ICCRP 2007

Myths and Realities about Careers in the 21st Century
On March 12th the VU University Amsterdam hosted the 1st International Conference on Careers Research and Practice entitled “Myths and Realities about Careers in the 21st Century.” The conference offered a platform for both researchers and practitioners to discuss myths and realities of new career paths and choices that employees undertake in the current economy. The event also marked founding of the Amsterdam for Career Research (ACCR) which is part of the department of Management & Organization of the VU University Amsterdam.
By Dr. Svetlana Khapova and Derk Wentink

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Throughout the past decade career researchers have been suggesting that organizational careers are over. Contemporary employees are described as preferring their own self-defined career paths. Such paths, as media increasingly speculates, more often include frequent job-changes, and focus on immediate financial gain rather than professional learning and development. Furthermore, stories abound of women opting out of their careers to care for children. Due to demographic changes, the workforce is ageing at a rapid pace. As a consequence of these developments, companies from all over the world experience a shortage of talent. These and many more myths are spreading the world of work, thus influencing and requiring changes in corporate Human Resource Management and Development practices. However, very little empirical evidence is available to support the above speculations about careers in the 21st century.

To challenge these and other myths about contemporary careers, ACCR organized the 1st International Conference on Careers Research and Practice “Myths and Realities about Careers in the 21st Century”, inviting both academics and practitioners for a dialogue. The conference began by the official opening of the ACCR by René Smit, Chair of the Executive Board of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Windesheim University of Professional Education, and two keynote speakers - Herminia Ibarra who presented the academic perspective on myths and realities about contemporary careers and Pauline van der Meer Mohr, who presented the practitioner perspective. Herminia Ibarra is Chaired Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD (Paris), and is an expert on professional development and is well known for her book Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), and numerous articles on innovation, networking, career development, women's careers and professional identity. Pauline van der Meer Mohr is Senior Executive Vice President and Head of Group Human Resources at ABN AMRO. Her main focus is the development and implementation of the people strategy of the bank in order to unlock the potential of the organization.

According to Herminia Ibarra reality of contemporary careers involves greater frequency and incidence of career reinvention. Individuals change employers more often tailoring their unique career paths. They are following more opportunistic sequences of work experiences rather than traditional sequential careers. In their job choice, individuals go for “passion” and personally meaningful opportunities. They are also more and more basing their career decisions on personal and family reasons. (You can download her presentation here)

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Herminia Ibarra

As a practitioner, who observes career choice of today's employees daily, Pauline van der Meer Mohr suggested that different people have different needs, and generation is the key determinant in these choices. Baby boomers want early retirement, Generation X wants meaningful life, while Generation Y is all about new opportunities. In its HR strategy, ABN AMRO appears to cater to all. It offers senior programmes for baby boomers; sabbatical possibilities and volunteer programmes for Generation Y. It offers flexible work options and learning programmes for Generation X. Van der Meer Mohr also opposed some of the other myths which were at the center of the conference. For example, in contradiction to the general assumption that only women turn to temporary contracts to take care for their children, there is evidence that an increasing number of men also choose flexible work arrangements for the same reason.

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Pauline van der Meer Mohr

Four parallel sessions on four key topics of the conference continued the dialogue about myth and realities, thus taking the debate further. The first parallel session was focused on careers of women and related challenges. Facilitated by Charlotte Insinger, member of the board of directors of the Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, by Britt van den Berg, Director Global Diversity & Inclusion, Philips Corporate HRM and Claartje Vinkenburg, ACCR Managing Director, VU Amsterdam, the session tested three myths: (1) women are not ambitious, (2) women do not know how to play the game, and (3) flexible working arrangements are good for women's careers. The intensive discussion among practitioners and researchers reached the conclusion that further research on ambition of both men and women is needed which would take the negative connotation of ambition in the Netherlands into account. Flexible working arrangements allow parents to combine work and family responsibilities. This is good for retention – but working part time (less than four days a week) may have a negative effect on career progression. Finally, it was agreed that in order to advance to top positions, women should learn how to play the selection and promotion game going on at these levels in organizations.

The second parallel session was focused on careers and well-being across different age groups. Facilitated by Christ'l Dullaert, Chair and Co-Founder of Advocatenkamer & Le Tableau and Josje Dikkers, VU Amsterdam, the session addressed myths and realities regarding careers across age. Particularly in view of today's service-oriented knowledge economy and the ageing of the workforce, older employees are extremely valuable to their employer because of their know-how. The main conclusion of this session was that age can take on different conceptualizations (e.g., chronological age, psychosocial age, and life stage age). These conceptualizations may very well be related differently to employees' motivation to work and their career patterns. Therefore, HR policies should not merely take into account employee's calendar age, but also additional conceptualizations of age, such as one's mental capacities or one's current life stage.

The third parallel session was focused on boundaryless careers of contemporary employees, that is employer independent careers. Facilitated by Kirsten Menes, Global Talent Manager, Philips Corporate HRM, Svetlana Khapova and Claudia van der Heijde, VU Amsterdam, the session addressed to what extent contemporary employees indeed are interested in (1) pursuing subjective careers paths rather than hierarchical progression, (2) frequent job changes, and (3) growth and development in contrast to the job security. Although there is no clear evidence which groups of employees are boundaryless in their careers and to what extent, one thing became clear: more and more employees choose to pursue their individual self-defined career paths, such as relocating abroad, or changing job. For organizations, this is an opportunity to attract new knowledge and expertise, rather than a threat to lose talent.

Finally, the fourth parallel session was focused on manager's learning paths. The session was facilitated by Elzeline van Vulpen, Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, Lidewey van der Sluis and Gert-Jan Melker, VU Amsterdam. The session addressed 2 myths about managerial careers: (1) a career path is a learning path and (2) management development has to focus on planning and stimulating new valuable job experiences during individual careers. The conclusion of the discussion was that in practice, a career path is not per definition a learning path; it depends on the ability of managers to learn from and reflect on essential or critical situation in working and private life. New job experiences become valuable after reflection and integration of these reflection back to the (managerial) behavior.

For many participants this conference turned into an opportunity to think not only about the research they do, or HR practices that they implement in their companies, but also about their own careers and work-family situations. In Herminia Ibarra's words, there may be a possibility that some of the participants will decide to “reinvent” their career after this conference. Time will tell. The conference definitely marked a successful start of the ACCR activities, prompting this to be the first of a series of future international conferences on careers research and practice at the VU University Amsterdam.