Career Literature Review: Future Work Selves & Proactive Career Behaviours

This week’s study is by 3 Australian researchers, Karoline Strauss, Mark Griffin, and Sharon Parker, and was published last year in the Journal of Applied Psychology: Future Work Selves: How Salient Hoped-For Identities Motivate Proactive Career Behaviours.

With a nod to the nonlinear and complex way that careers play out in the modern world, the researchers examined the relationship between “future work self salience” and proactive career behaviours.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “future work what now?” here’s a description from the authors: “Future work selves are based on the concept of hoped for possible selves, which are cognitive representations of who individuals hope to become in the future…. A future work self that is salient is one in which the image of the hoped for future self is clear and easy to imagine for a person” (p. 581) (emphasis mine). The idea, derived from self-regulation theory, is that the more salient a future work self is, the greater discrepancy will exist between that future work self and a person’s current self, which will provide greater motivation to engage in proactive career behaviours. The authors also predicted that the more elaborate and complex a future work self is, the more motivation there would be for proactive career behaviour.

Three (yes three) separate studies were conducted, and they all supported the authors’ hypotheses. A significant correlation was found between future work self salience and proactive career behaviours. The second study introduced a longitudinal element – that is, they measured future work self salience at Time 1, and proactive career behaviours 6 months later at Time 2, and found that the former reliably predicted the latter. The third study looked at future work self elaboration, and found that the more elaborate/complex a person’s future work self was, the more likely that person was to engage in proactive career behaviours – BUT only if that person had a high future work self salience to begin with. This makes sense, as it would be difficult to be elaborate about something that isn’t particularly noticeable or easy to imagine.

What does this mean?

Essentially, the findings illustrate an important link between being able to imagine ourselves in a work identity in various ways, and being motivated to take the actions necessary to move forward in a career-relevant way. As this future identity becomes more clear, more easy to imagine, and more sophisticated, so our motivation to take proactive career action increases. It’s an encouraging nod to the power of having a healthy imagination, but also to being intentional about the ways in which we imagine our future in terms of the work we see ourselves doing.

Career advising/counselling no doubt plays a crucial role in the development of such imagination and intentionality. Questions we may want to ask ourselves could include: what can we do to increase students’ “future work self salience?” How can we encourage students to think about their future work selves with more clarity and ease? What are we already doing to help accomplish this? For those students who already have this clarity, how can we encourage them to further elaborate their vision of themselves?

As always, appreciate your thoughts!