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«The protean career: A quarter-century journeyq Douglas T. Hall* School of Management, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, USA Received 9 June 2003 ...»

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Journal of Vocational Behavior 65 (2004) 1–13


The protean career: A quarter-century journeyq

Douglas T. Hall*

School of Management, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, USA

Received 9 June 2003

Available online 6 May 2004


This is a review of the development of the authorÕs ideas on the protean career. The origins

include both personal experience and scholarly inquiry. I first applied the adjective ‘‘protean’’

to careers in 1976, in Careers in organizations. It described a career orientation in which the person, not the organization, is in charge, where the personÕs core values are driving career decisions, and where the main success criteria are subjective (psychological success). This pa- per traces the link between the protean concept and the context of growing organizational re- structuring, decentralization, and globalization. Current research related to the protean concept is discussed, and quandaries to guide future research are presented. The paper con- cludes with a suggestion for examining situations where people are pursuing their ‘‘path with a heart’’ with the intensity of a calling, along with some questions to help researchers self-as- sess their own career direction, with an assist from Yogi Berra.

Ó 2003 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction One of the real treats for me in receiving the Hughes Award last year was having it presented by my dissertation advisor and role model, Ed Schein. In a similar way, q Presented as the Everett Cherrington Hughes Award Distinguished Speaker Address at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, Denver, CO, August 13, 2002. The comments and support of Jon Briscoe, Susan Casey Bourland, Elizabeth Craig, Marcy Crary, George Hollenbeck, Jennifer Howard- Grenville, Ayse Karaevli, Eric Lamm, Peter Russo, Marjo Lips-Wiersma, and Bob Mintz on earlier versions of this material are gratefully acknowledged. Work on this paper was supported by the Boston University Executive Development Roundtable.

* Fax: 1-617-353-4878.

E-mail address: dthall@bu.edu.

0001-8791/$ - see front matter Ó 2003 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2003.10.006 2 D.T. Hall / Journal of Vocational Behavior 65 (2004) 1–13 being introduced by such a good friend and former student, Sam Rabinowitz, also makes this a very personal experience. The sense of ‘‘academic family’’ that we have in our work and community here is a wonderful kind of connection that we all have.

ItÕs always great fun when colleagues get together and play academic geneal- ogy—who is whose father or grandfather, sibling, or cousin, in this small academic world of ours! In this case, Ed would be my ‘‘father’’ in the field and SamÕs ‘‘grandfather.’’ Also, on another personal note, IÕd like to say how much Everett HughesÕ work has inspired me, especially at the beginning of my career. For my dissertation I wanted to study professional socialization, and Ed Schein lent me a copy of HughesÕ and his colleaguesÕ classic study of medical students, Boys in white (Becker, Geer, Hughes, & Strauss, 1961). That work became my bible, and it required many reminders on EdÕs part to get the book returned after I finished my dissertation! It wasnÕt just HughesÕ work that inspired me, but also the way he developed and influenced and collaborated with so many students and colleagues.

2. Lessons about career from my parents

As I thought more about this family metaphor, I realized how important family experiences and family relationships have influenced my thinking about careers. As I think about my ideas on the protean career (that is, a career that is self-determined, driven by personal values rather than organizational rewards, and serving the whole person, family, and ‘‘life purpose’’), I realize just how much of that thinking came from what I observed and learned from my parents.

My father was trained as an engineer and spent his early career in big organizations in various technical and managerial positions. In his 40s he was doing very well financially in a management consulting firm. However, his main project, with a big US auto company, required that he spend most of his time in Toledo, OH, living at the Toledo Club and coming back home to his family in New Jersey every second weekend. He usually flew home on a flight whose main stop was in Philadelphia, continuing on with a near-empty plane to Newark. In the process he came to know the crew quite well, in their many chats during that quiet Philadelphia-to-Newark leg. One Friday he had to work late and missed the plane, so he took the overnight train, the Red Arrow. He returned home that Saturday to the news that ‘‘his’’ flight had crashed Friday night between Philadelphia and Newark. The only people on board, the members of the crew, had all died.

After that, he quit his job. He restructured his life around the family. He set up a business in technical sales and consulting that he could run out of the house. I remember some summer days when I was a teenager when he would come to me and ask what I wanted to do that day. At first, IÕd say that IÕd probably play baseball with my friends, but then heÕd press me and say, ‘‘No, what would you do if you could do anything at all?’’ To which IÕd say something like, ‘‘Well, IÕd really love to take the boat and go down to the shore and go fishing for the day.’’ To which heÕd say, ‘‘LetÕs go!’’ This didnÕt happen all the time, but he did give me many days like that.

D.T. Hall / Journal of Vocational Behavior 65 (2004) 1–13 3 And my mother had started her career as a nurse at New YorkÕs Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in a high-powered neurological research unit. She loved her work and colleagues there. After I came along, when we had moved to a small town in New Jersey, she took a part-time job in a local doctorÕs office, so she could be home for me after school. And later she stopped working altogether, although she would always identify herself as a nurse.

As part of the career self-assessment process in my courses, I like to ask students to reflect on the messages about work and careers that they received early in life from

their parents and families. For myself, these messages from my parents were several:

• Work is an important part of your personal identity.

• You make your own independent choices about what you do; we trust you to have freedom and to be responsible. ‘‘Fight your own battles’’ was an expression I heard a lot.

• You can reinvent yourself and reshape your work and career around family priorities.

