In a postmodern world, supporting clients through career ups and downs demands consideration of the person’s cultural context and background.

“Career counseling becomes not so much a procedure but a philosophical framework for guiding the work of counselor and client,” explain Louis A. Busacca and Mark C. Rehfuss in their book Postmodern Career Counseling: A Handbook of Culture, Context and Cases.

“Cultural context becomes essential as the labor force in the United States becomes more diverse, with marked increases in the number of women, non-White, immigrant and older workers,” they write in the book’s introduction. “… In the uncertainty of today’s workplace, career counselors are increasingly called upon to help clients navigate work and life situations, which are typically in a state of flux. Every client’s experience is embedded in a cultural context, which is a factor that makes each client’s experience unique.”

Postmodern Career Counseling: A Handbook of Culture, Context and Cases was published this year by the American Counseling Association. Busacca is an adjunct assistant professor of counseling and human services at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia and adjunct professor of psychology at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio; Rehfuss is an associate professor and director of the human services distance program in the Department of Counseling and Human Services at Old Dominion University.


Q+A: Postmodern career counseling

Counseling Today sent co-authors Louis A. Busacca and Mark C. Rehfuss some questions to learn more:


In the preface, you write “cultural context becomes essential as the labor force in the United States becomes more diverse, with marked increases in the number of women, non-White, immigrant and older workers.” Can you elaborate on this – what would you want counselors to know?

Why is this (a focus on client context) important – and important enough to write a book focused on it?

Traditionally, multiculturalism in career counseling and development has shown us how clients from diverse backgrounds fit into existing theories and interventions, but it does not fully explain how to process the unique experiences and interpretations of clients. Lacking was how people think of themselves in relation to their culture and social context – social constructionist call this narrative identity. As such, culture in postmodern career counseling (PCC) focuses on the personal meaning and interpretations individuals ascribe to elements such as race, ethnicity, age, sex and sexual orientation, and context involves a focus on individuals interacting with and within their social and environmental contexts.

As career planning becomes more precarious and employment more contingent, clients who come to us feel anxious primarily because their identity no longer holds and comforts them. Social philosopher Anthony Giddens stressed that the demand on the individual to construct her- or himself has become a major social fact of our societies. So, when a client has trouble reconstructing their story, they may feel anxious, discouraged or frustrated. In a postmodern sense, the job of career counselors is to first locate their interaction and experiences within the contextual environment that shaped their story, and then help the client use their own culturally-embedded stories to revise their identity.

Given today’s precarious work environment, we believe it is important to help students and practitioners understand that identity is formed by and expressed in client narratives, and these narratives are culturally and contextually embedded. As we help clients meet demands imposed by career tasks, occupational transition or a work trauma, counselors go beyond the experiences of clients fixed on group membership to the meaning and interpretations that clients ascribe to their culture within a sociohistorical context. Career interventions such as narrative, autobiography, life design, card sorts and possible selves mapping – all discussed in our book – help clients reconstruct their identity through self-reflection, provide a sense of coherence and infuse work lives with meaning.


What is postmodernism and why is it important for career counseling today?

The way the term postmodern is used has become so convoluted that confusion may exist regarding its meaning. In general, postmodernists believe that individuals construct meaning or perceive their own reality or truth. This contrasts with the modernist assumption that an external and objective meaning can be discovered. The goal of postmodernity in counseling and psychology can be summarized as an attempt to be more inclusive and to avoid marginalizing the many voices and viewpoints that modernity has overlooked. So, our critique of modernism does not challenge its validity, but the omission of the process. Somehow, modernist career theories and interventions left out the mapmaker (the subject) who may bring something to the picture.

