participants, especially in the USA and Europe, were positive. Generally-speaking, people are known to be biased towards attributing positive events to themselves, and so it's perhaps little wonder that many workers attributed all these positive career transitions to internal causes. "In addition," the researchers said, "in many cultures 'being in charge' of one's life is positively valued. Conversely, reconstructing crucial career transitions as purely triggered by external circumstances does not convey a great amount of competence."
Where workers showed a greater tendency to attribute their career transitions to external causes, this seemed to be related to the influence of a collectivist culture and an economy in flux. "Countries with more dynamic economic change show a stronger emphasis on organisational and macro factors," the researchers said.
Apart from the value of its findings, the study also provides a useful demonstration of the difficulties involved in conducting cross-cultural research. For example, whilst interviews were conducted in the participants' native languages, the transcripts were translated into English for qualitative analysis, which raised some interesting problems. For example, some German-speaking interviewees cited "Wirtschaft" as an influencing factor - a word that can mean economy, industry, commerce or business world, but which also has mythical-religious undertones. There's no real direct equivalent in English.
Chudzikowski, K., Demel, B., Mayrhofer, W., Briscoe, J., Unite, J., Bogićević Milikić, B., Hall, D., Las Heras, M., Shen, Y., & Zikic, J. (2009). Career transitions and their causes: A country-comparative perspective Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 82 (4), 825-849 DOI: 10.1348/096317909X474786
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.