The latter decades of the 20th century were marred by large scale restructuring of global economies and a wide spread recessionary climate, which in turn led to rapid organizational downsizing and delayering, as well as an increased focus on efficiency and cost-cutting.
As a result, the 21st century workforce is faced with a requisite shift in the conceptualization of 'career'. Traditionally, one's career was typified by a long-term linear progression along an occupational hierarchy, and predominantly motivated by vertical advancement and extrinsic reward. This traditional view of career however is becoming obsolete in the current global economic climate, and a shift to the contemporary protean career increasingly relevant.
This essay will evaluate the strengths and limitations of the main elements that comprise the protean career model (Hall, 1996). The large increase in the number and proportion of women in the workforce, the high employability of internationally experienced individuals and rapid technological advancement are discussed as factors that align the protean career model with 21st century career objectives and make it increasingly relevant for the modern workforce.
We derive the term 'protean' from the Greek god Proteus who was capable of changing his shape at will, hence the overarching aim of the protean career pertains to behaviours such as adaptability and flexibility (Inkson, 2006). Two main elements that embody the protean career will be examined henceforth - value-driven attitudes and self-directed career management (Hall, 1996).
Value-driven attitudes refer to the extent to which an individual is inclined to utilize their own personal intrinsic values as a source of direction in both life and career, and the extent to which these internal values serve as the benchmark against which one may evaluate their particular career goals. In essence, for an individual who is value-driven the organization is simply a vessel through which they are afforded the opportunity to align their career-objectives with their personal intrinsic values.
Self-directed career management refers to the extent to which an individual accepts personal responsibility and accountability for determining how their own career will progress, rather than allowing an employer to determine their career outcomes. Individuals who are self-directed are proactive in their career-management, in that they are solely responsible for ensuring they develop competencies and knowledge that will ensure they maintain employability, as well as internal and external marketability. They must, therefore, be highly adaptive in terms of performance and learning demands. (Briscoe and Hall, 2006)
Essentially, the protean career is one of constant metamorphosis and transformation, and implies 'liberation from the constraints' (Inkson, 2006) of the traditional corporate ladder climb. The individual must strive to achieve their internal perceptions of career success through self-directed career management. (Briscoe 2006)
The traditional construct of 'career' typifies a primarily male archetype of employment in which employees sought vertical climb up the corporate ladder, took an entirely passive role in their career-management and relied solely on the organization to provide career direction and advancement (Shelley et al., 2001). This construct however, is becoming increasingly obsolete in the modern business environment. The protean career emerged as a response to the increasingly chaotic and prevailing global business environment, and is apposite for the 21st century workforce for a number of reasons.
Reitman (2008) espouses that the 21st century workforce is characterized by an increasing proportion of women in the workforce, diminishing job security, and increasing focus on psychological aspects of success. These factors, accompanied by those such as rapid advancement of sophisticated technology, increasing skills shortages, and changing psychological contracts between employees and organizations are reflected in much of the literature concerning the protean career, and demonstrate the necessity to reassess traditional career trajectories.
Hall (1998) and Rousseau (1996) define a change in conventional psychological contracts as one of the driving forces behind the shift from traditional to protean career orientations. The long-term relational and paternalistic psychological contract that once dominated the archetypal work relationships of the mid 20th century were built on a foundation where hard work and loyalty were rewarded with job security and vertical advancement. In the 21st century however, this contract is transforming into short-term, transactional performance based contracts in which employee-employer loyalty is fading (Hall and Moss, 1998).
Furthermore, as the once paramount goal of job security erodes, employees' focus is shifting to maintaining employability. To that end, individuals are developing new internal measures of success, replacing the pursuit of vertical advancement with a focus on the 'whole-self' (Hall, 1996), achieving a sense of accomplishment, engaging in meaningful work and maintaining a sense of individual freedom.
Seemingly the protean career is highly suitable for the 21st century workforce, as it is aligned with, and reflective of many of the shifts that have occurred in work conditions and vocational attitudes in the last few decades. There is however a number of limitations to this career orientation. The assumption that as job security and occupational hierarchy disintegrates, employees will automatically reinvent themselves accordingly in order to maintain employability is not justified. In reality, the majority of individuals lack the external support and ability to make such drastic changes in their career orientation.
Further to this, many individuals will not encompass the value-driven attitudes and self-directedness that underline the protean career model. Some may approach their career management with self-directedness, but will make use of external values from the organization for guidance (Briscoe et al., 2006). On the other hand, some individuals may be driven by their internal values and measures of success, but do not posses a self-directed orientation, and as a result they will remain reliant on the organization to determine how and when their career will progress (Segers et al., 2008). Additionally, many individuals are heavily dependent on a steady and reliable source of income due to significant financial or personal commitments such as mortgages and family, and therefore may be especially reluctant to stray from the familiarity of a traditional organizational career without the promise of job security or monetary reward.
In spite of these limitations, the protean career is certainly more appropriate than the traditional model for the 21st century workforce because it is geared towards shifting the focus from individuals' dependence on the organization for job security, to the individuals' responsibility to ensure they maintain employability. The protean career creates a free-agency relationship between employee and organization where self-directed, continuous, lifelong learning and self-development are emphasized (Guichard et al., 2009)
A factor that permeates through the modern workforce and renders the protean career model significant for a number of reasons is the increasing proportion of women in the global workforce.
Firstly, women tend to exhibit more non-traditional career trajectories due to the entrenched barriers that have historically inhibited their career development and advancement such as; a male-dominated organizational and national culture, decreased geographic mobility due to personal or family demands and fewer opportunities for formal training than their male counterparts (McDonald, 2005).