The new social arrangements of work in the United States during the last few decades have made career progression for many people more difficult. Adults increasingly find themselves in frequent transitions among jobs, occupations and organizations. We believe that the turn to postmodern career counseling keeps up with the pace of this transformation and the needs of clients. Since the 1980s, career counseling has increasingly infused its theories and practices with psychological constructivism and social constructionism. When reading our book, it may be useful to think of them as windows or perspectives for how counselors view and approach a client’s experience and reality. These perspectives emphasize subjectivity or meaning making, appreciate multiple perspectives, acknowledge multiple truths, value interpretive or qualitative research and emphasize context. Much of this is taught in counselor education programs today in areas such as marriage and family counseling. Nevertheless, it has slowly emerged in the career field.

As a response to the modernist tradition, the postmodern conceptualization of career represents a unique interaction of self, identity and social experience. In our changing world of work, we encourage counselors to acknowledge this new paradigm for career services that comprehends the diversity in people’s lives for the 21st century.



What would you want professional counselors who do not specialize in career counseling to know about this topic?

In our experience providing both clinical counseling and career counseling services, we have found that the models and methods of postmodern career counseling are applicable to counselors who work in various counseling modalities and specialties. To understand how this is possible, it is important to understand how career paradigms have changed over time, and how these changes have aligned with counselor education today. Career theories and interventions have evolved to keep pace with the changing needs of society. Thus, four career-service areas emerged during the 20th century: career guidance, career development, career education and career adjustment. Yet, as counselors attempted to apply these practices with clients, career interventions increasingly proved insufficient as social, technological and global changes affected people’s working lives. In fact, during the mid-1990s, vocational and career scholars began to reflect on an anticipated question posed by one astute scholar, “Where is the counseling in career counseling?” Given the changes in work, as we discuss more fully in the book, career and vocational scholars proposed a redefinition of the word career to fit the postmodern economy. Let’s look at vocational guidance as an example and the evolution of career counseling as a distinct paradigm and career service area.

A popular paradigm for career interventions starting in the early to mid-20th century was vocational guidance. Guidance met a societal need because of the changes in work organization. Although guidance interventions were successful solutions to the pressing social needs of their times, it remains the most popular model students learn about in counseling programs. John Holland’s congruence theory of vocational personality types and work environments is a popular example. The overriding goal of vocational guidance was, and still is, to promote the adjustment outcomes of success, satisfaction and stability. Vocational guidance, however, does not teach counselors how to counsel clients who experience career-related concerns, but helps clients enhance self-knowledge, increase occupational information and secure occupational fit.

The move from vocational guidance to an emphasis on more subjective aspects of career became known as career counseling. Career counseling began to distinguish itself primarily through the integration of a process-oriented, subjective and emotional domain. Career counseling began to possess characteristics used in personal counseling. For example, it focuses more on the characteristics of a quality counseling relationship. Although interest inventories are useful, they have an average hit rate of 40 percent. But they are convenient to use. If you can sit with a person, it is better just to ask them their interests and explore from there. Also, because emotions are embedded in all aspects of the client’s experiences, the subjective nature of emotion was particularly suited to career theory and to the emphasis on intervention rooted in psychological constructivism and social constructionism, which informs our book. Today, career counseling models and methods such as narrative career counseling, use of early recollections, career construction counseling, areas of life designing and others focus on emotions in motivational processes. Thus, career interventions have moved from individual differences and resemblance of types to individuality, uniqueness and context.

We would like students and counselors to know, regardless of specialty or modality, that clients who present with distressing symptoms embedded in various contexts often interweave concerns about their work life, coping with transitions, finding purpose and meaning and securing a sense of identity. Regardless if you work with marriage and family, addictions, secondary students or provide clinical counseling, there are parallels in how we help clients cope. For example, narrative methods in career counseling provide patterns of practice similar to family therapy traditions of contextualizing clients’ stressors and exploring how client’s identities and stories are constructed through family relations, attachment patterns and interactions.

Mark Savickas stated during a recent interview in the Family Journal that “individuals who know more about their family, know more of their family’s story, find it easier to tell their story and know their own story to be more resilient.” Assessing family influence in career counseling includes using the genogram, life-design genogram and assessing family constellation (all discussed in our book). As you see, this is similar to what we do in marriage and family counseling. So, as the narrative paradigm becomes more prominent in career counseling, it should resonate with more students, educators and practitioners.


