Over the past two decades there has been a growing interest in the concept of the new career, particularly the boundaryless career. This essay seeks to critically assess the usefulness of this contemporary concept by drawing on recent research and theory.
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Traditionally, careers have been conceptualised in terms of an employee’s relationship with their employing organisation (Sullivan & Baruch, 2009). Careers were seen as linear and occurring within stable hierarchical organisational structures (Levinson, 1978). Employees were loyal towards their organisation and maintained a high degree of job security (Sullivan & Baruch, 2009). This resulted in employees developing what used to be called an ‘organisational career’, were job mobility was very low (Arthur, 2008).
Due to environmental changes, such as, globalisation, career contexts and work environments have changed (Sullivan & Baruch, 2009). Workforce diversity has increased due to technological advancements and the use of outsourcing, part time and temporary employees. (Sullivan & Baruch, 2009). In conjunction with environmental changes individuals are also altering their career attitudes and behaviours. This comes as a response to the increase in lifespans (and thus working lives), changes in family structures ( such as dual-career couples)and the growing number of individuals seeking to fulfil needs for personal learning, development and growth (Hall, 2004).
Time spent away from work force (such as in the case of maternity leave) is now being used by individuals to increase their education or gain valuable skills in order to build their resume and ease their re-entry into the workforce (Belkin, 2008). Individuals have become increasingly driven by their own desires and are taking more responsibility for their own career development and employability, rather than depending on organisational career management (Hall, 2004).
Individuals are traveling career paths that are discontinuous and go beyond the boundaries of a single firm. This is mostly due to the downsizing of organisations in order to become more flexible in response to environmental factors, such as rapid technological advancements and increased global competition. Many employees who were once secure in their jobs have found themselves unsecure situations. (Arthur & Rousseau, 1996).
Thus when taking the current changes into consideration it is plausible to say that career forms have moved from:
“the bounded, or organizational career … people in orderly employment arrangements achieved through vertical co-ordination in mainly large, stable firmsâ€¦ the dominant employment form through the mid-1980s” (Arthur & Rousseau,1996: 3-4).
“The boundaryless career â€¦ the opposite of an organizational career â€¦ where a career moves across the boundaries of separate employers” (Arthur & Rousseau, 1996: 4)
The notion of career is highly influenced by contextual factors such as culture, socioeconomic factors and personal factors. Thus a career can be defined as being a mixture of work related and not work related factors (Sullivan & Baruch, 2009). The boundaryless career concept allows for the recognition of both physical movements (movements between job levels and employers) and the interpretations of the individual (i.e. an individual’s perceptions). (Sullivan & Baruch, 2009). Past career studies have failed to account for the relationship between career, individuals, organisations and other social institutions. The concept of boundaryless career aids in developing new agendas that offer renewal in career studies (Inkson et al., 2010).
Definition of boundaryless career
In order to examine the usefulness of boundaryless careers it is first essential to have a definition of the concept. The following section provides a general definition of boundaryless careers which can be linked to its usefulness.
The term boundaryless career was developed to provide a new perspective on old traditional career theories (Arthur, 2008). Boundaryless careers are seen as the interlinking boundaries of organisations and occupations, with other parts of people’s lives. It is an entity that is under a person’s control thus an individual is seen to have career agency (Arnold, 2011). The boundaryless career is portrayed as an entity, something out there waiting to be discovered. (Arnold, 2011).
Boundaryless careers involve career opportunities that go beyond the boundary of a single employer (Arnold, 2011). Arthur & Rousseau provide six different meanings: they involve movement across the boundaries of several employers, draw validation and marketability from outside one’s present employer, are sustained by external networks and information, break traditional organisational assumptions about hierarchy and career advancement, involve rejecting existing career opportunities for personal or family reasons and are based on the interpretations of the career actor who may perceive a boundaryless future regardless of structural constraints (Arthur & Rousseau,1996; 6) these diverse career forms have one over reaching characteristic in common they all represent ‘ the opposite of organisational careers- careers conceived to unfold in a single employment setting ‘(Arthur & Rousseau ,1996; 5).
Due to certain limitations in the ability to empirically measure and operationalize boundaryless careers a reconceptualised boundaryless career was developed by Sullivan and Arthur (2006) in order to define various levels of physical and psychological career mobility between successive employment situations. This re conceptualisation implies that the concept is viewed and measured by the degree of boundarylessness displayed by the individual.
Some of the trademarks of a boundaryless career include: transferrable skills, knowledge and abilities across multiple firms, personal identification with meaningful work, on the job learning and the development of multiple networks and peer learning relationships and individual responsibility for career management. (Bird, 1996). The following section proceeds to discuss the usefulness of boundary career at a practical and theoretical level.
