Beyond the duality between bounded and boundaryless careers: new avenues for careers research

Career Development International

ISSN: 1362-0436

Article publication date: 7 October 2014



Guest, D. and Rodrigues, R. (2014), "Beyond the duality between bounded and boundaryless careers: new avenues for careers research", Career Development International, Vol. 19 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Beyond the duality between bounded and boundaryless careers: new avenues for careers research

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Career Development International, Volume 19, Issue 6


Two decades have passed since the idea of the boundaryless career was introduced to the wider audience of careers researchers (Arthur, 1994). The concept has highlighted the limitations of researching careers within large bureaucratic organizations and proposed an alternative, inter-organizational, lens that is better equipped to capture the nature of contemporary careers (Arthur and Rousseau, 1996). The writings on the boundaryless career have broadened the research agenda by highlighting the role of factors such the importance of networks, embeddedness in occupational communities, changing career preferences, the interface between work and life and idiosyncratic views of success in shaping career development and identity at work.

While the balance of cumulative research is certainly positive, the ability of the boundaryless career to adequately capture the nature of contemporary careers has also been questioned. Critics have argued that the empirical support for the increase in inter-organizational career mobility, even among high skilled workers, is modest (Dries et al., 2012); that the concept emphasizes individual agency over the influence of the broad economic, social and cultural context in shaping career experiences (Forrier et al., 2009); that the boundaryless career ascribes primacy to the role of organizational boundaries, largely overlooking how careers are played out within and across other relevant career domains, such as the occupation, industry, geography and the divide between work and non-work (Gunz et al., 2000; Rodrigues and Guest, 2010); and that individuals still value and retain organizational careers (Clarke, 2013).

The debate about the changing nature of careers and whether these should be classified as organizationally bounded or boundaryless has been intensive. Though rich and necessary, it can be argued that this debate has reached a point where it may be limiting the progress of careers research. Part of the problem is that the organizational and the boundaryless career are metaphors seeking to capture specific characteristics of career patterns. Even though the use of metaphors is common in the social sciences and can be useful, they provide partial and limited accounts of reality (Inkson, 2006). In order to advance the field it is important to take a step back and evaluate the utility and validity of the concepts of organizational and boundaryless careers and explore how scholars can effectively build on but also move beyond this potentially limiting dichotomy. This special issue of Career Development International stems from a rich and intense discussion among participants of a conference about the future of boundaryless careers research organized in 2013 by the Center for Research on Employment, Skills and Society at Kingston University, London. The papers selected provide a range of important theoretical and empirical contributions to progress career theory and research beyond the duality between organizationally bounded and boundaryless careers.

The papers in this special issue

Michael Arthur, one of the key originators of the boundaryless career concept, opens this special issue with a paper entitled “The boundaryless career at 20: Where do we stand, and where can we go?”. Arthur invites the reader to embark on a journey of 20 years of (boundaryless) careers research. His paper discusses the duality between organizationally bounded and boundaryless careers by providing an in-depth framing of careers research that paves the way for a new synthesis in career theory. He starts by showing how the label “organizational careers” attached to the contribution of a key group of researchers at the MIT in the 1970s – Edgar Schein, Lotte Bailyn and John Van Maanen – somewhat overlooks the broader view these scholars had of careers as unique individual journeys across work experiences. He notes that these are not necessarily dependent of or associated with single employment settings. Arthur also recalls the origins of the boundaryless career concept in a symposium at the 1993 Academy of Management Meeting and reviews how the concept has evolved over the years. He argues that while the notion of the boundaryless career emerged as the antithesis of the organizational career, the concept is broad and strongly overlaps with the commonly accepted definition of a career as a sequence of work experiences over time. In this sense, the notion of the boundaryless career is much closer to the early contributions to career theory by the Chicago school or the work of the MIT group than is commonly acknowledged. The distinction between organizational and boundaryless careers has served as a useful point of departure to expand the careers field over the last 20 years. By presenting organizational careers research as “thesis” and boundaryless careers research as “antithesis”, Arthur calls for a new synthesis that contributes to a further understanding of careers as individual experiences in interaction with the broader social and economic environment. In the future, Arthur argues, we will probably no longer need many of the qualifiers we currently use in careers research, including the notions of boundaryless and organizational career. We will be simply discussing careers.

