Protean and Boundaryless careers

Two trends have changed the world of work in many ways. The first is the shift towards a knowledge based economy that many countries are seeing and the second is global connectivity, interdependence and integration. The new career context that is emerging as a result of these trends has given rise to the terms – Protean and Boundaryless careers.

Protean careers

Companies are operating in a more complex (knowledge-based/global) environment, which is constantly changing. They need to be flexible and nimble in order to stay in business and hence many companies have given-up the idea of keeping employees for a lifetime. By doing, so they have transferred the responsibility and risk of managing careers to the individual. So in order to survive this change, individuals need to become more self-reliant in managing their careers. This means knowing what they want from their careers, developing the skills/knowledge/network that is necessary to achieve their goals and being able to ‘change with change’.

Hence the term Protean career, the origin of of which comes from Proteus, a Greek sea-god who could change in form as the situation demanded. A more formal definition is provided below:

“The protean career is driven by the person, not the organization, based on individually defined goals, encompassing the whole life space, and being driven by psychological success (rather than) objective measures of success such as pay, rank or power. It is a career in which the person is (1) values driven in the sense that the individual’s personal values provide the guidance and measure of success for the individual’s career, and (2) self-directed in personal career management—having the ability to be adaptive in performance and learning demands.”

Boundaryless careers

Another result of these changes is the move towards more ‘boundaryless’ careers, which involve a sequence of job opportunities that go beyond single employment settings. It involves the breaking down of traditional boundaries (for example job boundaries of specialist functions and skills), organisational careers which progress independently of well trodden career paths and the social boundaries separating work and family roles.




Employment relationship

Job security for loyalty

Employability for performance and flexibility


One or two firms

Multiple firms




Success measured by

Pay, promotion, status

Psychologically meaningful work

Responsibility for career management




Formal programmes

On the job




The concepts of protean and boundaryless careers are still developing and there are many factors such (for example social/cultural beliefs and economic status) which impact their adoptability/implementation. Nevertheless, they are important concepts/developments and have implications that should be considered.

Implications for organisations: If you want to retain the best people make sure you provide them with the resources/opportunities necessary for managing their career, either within or outside your firm. Why outside your firm? Because they will not stick on, if you are not providing them with development opportunities that enhance their marketability.

Implications for individuals: While the current recession will be a dampener for a bit, never has there been a time when you could pursue what you really want, to such an extent. Take advantage of this and in case you are not doing so already, start taking charge of your own career.

Source: Sandbox Advisors, University of London, Journal of Vocational Behaviour


2 Replies to “Protean and Boundaryless careers”

  1. Would be interesting to see if people across the world start adopting such careers. Although the concept seems different from slash careers, just the mix of work options which a person can pursue over a period of time will enable him/her to have a much more fulfilling and varied work/life as a whole.

    1. Hi BMP.

      More and more people (and clients) I come across, are looking to take charge of and lead such careers. However, I would say that in Asia it is still in the early stages – but catching on fast (especially for the well educated, mid/high income group).

      The thinking behind slash careers (i.e. for example – careers where a person is a banker/writer/xyz) is similar to these concepts, in terms of variety, focus on continous learning and crossing of boundaries.


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