Donald Super’s Life Stage/ Rainbow Theory – Theories Every Careers Adviser Should Know

Donald super was a vocational theorist who was particularly interested in the ways that our career’s change over time. Initially writing in 1950s Super’s ideas can be seen to be in contrast with type theories of individuals such as Holland and Parsons. Instead Super saw people as changing over their lifetime and being made up of different areas or ‘life-spaces’. Super himself defined careers as “[t]he sequence and combination of roles that a person plays during the course of a lifetime”.

Super identifies six main life spaces that make up who we are; Homemaker/ Parent, Worker, Citizen, Leisurite, Student and Child. Some of these spaces explicitly involve other people such as Homemaker/ Parent, Citizen and Child but all of them imply other people being involved in our lives and effecting who we are. For example Leisurite will involve the people we enjoy leisure with, student those we study with and so on.

Super also significantly introduced the idea of the self-concept. Super believed that our identities (and by extension our careers) are a product of how we see ourselves and how we put this concept into practice in the real world. A successful career for Super was one that made use of as much of our self-concept as possible. Because our self concept can change over time this means that our career is an ongoing process rather than aiming at a fixed point.

His views are most famously put across in his Rainbow shown here


I admit freely to being a big fan of Super and the change in paradigm he brings opposed to the type/ matching paradigm that often still dominates practice. There are a number of vital contributions that Super has made to arena of careers development

  1. Super sees people as not being fixed but changing over time. This calls for career being ongoing and developmental, not tied to a single one of choice made in the past.
  2. Super see who we are as not being measurable but as defined by us. The idea of the self-concept focuses on how we see ourselves. It challenges clients to construct their own understanding of their careers.
  3. Super sees career identity as involving other people. While typological approaches tend to view others as a nuisance factor that needs to be separated from the self to properly understand types in a “pure” sense Super shows how other people are an integrated part of our identity and so encourages us to consider them as well.
  4. Super describes career as involving other spaces other than “work”. Super says the social spaces we inhabit make up who we are. They are not a distraction but a part of how we actually experience life.

Super’s theory gets rid of any idea that a simple test can tell us who we are or will be. Development, work/ life balance, self-conceptions, relationships and networks. These are all familiar parts of the modern vocab around work. Super for me is right in introducing us to the complexities of career in the modern world.

All of this said I think it is worth noting a couple of important criticisms of Super’s work. I feel there are two problems which we would be mindful to consider:

  1. Super’s theory is rooted in 1950s views of the individual and the life cycle. There is a certain view of the world that colours the domains he selects and the labels he uses for development. Rather than criticising Super’s values I would rather suggest that trying to fix an overall narrative through which we live and domains we live in can be problematic and there may be a need to construct individual rainbows rather than adopt Super wholesale.
  2. Super describes career but does not comment so much on what career development looks like. I feel partly why Super does not have the impact of others is he is more descriptive than practical, he talks of what career is rather than what to do about it. I feel this the challenge of Super, given the avenues Super opens up what will development look like in light of this?


Super, D.E. (1990) A Life-Span, Life-Space Approach to Career Development in Brown, D. Brooks, L. & Associates (2nd edn) Career Choice and Development San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp197-261.

Super, D.E., Savickas, M.L., & Super, C.M. (1996) ‘The life-span, life-space approach to careers’, in Brown, D., Brooks, L, & Associates (Eds) Career Choice & Development, (3rd Edn), San Francisco, California, Jossey-Bass, pp121-178.


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