Although the duality between organizational and boundaryless careers is open to challenge, several contributions recognize that the boundaryless career concept has provided a valuable research stimulus that can built upon. For example, in their paper “Boundaries and beyond: a new look at the components of a boundaryless career orientation” Martin Gubler, John Arnold and Crispin Coombs contribute to the operationalization of the boundaryless career and provide an initial empirical exploration of the links between a boundaryless career orientation and a boundaryless career path. They observe how existing measures tend to focus on inter-organizational career mobility and argue that this does not capture the richness of the six meanings with which Arthur and Rousseau originally defined the concept. Using a sample of information technology professionals in Europe they develop a measure of boundaryless career orientation that captures five domains of the concept: organizational, occupational and geographic career mobility, preference for working beyond organizational boundaries and rejection of career opportunities for personal reasons. Cluster analysis has allowed them to differentiate three patterns of boundaryless career orientation. Their first cluster, labeled “work-life balancers”, is composed of individuals that are willing to cross organizational, occupational and geographical boundaries to find career opportunities that do not encroach on their personal lives. The careers of individuals in the second cluster – “stay puts” – were strongly bounded by preference to work in a geographical area. These people were also reluctant to change occupations or to move outside their current organizational boundary. People in the third cluster – “careerists” – were characterized by their willingness to relocate geographically and for giving priority to their career over their personal life. Finally, the paper explored links between boundaryless career orientation and patterns of past career mobility. They found, for instance, that preference for organizational mobility was positively associated with the number of organizational career transitions reported by participants, and negatively linked with organizational tenure. Despite this, and despite exploring the career orientations of IT professionals, who would normally be viewed as prime candidates to engage in boundaryless career behavior, a striking feature of the research is the relative lack of boundary crossing and more particularly organizational boundary crossing among this sample, raising further questions about the prevalence of boundaryless behavior in the contemporary population of managers and professionals. Overall, this paper shows that careers are enacted within and across a wide range of boundaries and provides a useful operationalization of the boundaryless career that goes beyond the focus on organizational career mobility.

In their paper “Coping with career boundaries and boundary-crossing in the graduate labor market” Belgin Okay-Somerville and Doria Scholarios address calls to give boundaries center stage in the study of contemporary careers. Their study focusses on young graduates, who increasingly tend to start their careers in jobs that do not require a university degree, to explore the nature of perceived career boundaries and their role in enabling or constraining the display of career self-management behaviors that facilitate access to high skilled and better remunerated jobs. Their study makes three contributions to (boundaryless) careers research. First, they corroborate the findings of others (see, for instance, King et al., 2005) and show that the labor market is bounded. Young graduates in their study perceived the existence of several boundaries shaping progression to graduate-level jobs such as competition in accessing companies’ graduate schemes, poor degree classification or limited opportunities for career development within their current organization. Second, their paper argues that the impact of perceived career boundaries on career self-management behaviors is influenced by the way individuals view their careers. Their findings show that psychological states such as career indecision and perception of underemployment have a negative impact on the display of the kind of career self-management behaviors that can potentially lead to occupational boundary crossing. Finally, their study shows that boundaries are dynamic and that their impact on careers needs to be observed longitudinally. For many of their interviewees, strong boundaries, which in the first instance prevent mobility to better jobs, facilitate occupational transitions in the future. One example is the case when individuals take lower level jobs in good organizations to develop skills and experience and act as a “stepping stone” that facilitate future career mobility in the future. Overall, this study makes an important contribution to understanding the role of boundaries and the interplay between agency and structure in shaping the direction of people’s careers.

Christian Yao, Kaye Thorn and Noeleen Doherty in their paper “Boundarylessness as a dynamic construct: The case of Chinese early career expatriates” contribute to a more nuanced view of boundaryless careers by exploring the dynamic nature of career boundaries among Chinese expatriates. In particular, their paper discusses how people’s views of career boundaries and boundary crossing behavior are influenced by contextual factors, such as culture and family obligations, as well as career and life stage. Their qualitative study of 31 Chinese expatriates shows that people’s perception of career boundaries changes over time. Factors such as organizational networks (guanxi), age and family commitments were viewed as facilitating access to international career opportunities at an early career stage. However, as people aged and experienced cultural pressures to get married, have children and take care of their elderly, they reconsidered their career options, and the desire to return to China to pursue a career within their organizations became more salient. In addition to providing a relevant reflection of careers in China and discussing the extent to which the notion of the boundaryless career is relevant beyond western countries, their paper also contributes to further understanding the nature of career boundaries and of the core factors that can influence preference for boundary permeability and boundary crossing.