Cabrera (2009) suggests that women may be more inclined to adapt to a protean career path in order to create their desired work-life balance. The increase of dual-career couples in the workforce for example necessitates a constant negotiation of work and household responsibilities between partners, and requires an approach much more versatile and flexible than that of the traditional career model.
Outdated structures and policies within some organizations are simply incongruent with the needs of working mothers who must balance taking care of their families with the demands of their employers. Inflexible work schedules induce many women to adapt to a protean career orientation in order to create careers that enable them to self-manage the competing demands of work and family (Eby et al., 2003). Rather than pursuing vertical advancement, women may choose to seek lateral job movements within and across organizational borders in order to expand their competencies and knowledge, and are increasingly embracing flexibility. In doing so they progressively build their own career paths, and increase their overall employability (Eby et al., 2003). Women increasingly seek to self-create their own opportunities guided by and in alignment with their personal intrinsic values. (Guichard et al., 2009)
In theory this is an empowering prospect for women, in that now perhaps more than ever they are able to take control and be fully responsible for their own career paths and work-life balance. In practice however, this is largely dependent on the sector or industry in which the individual operates. For example McDonald (2005) suggests that employees in sizable predominantly male public sector workforces are more traditional in their vocational behaviours, whereas those employees working in smaller private organizations that have higher proportions of female staff are more likely to exhibit protean orientations, and have a greater opportunity to self-direct their lives in accordance to their intrinsic values.
The protean career model focuses on individuals maintaining employability through continuous learning and self-improvement. Organizations across the globe are progressively expanding their operations to an international level, and as a result international experience is becoming a highly sought after skill in the selection and retention of human capital, particularly in the midst of widespread skilled labour shortages in some sectors.
Traditionally, multinational organizations assign their senior employees to serve as expatriates in their operations abroad (Rosewarne and McGrath-Champ, 2011). They are often provided with intensive cultural awareness training, and gain international experience while on assignment, which upon their return becomes a valuable commodity in terms of organizational knowledge and learning. This traditional method of gaining international experience however is not available to all employees; therefore unless they act proactively and independent to the organization, they may be unable to attain the international experience that is so attractive and marketable to many external multinational organizations.
In response, there is an increasing trend for individuals to relocate overseas at their own volition in order to develop the international work experience that they perceive as highly employable(Cao and Hirschi, 2013). This can be seen as a component of the continuous learning and self-construction process, and given the positive effect it has on future employability, it allows many individuals to fulfill some intrinsic measures of success. By choosing to develop international experience, they gain a competitive advantage over those employees who lack cross-cultural knowledge and insights.
Cao (2013) defines those who make the proactive decision to relocate overseas as 'self-initiated expatriates'. These individuals choose to relocate at their own accord in order to maximize intrinsic fulfillment and actively pursue their career-goals, following a path consistent with the protean career. Through their self-directedness and value-driven attitude they are able to gain both internal and external organizational marketability.
A final factor that makes the protean career model suitable for the 21st century workforce is the potential for technological advancement to create obsolescence and involuntary redundancy for employees in certain occupations and industries, coupled with a 'race to the bottom' whereby organizations compete by employing those willing to accept the lowest possible wages (Rosewarne and McGrath-Champ, 2011).
The growing use of advanced technologies is causing widespread unemployment in industries such as manufacturing and construction, where employees are facing involuntary job loss as a result of increased productivity from increased automation (Collins and Ryan, 2007). Furthermore, in the Australian construction industry for example, domestic workers are being overlooked for jobs that still require manual labour in favour of low-skilled, low-cost migrant workers on temporary work visas in order to cut costs and increase organizational efficiency in the short-term (Rosewarne and McGrath-Champ, 2011).
The consequences of a pervasive organizational 'race to the bottom' and technological advancement however, are not limited to those in labour-centered industries. Entry-level positions across all industries are being replaced with less costly technologies (Collins and Ryan, 2007), for example most airlines now offer an online check-in option and automated bag-drop facilities, referred to by Qantas as 'Faster Smarter Check-In', which eliminates the need to take on a large portion of previously employed customer service personnel (Qantas, 2014).
Collins and Ryan (2007) suggest that in order for individuals to cope with unexpected future redundancies or shorter-term job interruptions such as maternity leave, they must maintain an adequate awareness of the impact technology has, and will have in their occupation. This is consistent with the protean career model, because to remain employable and marketable, individuals must maintain a developmental progression (Briscoe and Hall, 2006) of learning, adapting and self-awareness via both informal and formal training and development. The rapid development of highly intelligent and sophisticated technology will unavoidably render many occupations redundant. Employees can however minimize their losses, maximize their resilience and their capacity to transform their careers to meet the demands of a changing technological environment if they adhere to the protean career model through flexibility and lifelong learning (Collins and Ryan, 2007). In industries or occupations struck hard by technological automation, individuals who are inflexible or unable to adapt their skills and competencies to the changing economic and technological environment will find employability a fleeting objective. Therefore, a protean career orientation will benefit many employees in the prevailing business context.
In conclusion, the protean career model, despite its limitations in some organizational structures, is highly applicable to the 21st century workforce as it reflects the necessity for self-directedness and internal guidance in a turbulent and uncertain global economic environment. The lifelong process of learning, self-improvement and adapting to the environment is valuable in instilling individuals with versatile and employable skills, and resilience in times of career change. In the future, issues such as technological advancement eliminating jobs and psychological contract break down will continue, however the protean career model sets individuals up to bounce back and move forward to the next phase of their career.
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