Usefulness of the boundaryless career
Due to the unpredictability of modern day working environment context, maintaining a boundaryless career is very useful in Western countries. As explained above, this new concept developed as an outcome of wider economic and organisational changes (Littler et al., 2003). Supporters of this concept argue that if organisations are becoming increasingly flexible and fluid careers should also become more flexible and fluid (Inkson, et al., 2010). Having a bundaryless career maintains that an individual should be the agent of their own career, thus an organisation is less responsible for its employees’ career outcomes (Inkson, et al., 2010). Some researchers (e.g. Arnold, 2011) go as far as to proclaim that in order to survive and be successful in modern day work environments it is necessary to have a bundaryless mind-set.
Boundaryless careers imply that careers are the personal property of individuals (Inkson & Arthur, 2001). Individuals develop their own personal definition of success and use this definition to guide them in their career choices. They choose projects that allow them to accumulate various skills develop widespread professional networks and maintain high visibility. This allows an individual to be more satisfied in the work they do and thus over all more productive (Lazarova & Taylor, 2009). By accumulating a repertoire of diverse knowledge individuals are also more capable of moving on to various jobs within the organisation or with other organisations.
Individuals vary in the attitude they maintain towards initiating and pursuing work-related relationships across organisations (Briscoe, et al., 2006). Thus it is plausible to say that not everyone maintains the same degree of boundarylessness. An individual with a relatively high boundaryless attitude working across organisational boundaries is comfortable with creating and sustaining active relationships beyond organisational boundaries. This can have a beneficial effect on increasing the individuals’ knowledge and social capital (Briscoe, et al., 2006).
Social capital is a very important aspect of modern career theory. For instance social contacts are frequently used to obtain information about potential job openings. If an individual has a widespread and relatively large social capital they are more likely to be successful in job seeking and career attainment. Maintaining a boundaryless mind-set is beneficial in the development of personal networks, in turn these networks facilitate boundaryless career, thus networks become more extensive (Lazarova & Taylor, 2009).
There is evidence that people who display boundaryless career behaviour report significantly higher levels of career success (Eby, et al., 2003). Boundaryless careers are based not only on success within an organisation but also on success within other contexts, such as, occupational or cultural contexts (Arthur, et al., 2005). Career success may also be judged by peer groups internal or external to the individual’s present organisation. They may also be or may be distinctive to the individual not only in terms of personal preferences but also in terms of accommodating work and family or other issues of life- work balance (Arthur, et al., 2005).
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Briscoe et al’s (2006) research suggests that boundary career involves attitudes and not personality traits. They suggest that the boundaryless mentality can be thought and effectively developed in individuals whose career is suffering due to the lack of this boundarylessness. The boundaryless career is also an ideal concept for examining the strengths and weaknesses of various career orientations (Briscoe & Hall, 2006). The boundaryless career emphasises the endless possibilities the career presents and how recognition of such opportunities leads to success (Briscoe & Hall, 2006). Due to the prevalence of the boundaryless career, many scholars have begun to reconceptualise some well-established career topics, namely retirement, learning and development, work/non work conflict, career renewal and expatriate assignments.
It is interesting to note that whilst most research on boundaryless careers have focused on individuals (Lazarova & Taylor, 2009). The boundaryless mentality may also be of use at an organisational level (Lazarova & Taylor, 2009). In large multinational organisations, different sectors of the organisation might all be located indifferent countries (Thomas & Inkson, 2007). Smaller, more conventional organisations have begun to form strategic alliances with other firms (Thomas & Inkson, 2007). These changes mean that decisions made in one part of the organisation may affect the functioning of another part of the organisation in another country (Thomas & Inkson, 2007).
One of the most useful implications of boundaryless careers it individuals are responsible for their own career development (Eby, et al., 2003). Individuals with this mind set plan what skills, training and experience they should attain and when, where, and how to gain them. Whilst a boundaryless career gives workers more flexibility and freedom to develop a career and career plan, it may also lead to problems of self-definition and normlessness (Lazarova & Taylor, 2009). In ‘organisational careers’ (traditional careers), workers’ goals were set by their boss or organisation. Now, the workers must decide on their goals (Sullivan & Baruch, 2009).
When compared to traditional careers, the boundaryless career lacks elements of job security, steady increase in the level of income, upward mobility, and status derived from one’s position or from an employer (Arnold, 2011). This may lead to a decrease in traditional ideas of career success. Individuals with a boundaryless mentality are forced to devise their own criteria to measure their occupational success.