In “Effects of employees’ career competencies development on their organizations: does satisfaction matter?” Chen Fleisher, Svetlana Khapova and Paul Jansen address calls to explore the implications of boundaryless careers for organizations. In a two-wave study in which a cohort of Dutch graduates were followed over an 18-month period they explore the extent to which the career competencies individuals develop throughout their careers (knowing-why, knowing-how and knowing-whom) have a positive impact on their employing organization. In addition, their study explores the role of career satisfaction as a mechanism facilitating the link between employee career competencies and contribution to organizational core competencies. Their findings show that individual career competencies are significantly associated with core organizational competencies. Knowing-why competencies have a positive impact on contributions to organizational culture; knowing-how competencies are linked with contributions to organizational capabilities; and knowing-whom competencies have a positive effect on contributions to organizational connections. In addition, their study shows that the link between career competencies and organizational outcomes is stronger among individuals who are more satisfied with their careers. The paper therefore makes three relevant contributions to careers research. First, it shows that career competencies considered important to succeed in a boundaryless career world can serve individuals and organizations alike. Second, it clarifies the mechanisms through which organizations can benefit the most from employees’ career competencies by providing evidence of the moderating role of career satisfaction, a construct which is usually used as an outcome variable. Finally, it challenges the organizational vs individual career duality and implied conflict by shedding additional light on the interdependency between individuals and their organizations and showing how individuals can have an impact on their organizations, and vice versa.

Françoise Dany wrote the final paper selected to integrate this special issue, entitled “Time to change: The added value of an integrative approach to careers”. In it she offers a critical perspective on the evolution of the careers field where partial perspectives about careers seek hegemony by imposing their views over previous dominant frameworks. One clear example is that of the boundaryless career which has now become the dominant way in which we think about careers despite claims that patterns of career mobility have not changed significantly over the last 20 years. This tendency in careers theory does not take into the fact that careers are shaped by the broad family, social and economic context nor does it contribute to its development as a mature field within the social sciences. Dany therefore draws attention to the need for, and outlines three core elements of, an integrative approach to careers that is equipped to reconcile and take advantage of diversity and divergence in the careers field. First, an integrative approach needs to build upon a minimum of convergence about the meaning of and the ways in which to research careers. Second, it needs to consider diversity in perspectives, contexts and approaches to career studies. Finally, it needs to be able to integrate divergence in career approaches and promote dialog between scholars of different traditions, rather than seek to engage in a battle for a single dominant view of careers. Overall, Dany’s integrative approach to careers seeks to provide common ground upon which to reconcile traditions of careers research which are currently segmented.

An agenda for (boundaryless) careers research

The papers selected for this special issue offer a broad range of theoretical and empirical contributions that build on but more importantly move beyond boundaryless career concepts to progress careers research. Despite the extensive critique of the boundaryless career, there seems to be consensus among all contributors that the concept and the research it stimulated over the last 20 years has made an important contribution to our understanding of contemporary careers. Perhaps more importantly, these papers inspire a rich research agenda that provides opportunities to progress the field, opportunities for further theory development and conceptual refinement, and opportunities for empirical inquiry.

Opportunities to progress the field

Michael Arthur argues that the distinction between organizationally bounded and boundaryless careers has proved useful as a point of departure to discuss contemporary careers. However, he also acknowledges that the scope of boundaryless career research was somewhat narrowly focused around the discussion of inter-organizational mobility. To advance the field Arthur talks about the need for a new synthesis in careers research that is interdisciplinary and absorbs the best of the internal debates amongt careers researchers. He encourages career scholars to go beyond the duality between “new” and “old” careers by acknowledging that the notions of the boundaryless and the organizational career, particularly as the latter is articulated in the seminal work of Schein, Baylin and Van Maanen, share an important understanding of careers as sequences of work-related experiences over time. These can unfold across (and within) a wide range of domains, of which organizations are but one example. In the same line of reasoning, Dany calls for bridges to be established between competing views of careers as a means of more fully understanding the different spaces in which careers unfold.

