Career success: Differing self-definitions by workers across countries

The last time I worked in an American office I was 19 years old, earning an hourly wage to do a variety of types of menial support, which I actually enjoyed immensely. I came to Japan at age 20 and got my first real job when I graduated from university a few years later, working at the Tokyo headquarters of a Japanese manufacturer. Though my previous experience in the U.S. was not long enough or a sufficiently high level for me to garner much of a sense of the way things worked, nonetheless much felt different in my new position — the interactions, the expectations, the motivations. But I was young and inexperienced and mostly unreflective as I tried my best to succeed at my job, whatever that meant.

There do indeed appear to be differences in the definition of career success depending on the culture, and interesting research that attempts to classify these meanings. Yan Shen, a researcher of careers across cultures, and 17 co-researchers (including a colleague of mine) investigated this subject in 11 different countries: the U.S., Austria, Spain, Serbia, China, Japan, Malaysia, South Africa, Costa Rica, Mexico and Israel. In each country they interviewed a range of types of workers, including men and women early in their careers and in their late careers, nurses, white-collar and blue-collar workers. On average, the interviews lasted 45 minutes and were tape-recorded.

Shen and her colleagues asked the workers how they envisioned success in their careers and how they managed their career development. The core question presented to each was, “Looking back at your career experiences, what would you describe as success?” Following the interviews, the researchers classified the themes that emerged into 11 main categories and for each country the top four categories were identified. Some of the meanings of career success emerged as “universalist,” referred to in worker interviews in all or most of the countries, and some others were “contextualist,” found only in a handful or just one of the countries. If two categories had an equivalent frequency in one country, they both were assigned the same ranking.

There were some predictable similarities and some surprising divergences. Workers in all the countries talked about “achievement” as one of their top four meanings of career success. It was ranked number one in the U.S. and six other countries, second in Serbia, third in Japan and Israel, and fourth in Spain. The next most common theme was “job task characteristics” — having work that was gratifying in terms of the responsibility, challenges, and other aspects it entailed. All nationalities interviewed discussed this as one of the top four categories except for Malaysia and South Africa. It ranked first in Japan and Israel, second in the U.S. and four other countries, and third in Austria and Mexico.

Interestingly, interviewees in eight countries brought up “satisfaction,” contentment with or enjoyment of the work, as an important meaning of career success, but not those in the U.S., Japan, or China. It ranked first in Austria and Costa Rica — tying it in rank with “achievement” — second in South Africa, Mexico and Israel, and fourth in Malaysia. The last category mentioned by respondents in more than half the countries was “learning and development,” raised by workers in seven countries, including Japan, which ranked it fourth, but it was not included in the top four meanings in the U.S.

The remaining seven classifications were noted by only three or fewer countries in their top four meanings. The U.S., Malaysia and South Africa referred to “making a difference,” and it received the second-highest positioning for all of them. “Work-life balance” was first in importance for Serbia and third for South Africa and Spain, but not alluded to in the top four for any of the other countries. “Survival and security” made the cut in China, Costa Rica, and Mexico, and “social working environment” in Serbia and Israel, but in no other countries.

The last three classifications proved very contextual. Only those in the U.S. and Japan discussed “recognition,” and U.S. workers exclusively talked about “job performance.” Finally, “self-actualization” was touched on solely by workers in South Africa.

Even among the four categories that were included in the top four level of more than half of the countries, there were meaningful differences within the meanings. For example, in “job/task characteristics,” the sub-dimension “opportunities for learning” was ranked first by Japan and second and third by Serbia and China respectively, but not mentioned by workers in other countries. Within the same category, just those in the U.S., Spain and Israel referred to “working for others” and only workers in the U.S. and Mexico spoke about “seeing results.”

Focusing only on differences between Japan and the U.S. the study reveals the following disparities. Workers in the U.S. but not Japan, talked about “autonomy/participation,” “working with others,” “seeing results,” “making a difference” and “job performance.” On the other hand, only the Japanese employees spoke of “opportunities for learning,” a sub-dimension of “job/task characteristics” as well as “formal learning” and “informal learning,” sub-dimensions of “learning and development.” At the same time, many meanings of career success were shared by the two countries: “financial achievement,” “promotion,” “gaining/extending influence,” “responsibility” and “challenge.”

Conversely, and equally intriguing, neither workers in Japan nor those in the U.S. talked about “job/career satisfaction” or “enjoyment and fun” mentioned by workers in eight other countries, or “owning a company/self-employment” and “identification with job or company,” although workers from at least five countries mentioned these, as well as “scope and variety of tasks,” “reasonable workload,” “happiness” or “life quality,” each raised by employees in three countries.

As an academic, “opportunities for learning” is clearly a major part of my meaning of career success, but do I feel that even more because of my more than 35 years in Japan, or did I even end up in this career as a result of my years here? The research of Shen and her colleagues is fascinating in what it reveals across countries, but also in each of our own career paths.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.