The boundaryless career concept also doesn’t account for the permeability of boundaries. Not all individuals are able to pass between boundaries at the same rate (Sullivan & Arthur, 2006). Minority groups may find difficulty passing between boundaries and thus a boundaryless mentality may have negative effects on the individual as they feel less successful when compared to other individuals (Sullivan & Baruch, 2009). Other potential obstacles to a boundaryless career may include learning how to work in new teams (Sullivan & Baruch, 2009). Some individuals may adapt slower than others. Thus scholars should be cautious and not overestimate the extent to which individuals are boundaryless (Sullivan & Baruch, 2009). Due to many factors some individuals are still engaging in more traditional career paths
Limitations of the boundaryless career
Whilst most research points towards the boundaryless career being a useful concept both in a theoretical and in a practical sense, it is not without its critics. Its criticisms include the need for further clarification and conceptualisation of the term (Inkson, 2006). Secondly, many questions have arisen about how to measure the concept (Briscoe, et al., 2006).
Most research on career mobility has focused on physical mobility rather than psychological mobility (Briscoe, et al., 2006). This is many due to physical movement being easier to measure than psychological changes. It is also due to the fact that until recently there was no measure of psychological mobility available (Briscoe, et al., 2006). Sullivan and Arthur (2006) attempted to clarify the concept. They suggested that a boundaryless career be defined as varying levels of physical and psychological career mobility between successive employment situations. Thus the concept should be viewed and measured by the degree of boundarylessness displayed by an individual along both physical and psychological dimensions.
Current research (Briscoe, et al., 2006) has also shown that mobility does not necessarily relate to the boundaryless mind-set. Thus being boundaryless in terms of career attitude does not strictly imply job mobility. Some individuals may have strong boundaryless attitudes although they do not have any desire or inclination towards physical mobility (Briscoe & Hall, 2006). Thus boundaryless career theory may not be fully comprehensive in explaining contemporary career theory.
Individuals with a boundaryless mind-set may also have negative or unwanted influences on organisations. The lack of control over the employees’ career may lead to greater turnover due to lack of employee loyalty and increased resistance to organisational change (Inkson, et al., 2010).
Whilst literature increasingly speaks of the prevalence of boundaryless careers there isn’t much empirical support for this. Thus research cannot concretely prove that boundaryless careers are indeed useful (Inkson, et al., 2010). This lack of evidence has caused some scholars to label boundary careers as a fad (Inkson, et al., 2010). Scholars are quite divided on this point as some say that the prevalence of boundaryless careers over the past two decades show that it has a sense of longevity and thus cannot be a fad (Rodrigues & Guest, 2010).
One of the main limitations of this concept is its cultural-specificity (Pringle & Mallon, 2003). The concept of boundaryless careers is a highly westernised and individualistic concept that assumes an individual’s ability of proactive behaviour (Thomas & Inkson, 2007). This concept is difficult to implement in Non-Westernised countries that have different cultural contexts.
Boundaryless career theory is based on the notion that society progresses from a structured state to a relatively flexible state in which boundaries have become more permeable. Boundaryless career theory makes good sense in the world in which it was developed i.e. the Western world, but research shows that it doesn’t translate well in countries outside the West (Thomas & Inkson, 2007).
In collectively- oriented cultures, where people instead of choosing careers, are assigned jobs or gain them through family connections the concept of boundary less careers is almost unheard of. (Thomas & Inkson, 2007). Boundaryless career is based on culture thus it has a high culture bias which may limit its ability to be applied to other cultures (Thomas & Inkson, 2007).
The blurring of organisational and occupational boundaries has caused the development of a new work context (Sullivan & Baruch, 2009). Rapid globalisation and the growth of technological developments have also contributed to the movement away from traditional careers. Scholars have noticed that long-held traditional theories of linear careers no longer can be used to adequately explain the realities of modern day careers. Thus a new, more dynamic concept arose. This concept reflects change from individuals relying on organizations for career development to individuals assuming responsibility for their own career management and employability. Due to decreased job security, individual competencies, resiliency, and adaptability have become more important than organizational commitment (Sullivan & Baruch, 2009).
Yet, is it possible to have a career without boundaries? As Sullivan noted that the term boudaryless career is really a misnomer. An organisation needs to define itself and separate itself from the environment (1999; 477). Thus it is important to develop the term of boundaryless careers further. A boundaryless career should be seen as a contemporary career, which is responsive to ‘shifting boundaries in occupational, organisational, national and global work arrangements’ (Arthur, 2008: 168).
It is important to consider the boundaryless career concept as an appropriate model of thinking and method of conduct for certain individuals, certain organizations, and certain industries. It is wrong to assume that the concept is universal and may be functionally applied to anyone and in any situation. What stands out about this concept is that it has moved career studies away from being focused on intra- organizational career phenomena (traditional careers), and from the characterization of employees as being owned by the organisation they work for (Inkson, 2009).
Overall, it can be said that the boundaryless career theory is a useful theory. It is a multifaceted phenomenon that encompasses and transcends various boundaries and levels of analysis- physical and psychological, objective and subjective ((Briscoe & Hall, 2006).The timeliness of this theory describes the current economic and employment relationships that are defined in many cases by less loyalty greater mobility and less certainty. Thus as long as the current culture context remains as it is the boundaryless career theory is useful.