Both Arthur and Dany call for a new synthesis in careers theory. Their contributions are in line with calls for intra- and interdisciplinary conversations in careers research (see, for instance Khapova and Arthur, 2011) and set up some general and plausible criteria for how to accomplish this. However, while they outline the requirements they also leave open the substance or content of the theoretical and research agenda that is required. It is with their contribution in mind that we outline below a range of opportunities for theory development.

Opportunities for conceptual refinement and theory development

A core idea emerging from several papers in this special issue is that the progress of boundaryless careers research is limited by its current status as a metaphor. Metaphors are a useful tool to address the “what” question – and the debate has largely centered on the extent to which career patterns have actually changed over the last 20 or so years – but they are limited in their ability to address the more complex “why” question. The field can certainly benefit from additional conceptual refinement and theory development.

There are three topics emerging from the general debate on boundaryless careers and also from the papers selected to integrate this special issue. The first is the need for theoretical integration which, as discussed above, needs a more specific research agenda. Setting out the criteria for an integrative approach is an important first step. We need to move on to present theories and empirical research that develops the careers field without claiming hegemony for any specific approach in a way that implies rejection of others.

The second topic is the need for refinement of the boundaryless career concept. Gubler and colleagues refer explicitly to boundaryless career orientations and distinguish this from boundaryless career behavior. There are some obvious overlaps with the distinction highlighted by Sullivan and Arthur (2006) between psychological and physical boundarylessness. This highlights the need for conceptual refinement. Leaving aside physical boundaryless behavior, is a positive approach to a boundaryless career best viewed as an orientation, a mindset or an attitude? So far these terms have been used interchangeably in the literature and in the operationalization of the boundaryless career. However, while orientations are relatively stable and independent of the context in which careers unfold, attitudes are more flexible and can result from or change according to the context. This has implications, for instance, for the time of formation of boundaryless career orientations (or attitudes) and for organizations’ ability to manage individual differences in them.

The third opportunity for theory development, and one which can form part of an agenda for theoretical integration in the field, stems from calls to give primacy to the study of boundaries (Gunz et al., 2007). There is not a unified theory of boundaries that can be directly applied to the study of careers. There are however discussions about the characteristics and the impact of boundaries on individual and group behavior, for example in research on social identity and in the literature on the work-home interface. These broadly draw on contributions from boundary theory (Hernes, 2004). Boundary theory seeks to explain how social domains (e.g. an occupation or a social group) are created and shaped and how they operate as devices of social categorization and sense making (Ashforth et al., 2000; Desrochers and Sargent, 2004). Boundary theory can therefore offer a basis upon which to build a more integrated theory explaining how individuals perceive a range of career-related boundaries and domains (e.g. organization, occupation, geography) and how these interact to shape career attitudes and behaviors.

We are still somewhat distant from a theory of career boundaries. In order to pursue this objective (at least) three core issues need to be addressed. First, we need to clarify the notion of career boundary and, in particular, to separate it from concepts such as barrier or border. Second, we need to discuss the types and the properties of career boundaries. The literature has described several psychological (e.g. preference for a particular type of work), social (e.g. the occupation) and even physical boundaries (e.g. work space) that shape careers. In this special issue, the papers by Okay-Somerville and Scholarios and Yao, Thorn and Doherty draw attention to a range of boundaries and barriers that constrain or facilitate career mobility, such as culture and geography. Additional research is needed to map out the boundaries that are likely to be cited as relevant career shapers. In addition, it is important to understand the properties of boundaries and how the way people construe boundaries influences attitudes and behaviors. The paper by Yao and colleagues provides an interesting contribution to showing that boundaries are dynamic and can become weaker or stronger over time in the face of changing individual preferences and social pressures. Other properties, such as boundary strength and boundary permeability have also been discussed in the literature (see, for instance, the work of Kreiner et al., 2006, 2009 and Nippert-Eng, 1996). Finally, a theory of career boundaries needs to explain the antecedents and outcomes of preference (or perception) of boundary characteristics. In this respect the paper by Gubler and colleagues not only contributes to the operationalization of preference for mobility across a range of boundaries but also provides initial insights as to how that is associated with career attitudes and behavior, confirming how a boundaryless career orientation may, but need not be associated with boundary-crossing behavior. Given the focus of this special issue, we have chosen to illustrate potential theoretical developments using boundary theory. However there are other perspectives, largely from outside the traditional field of careers enquiry that could potentially be utilized such as control theory and exchange theory as well as a reintegration of the more familiar development theories.

