It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point and the main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help get to grips with the theory. There are also links it the bottom to get your further research started.

Developmental Theory – Life Span Development

Donald Super

Strange tip that helps you remember Super and his Developmental Theory:

In the initial story or film, Superman went through different stages, from baby to ‘normal child’ to his discovery of his powers to superman. Think of superman’s role changing, as well as his view of the world and himself, as he went through his life stages.


This page is mainly written around his revision of his theory in 1980. Donald Super defines a career as “the combination and sequence of roles played by a person during the course of a lifetime” (Super, 1980, p.282). The life rainbow below will help you visualise the concept Super is trying to get across and the very many levels, interconnections and conflicts included in his theory. Super makes the distinction between ‘theories of occupational choice’, which at the time of the conception of Super’s model will have been all “trait and factor” style theories (see timeline on this website for more information) apart from Ginzberg, and ‘theories focused on career development’ of which his developmental theory is obviously one (the clue is in the name!).

Super's rainbow metaphor of the developmental model of career guidance.

The career rainbow is proposed on the basis of the concept that people play a number of roles as they move through life. These roles can overlap and contradict each other, prompting the necessity for decision making and compromise. Super proposes 9 main roles throughout life in 4 different principal ‘theatres’ (Super, 1980, p. 283).

9 Roles

If you have a look at the rainbow above you will recognise all 9:

  1. Child – son/daughter
  2. Student
  3. Leisurite – the role of being engaged in leisure activities (or nothing at all!)
  4. Citizen
  5. Worker – including ‘non-worker’, volunteer or unemployed
  6. Parent
  7. Spouse
  8. Home maker
  9. Pensioner

Super recognises that not all play all roles in life and that roles may be abandoned and that there may be overlap but states that the order of the roles on the rainbow generally corresponds with how these roles are generally taken up. Super also doesn’t like biological sex to any of these roles (p. 284).

4 Theatres

  1. The home
  2. The community
  3. The school – including college, university, etc…
  4. The workplace

Super recognises that not everyone enters all theatres and that there other theatres, such as the care home, etc… (p. 284). Roles and theatres interact in a variety of ways. Some roles may be played in one theatre and some may be played out in different theatres. Some theatres may encompass one role and some more than one (home working for instance). Roles may have a primary theatre they are played out in and some theatres may be the principle theatre for a role.

The term ‘role’ needs to be understood in terms of expectations by different actors and observers as well as performance by different actors and observers (p. 285). Super recognises that ‘roles’ can be fluid and more multi faceted throughout an individual’s life in a variety of ways and configurations.

Linked to the representation of his theory before, pre-occupational roles such as child and student begin to influence later occupational positions and how they are met. For instance: the amount and type of schooling is a determinant of future occupational choice and position. More controversially in my view, Super claims that the first occupational position is one determinant of future occupational positions open to the individual (p. 286).

Life style – life space – life cycle

Super further defines how these different roles and theatres, as well as their interaction make up the career pattern for an individual (p. 288).

  • Life style – the combination of life roles
  • Life space – the sequential combination of life roles structures the life space
  • Life cycle – the life space and life roles people occupy constitutes the life cycle as a time bound structure

The total structure of all of these together is the career pattern.  The Life Cycle and Career Patterns encompasses the waxing and waning of roles.

More practically, Super links his model of the rainbow to different decision points for every role throughout life. this brings us to the practical application of the theory.

Super’s Archway Model

In addition to the rainbow model, to explicitly include career determinants, which the rainbow model does not do, Super expanded his theory with the Archway Model or Segmented Model, in which each segment or stone in the archway represents a determinant for career planning and management, with the more basic ones near the bottom (Super, 1994, p. 67). Super’s archway represents personal or psychological determinants on the left and social or geographical determinants on the right. He also states that in this representation, the two different pillars are not completely separate from each other but that they should have a number of vectors or arrows between the different elements that influence and impact on each other. For instance family, as a social entity in the individual’s life, may influence and have an effect on the individual’s needs and values and vice versa.

He indicates that the key stone of the self is the element that makes the decisions, but that these are not value free but supported and influenced by both of the pillars and both sides of the archway. The individual synthesises the effects of the determinants in both pillars (Super, 1994, p.67) He further details that the left half of the arch is the development stage in childhood and adolescence and the right half of the arch is that of young adulthood and maturity (Gothard, 2001, p.19). Both of these go on to develop the key stone self. According to Gothard (2001), Super defined Social Learning Theory as the cement that binds the segments together.

How do we bring this into practice?

Super argues that ‘decision points’ occur before and when taking up a new role, when giving up an old role and when making significant changes in the nature of an existing role (Super, 1980, p. 291). Decisions can be either taken or not taken, changes can be made or not made, opportunities can be taken up or not. This is where we practitioners may contribute to a person’s life.

Super argues that the life-career rainbow has 2 major uses (Super, 1980, p. 296):

  1. Teaching the concept of life-career, including the notion of life stages, life space and life style. This helps individuals see the interactive nature of the variety of roles constituting a career. It shows that self-actualisation can be achieved through a combination of different life roles.
  2. An aid to practice helping clients:
    • analyse their own careers to date
    • project them into the future as they have developed and as they might develop

For us, these points are interesting in that they further point towards how we can use the theory in practice. The life-career rainbow can literally be used as a model to show clients how the different roles they do and may play in life hang together, interact with each other, overlap or influence their decision making. At the same time, it can be used as a tool for them to imagine how they future may look and take this into account in their planning, but also imagine a different future than that dictated by their educational, social or familial environment.



Even though Super recognises, in his later work, the fluidity and flexibility of roles and how they interact, I think the world in the 21st century looks very different to that of the 1980s even and my feeling is that even while recognising fluidity, his model has a tendency to be too rigid and not directly applicable to many people’s lives. in 1980, the world of work didn’t include the gig economy or zero hour contracts, pensioners needing to work beyond pension age to improve their financial situation as well as the plethora of family structures we now see. I personally feel ‘determinant’ is too strong a word, especially with the flexibility in the educational system these days, though I recognise that there is an influence between roles and outcomes.

What do you think?

  • How does the rainbow relate to your life, maybe compared to that of your parents?
  • How could you use this theory in practice with clients?
  • If you have a look again at Ginzberg’s developmental model, how does Super compare. What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of his theory compared to Ginzberg?
  • Super’s developmental model is very different to what came before, such as Holland etc… How does it differ and what are the relative strengths and weaknesses between them?
  • How applicable is Super’s theory to the situation in the 21st century?


Useful links:


  • Gothard, W.P. (2001). Careers guidance in context. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage
  • Super, D. E. (1994)’A Life Span, Life Space Perspective on Convergence’, in Savickas, M. and Robert William Lent (eds.) Convergence in Career Development Theories. Consulting Psychologists Press, p.63 – 74
  • Super D. E., (1980). A Life-Span, Life-Space Approach to Career Development. Journal of Vocational Behavior. Vol. 16, 282-298