• The success that matters is subjective, how satisfied you feel with your life and work, not necessarily how much money or power or fame you have. (They knew then what John Lennon discovered decades later: ‘‘Life is what passes by when youÕre busy making other plans.’’ Or, as my college chaplain, William Sloane Cofn told us at freshman convocation, ‘‘Remember, if you choose to enter the rat race, even if you win the rat race—youÕre still a rat!’’) I realize now that, not only did these messages lead me to a career in academe (the closest thing IÕve found yet to being self-employed and still getting a regular pay check), but also they are the original models for me of the protean career.

With this as background, what IÕd like to do today is tell you more about my personal journey with the protean career—what the context was when I first wrote about it, where my research took me after that, and where we are now in research on the topic.

3. The need for protean careerists in an ethically challenged business environment

But first, let me say a bit about the need for people to be more protean in our current business environment. While I donÕt want to diminish the importance of more honest and effective audits of businesses today, in this era of the Enrons and the WorldComs, I think we also need more honest, self-reflective ‘‘personal audits.’’ We need individual employees at all levels to have a strong internal ‘‘compass’’ in an ethically challenged business climate. And to empower individuals to be able to act on their values, we need people to have the resources and capability for taking charge of their careers, when the employer doesnÕt help. And, finally, as a society, we need for all members to grow, achieve, and contribute to their full potential, in ways that serve others, as there are so many needs to be met and so much work to be done. (As I learned from two of my first O.B. teachers, Chris Argyris and Doug McGregor, it is possible to integrate the needs of healthy individuals and the goals of effective organizations.) 4 D.T. Hall / Journal of Vocational Behavior 65 (2004) 1–13

4. The view from 1976 and the context

My first writing about the protean career was at the end of my 1976 book, Careers in Organizations. In the final chapter, I had a section titled, ‘‘An emerging view of careers: The protean career.’’ Other current or emerging issues that were mentioned there were dual-career couples, equal opportunity in careers, the generation gap, the changing definition of success (psychological success), and the need for personal and organizational flexibility.

I described the protean career (vs. the traditional career) as one in which the person, not the organization, is in charge, the core values are freedom and growth, and the main success criteria are subjective (psychological success) vs. objective (position, salary). This protean profile is summarized in Table 1.

What was the environmental context for careers in 1976? Although the prevailing view of careers was still something out of The Organization Man (Whyte, 2002), with the stress on upward mobility in organizations, there were the beginnings of a reaction, a counter-trend. There was a strong counter culture (e.g., ReichÕs (1995) The Greening of America), and the post-war baby boom cohort were just starting their careers, wanting freedom, personal choice, and values expression in their work.

The theme of change was definitely in the air. Robert J. Lifton wrote about the ‘‘protean style of self-process’’ as ‘‘one of the functional patterns of our day’’ (Lifton, 1968, p. 17, quoted in Hall, 1976, p. 291). The first edition of What Color Is Your Parachute? (Bolles, 2003) had just been published in 1970 and was picking up steam.

Eugene Jennings was writing about the ‘‘mobicentric manager,’’ and Psychology Today had lots of articles about careers. In fact, a companion magazine was introduced to the market, Careers Today.

My own consulting work involved helping large organizations (such as A.T.&T., NASA, Mobil, and the large public accounting firms) create self-assessment and career planning processes to enable employees to assume more control over their careers. Even an archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church sponsored a study that Ben Schneider and I did to help give greater voice and control over assignments to parish priests (Hall & Schneider, 1973). (In fact, IÕve wondered recently if these attempts to increase the personal freedom and work satisfaction of priests had been more widespread and more successful whether we might now be seeing a healthier climate in the church.) Thus, the time was one of growing interest in career self-determination and striving for psychological success.

–  –  –

5. What happened after 1976?

The 1980s saw the beginnings of a massive restructuring of the US and world economies. Starting with the recession triggered by the second Mideast oil embargo in 1979, we saw rapid downsizing, restructuring, and delayering, in an effort to trim costs and increase efficiency. (I worked on a consulting project to help a US auto companyÕs workers find new career paths, as the firmÕs hourly work force was cut in half between 1979 and 1980. Ironically, this was the same company where my father was working as a consultant when he quit his job.) As companies in industrialized countries moved jobs to countries with low labor costs and looked for new markets overseas, the process of globalization began. Technology and technological change became a household experience, with the introduction of home computers in the early 1980s. The issue of staying in or leaving an organization became very central. In fact, according to a literature review by Chartrand and Camp, the most frequent topic in research on careers in the 1980s was organizational commitment (Chartrand & Camp, 1991).

In this business environment a protean orientation was a smart adaptation for the individual. Handy (1989), in The Age of Unreason, captured this new flexible world of work in his model of the ‘‘shamrock organization,’’ with its three clusters of workers (core, part-time, and temporary).

My own research journey paralleled these changes in the economic environment.

In the 1960s and Ô70s my focus was on describing how career processes worked in organizational settings, as the field of organizational careers was just emerging. Then later in the 1970s I was doing more work around career self-assessment, inspired by ShepardÕs (1984) wonderful work on career and life planning, as well as work on womenÕs career roles and dual-career couples.

In the 1980s, related to the restructuring trend, my work centered on career plateauing. However, by the 1990s it became clear that those who had plateaued were the fortunate ones, from an organizational perspective—they had survived. (But in a more holistic life satisfaction sense, one could argue that those who exited and were forced to become more protean were in fact better off.) Thus, in the 1990s much of my writing dealt with changes in the career contract, how groups such as the baby boomers were dealing with unmet expectations, and how employers were managing through and communicating about the ‘‘new deal.’’ And here we are now in the 2000s, and I am studying protean career processes and ways of measuring the protean orientation.

6. What some research is saying about protean careers

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