Opportunities for empirical inquiry

The notion of the boundaryless career, as Arthur argues, is likely to have a major role to play in careers research for years to come. Despite the evidence and counter-evidence that careers are becoming increasingly independent from single employment settings, attachment between employees and organizations will always be a topic of interest to researchers and managers alike. Recent contributions to the operationalization of the boundaryless career, namely by Briscoe et al. (2006), have broadened the scope of empirical research. There seem to be (at least) four main opportunities for additional empirical inquiry. First, there is certainly still work to be done in operationalizing the boundaryless career. In doing so, it will be essential to go beyond the focus on organizational boundaries. The work by Gubler and colleagues, in this issue, is a promising initial step in this direction.

Second, it is important to continue researching the correlates of boundaryless career attitudes. Some studies have explored key antecedents of physical and psychological boundarylessness. For instance, Segers et al. (2008) have explored the role of gender, age, education, and managerial experience on work motives associated with physical and psychological career mobility. Chan et al. (2012) have also shown that individuals whose careers are driven by entrepreneurial and leadership motivations report high boundaryless career attitudes, while those primarily motivated to pursue professional careers hold more traditional career attitudes. There is still scope to further explore the role of differences in background and upbringing as well as a range of individual differences in shaping career attitudes. For example, little is known about the how personality and career values and orientations shape preference for strong or weak specific boundaries.

Recent research has also explored a range of individual-level outcomes of boundaryless career attitudes such as job seeking behavior and coping with uncertainty (Briscoe et al., 2012; Vansteenkiste et al., 2013). An area that will certainly be of growing interest in the future are the organizational outcomes of employees’ career attitudes. In this edition, the paper by Fleisher, Khapova and Jensen indicates that organizations stand to gain from individuals’ career capital. Lazarova and Taylor (2009), however, argue that there is a dark side to career boundarylessness that has been less explored. Two studies have shown that boundaryless career attitudes are negatively associated with organizational commitment (Briscoe and Finkelstein, 2009; Çakmak-Otluolu, 2012). This line of inquiry needs to be extended, focusing particularly on performance-related outcomes. In addition, research needs to explore key mediators and moderators in the link between boundaryless career attitudes and outcomes of interest to organizations, including the role of career development and high commitment human resource management practices.

Third, boundaryless careers debate and research is somewhat elitist in its focus on managerial and to some extent professional careers and ignores the careers of many other types of worker. The paper by Okay-Sommerville and Scholarios illustrates the distinctive labor market constraints faced by individuals shut out of traditional managerial or professional career routes. There is certainly also scope to explore the extent to which the notion of the boundaryless career applies to low skilled workers for whom crossing organizational, occupational or employment contract boundaries may be associated with much lower benefits and costs when compared with high skilled managers and professionals. In addition, much of the research on career change tends to assume individual agency. In the contexts of the kind of technological and economic turbulence that has helped to provoke debates about the future of the career, more focus might usefully be directed to those who face enforced boundary crossing, perhaps because their skills have become obsolete or their organization has failed. Under such conditions, perceptions of boundaries and also of a career may be very different.

Finally, research on boundaryless careers may be in danger of becoming gendered by focusing too much on predominantly male careers. It is important to further explore gender differences in boundaryless career attitudes and, in particular, of motivations for and outcomes of boundary crossing behavior.

Overall, boundaryless career theory and research has helped to progress our understanding of contemporary careers over the last 20 years beyond the focus on careers unfolding within single employment settings. At the same time, the duality between new and old careers has highlighted weaknesses within the field that have been debated for long, namely the lack of integration and theoretical underpinning for careers research. The papers selected for this special issue celebrate the richness of the on-going debate and pave the way for future research. In a nutshell, they remind us that if we are to go beyond the limitations of the duality between “old” and “new” or between organizational and boundaryless careers, the field itself needs to become more open to external ideas, more diverse and probably more boundaryless.

Dr Ricardo Rodrigues, Department of Management, Kingston Business School, Kingston University, Kingston-Upon-Thames, Surrey, UK

Professor David Guest, Department of Management, King's College, London, London, UK


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