6 February 2014

A bittersweet irony: What does the ‘boundaryless’ career mean for Gen Y employees?

The notion of career offers a vantage point from which to understand the relationship between individuals and their organisations.  But from which vantage point should we be looking? Let’s look at the pre-existing career; the one that hasn’t started for most of us Gen Y university students, yet the one that looks to be the most seductive in its ‘limitless’ form - the ‘boundaryless’ career.

‘Boundaryless’ has become a fashionable concept in organisational literature, but what does this really mean for us Gen Y employees?  Does it give us greater choice, empower us, or perhaps a right to more flexibility at work?  Some may argue yes.  Others may shake their head.  It brews instability, insecurity and an excuse for organisations to not commit to us in return.  Nevertheless, the trend for Gen Y seems to be swaying towards option A, and it’s no wonder.  After all, we are the generation who ‘wants it all’ but wants to do it differently to how it’s been done before.

The boundaryless career tells us we must embrace our careers as our ‘personal property.’  No longer should the organisation dictate the structure of our career.  If we are to flourish in this new environment, we must become self-reliant, rid our dependence on the organisation, and most importantly develop our own competencies to become the architects of our own careers.  And while we’re busy doing all this, gone are the boundaries that once constrained us from doing so!

While this initially alludes to greater career empowerment, charactertised by greater flexibility and autonomy, in reality it confronts us with a bittersweet irony.  Physical mobility has almost become a given; we’re expected to move freely between jobs in search for ‘the best’, and we believe we are entitled to do so.  But while we admit to this ‘free agent’ attitude whose loyalties are spread, we also want the support we’ve been so accustomed to receiving from our parents mirrored by the organisation.  We want the best of both worlds.

We [Gen Y] have been perceived as embracing overinflated egos, a given ‘sense of entitlement’, and an expectation that employers should share our enthusiasm for a work/life balance.  But the greatest revelation is that our greater work experience and level of education has led us to become more mobile.  With our qualifications, it’s become simple for us to move between employers if we are unhappy (and why shouldn’t we?).  It’s no wonder the concept of the boundaryless career has emerged.

But here’s the catch, here’s that bittersweet irony - we want to break free from traditional constraints, while all the more wanting to follow a yellow brick road that’s been paved before us, leading us to our ideal career.  We still need (and want) that given sense of direction.  So we must ask the question, while we expose ourselves as job-hoppers with greater demands than generations before us, are we revolutionising the concept of career (as we like to think we are), or are we making it more difficult for ourselves in the long run?

In reality, while we jump between jobs in pursuit of our ideal career, we are cementing the view of us Gen Y employees having short attention spans and lacking in focus. For employers, who wants to interview (or better yet hire) someone who is the ripe old age of 30 and has an exhaustive list of different workplaces on their CV?  Surely the employees’ commitment comes into question, and instability comes to the fore.  And now the Gen Y hopper is stumped.  As we pursue the opportunities this boundaryless horizon seems to offer, we must caution ourselves of its effects in the long run.

Evelyn Chronis and Sylvia Chronis: Current students of the University of Sydney Business School.

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