Besides your book, what resources would you recommend to counselors who want to bring themselves up to speed in this area (focusing on client context in career/vocational counseling)?

Much of the career counseling literature that examines culture and context from a postmodern career perspective is highly academic and found scattered in counseling and psychology journal articles and various books. We recommend that counselors interested in postmodern career counseling first ground themselves though reading about the similarities and differences in constructivism and social constructionism in the journal article by Richard Young and Audrey Collin titled, Introduction: Constructivism and Social Constructionism in the Career Field in the Journal of Vocational Behavior. This will provide the serious student of PCC with an understanding of the epistemology that frames career counseling.

Next, because narrative is infused in many postmodern models and methods, the chapter by Paul Hartung [titled] “Career as Story: Making the Narrative Turn” in The Handbook of Vocational Psychology introduces the reader to the history of the narrative paradigm in the career field. For a good reflection on client context, Graham Stead’s article Culture and Career Psychology: A Social Constructionist Perspective in the Journal of Vocational Behavior is recommended.

In addition, several books provide a good presentation of practice in postmodern career counseling such as Mark Savickas’ Career Counseling; Larry Cochran’s classic book on Narrative Career Counseling, and Mary McMahon’s Career Counselling: Constructivist Approaches. Also, Peter McIlveen and Donna Schultheiss’ Social Constructionism in Vocational Psychology and Career Development discusses postmodern career counseling from a theoretical background.


Preparing for and working through transitions is a big part of a career advancement. From your perspective, what are some ways practitioners can support clients through work/career transitions – and the anxiety that may come with it?

In Mary Anderson’s and colleagues book titled Counseling Adults in Transition, I [Louis] came across a profound sentence that resonated with me, “Today, continuity is the exception, and adjusting to discontinuity has become the norm of our era.” It reflects that the nature of work and the meaning of career have been restructured over the last three decades, and is now characterized by uncertain, unpredictable and risky employment. Work insecurity can stem from the loss of a job or fear of losing a job, lack of alternative employment and diminished freedom to obtain and maintain specialized skills and advance in a position.

In our work, we have seen the effects of insecurity in clients include a sense of oppression and exploitation, demoralization, demotivation and even feelings of anxiety and depression. From a narrative perspective, identity is found in one’s stories. So, when unwelcomed transitions occur, a client’s life story becomes so challenged that identity no longer provides her or him with a sense of security and continuity, resulting in anxiety. Today, counselors are increasingly seeing clients who require help coping with and adapting to work-related transitions.

We believe that clients experiencing a transition benefit from counselors who are trained in the application of five fundamental features of postmodern career counseling: a) help clients create personal meaning and revise their identity through dialogue and relationship with a counselor; b) apply a strategic use of language which goes from reflecting reality to producing reality and meaning; c) adopt a universalistic stance, which assumes that every client has a unique cultural background embedded in and influenced by the context they live in; d) help clients shift their focus from society’s story for how they should live and work in the United States to the their individual story; and e) encourage the importance of turning to others for support rather than relying solely on self-reliance and independence expected from society’s new metanarrative.

Encouraging relational support is particularly relevant for the anxiety, confusion and grief that may accompany work-related transitions. To a certain extent, employees depend on colleagues or supervisors to provide rules, goals, clear promotional ladders or protection. These holding environments help individuals cope with situations that produce anxiety − but they are eroding. Today, if individuals can’t adapt by scripting their own stories to feel more secure, then career counseling using the narrative-based interventions discussed in our book can be useful. So, when clients find that their story concerning who they are and where they fit in loses continuity, postmodern career counseling helps them revise their identity to integrate new narratives into their ongoing life story.





Postmodern Career Counseling: A Handbook of Culture, Context and Cases is available both in print and as an e-book from the American Counseling Association bookstore at or by calling 800-347-6647 x222




Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at


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