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New careers: Protean and Boundaryless careers


The “career” concept captures the relationship between workers and their jobs, connecting people with organisations or any other social institution which influences them over time. We could thus understand individuals, organisations and careers as components of an endless circle which affect one another as they affect one another in their interactions.


                Careers can take almost any shape that individuals and organisations can give them. For today’s argument let’s focus on two specific types of them: Protean and Boundaryless careers. These two terms have become increasingly popular in the last century, most probably due to the fact that they respond to the evolving pattern that jobs are adopting in contemporary times: more mobile and flexible. This, most likely, takes place as a response to globalisation which produces countries to become more interconnected with each other and hence, producing jobs and careers to resign to old patters and adopt new forms of working.


According to Briscoe, Hall and DeMuth (2006), protean careers and boundaryless careers may appear to be similar and sometimes overlapping concepts, but they prefer to treat them as distinct. These authors support their research on protean careers in Hall’s 1976, 1996 and 2000 investigations which suggest that protean careers are characterised by “individual career management” (p.31) and that people with this type of careers achieve career success by using vocational behaviours rooted in their own beliefs (Briscoe et al., 2006). On the other hand, boundaryless careers are those exemplified by individuals that move from one organisation to another, and as a result, they break traditional organisational models (Sullivan and Arthur, 2006). Hence, a very distinct characteristic of boundaryless careers would be the inclination of the workers to jump inter/intra-firm boundaries (Briscoe, et al., 2006).




Now, to deepen our understanding of these new careers, let´s analyse the boundaryless career concept; a concept that became popular in the 1990’s but that has been criticised by its fuzziness and difficulty to operationalise (Rodrigues and Guest, 2010).


Arthur and Rousseau (1998 as cited in Sullivan and Arthur, 2006) published a book called “The Boundaryless Career” where they explained six different meanings of boundaryless careers. What joins all of those definitions is the independence from the traditional organisation career views (Sullivan and Arthur, 2006) (E.g: being loyal to your company or working in the same company for your entire career). Moreover, these authors also point out a distinguishing characteristic of boundaryless careers, which is the ability to move across boundaries (Sullivan and Arthur, 2006). This movement could be, for example, across cultural boundaries or organisational boundaries (Gunz, Evans & Jalland, 2000 as cited in Sullivan and Arthur, 2006). But, this type of movements clearly holds psychological and physical connotations, thus we can’t refer to boundaryless careers as just being the physical jumping across boundaries. We could then regard boundaryless careers as the physical and psychological ability to cross any type of organisational boundary.


To completely understand what the boundaryless careers are, let´s use an example: A stereotypical Silicon Valley worker (Arthur, 1994). Here, such worker, can move from employer to employer or maybe even between different departments of his organisation. The worker moves around, jumping and crossing boundaries to achieve a better status.


On the other hand, protean career attitudes refer to how someone manages his career in a proactive, self-directed and value driven way (De Voss and Soens, 2008).  It is then assumed, as it happens with boundaryless careers, that it is linked with career success as it assumes that people behave in a protean way to achieve what they believe that career success is (De Voss and Soens, 2008). Thus, De Voss and Soens (2008), argue that protean careers are influenced by career insight, career self-management and ultimately success.


People that hold protean career attitudes will tend to have a more active role in managing their career paths and are more prone to follow their own value to achieve their perceived and desired career success (De Voss and Soens, 2008). Thus this type of workers are more likely to experience greater responsibility from their career choices (De Voss and Soens, 2008), as they are the ones in charge. Let continue with the Silicon Valley worker: this worker now might change jobs using a more protean career approach if he decides to change because he doesn’t share the same values with the company, therefore he changes job searching for an opportunity that might fulfil him better.


                As a whole, boundaryless career attitudes are portrayed by workers who like to change from one position to another while Protean attitudes reflect a more self and value driven career where job movements are justified by a deep internal motivation. Hence, we can’t forget that all of our conducts are rooted in our motivation, and what motivates us to have a more boundaryless or protean attitudes will most probably be distinct. Many times, when you ask someone why did he change jobs, he will answer you that the new job gives him a better opportunity, ultimately achieving what he believes is career success. However, it is not the same to, for example, change from one company to another to do exactly the same just because the new employer offers better conditions (a more Boundaryless attitude) than changing from one company to another to be part of a new project in which the person can learn new things (a more Protean attitude); none of these two scenarios being better than the other. Thus, I invite you all to reflect on what motivates you when searching for a new job and most importantly, what is career success for you, as self-awareness will make you more in control of your self, and in this case, of your career.






-Arthur, M.N. (1994). The boundaryless career: a new perspective for organizational inquiry. Journal of organizational behaviour, 15,  295-306.


-Briscoe, J.P., & Hall., D.T. (2006). The interplay of boundaryless and protean careers: Combinations and implications. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 69, 4-18.


- Briscoe, J.P., Hall, D.T., &  Frautschy DeMuth, R.L. (2006). Protean and boundaryless careers: An empirical exploration. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 69, 30-47.


-De Vos, A., & Soens, N. (2008). Protean attitudes and career success: The mediating role of self-management.  Journal of Vocational Behavior, 73, 449-456.


-Rodrigues, R.A., & Guest, D. (2010). Have careers become boundaryless?  Human relations, 63(8),1157-1175.


- Sullivan, S.E., & Arthur, M.B. (2006). The evolution of the boundaryless career concept: Examining physical and psychological mobility. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 69, 19-29.




María Raga Hervás, Consultant AIBE Partners




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