The career as a “makeable” phenomenon… But what about career shocks?

By Jos Akkermans - Associate Professor of Sustainable Careers and Organizational Behavior

07-06-2018 | 15:14

Onderzoek Jos Akkermans - Career

Research and practice on career development have recently emphasized the “makeability” of careers: as long as people make sure that they are proactive, competent, and employable, then career success should follow as a result. While this approach to career development has a lot of merits, it also overemphasizes the role of individual control over one’s career. Therefore, we argue that career shocks should be considered much more explicitly in research and practice on contemporary careers.

In this conceptual paper, we review the available literature on career shocks and come up with the surprising conclusion that this topic was quite popular between the 1960s and 1980s. However, with the rise of new career perspectives that emphasize individual career control and choices (e.g., boundaryless and protean career theories), the topic of career shocks seems to have faded to the background. In recent years, only a handful of studies were found in this area. Interestingly, those studies all point towards one clear conclusion: that the vast majority of individuals experience career shocks, and they have a major impact on their careers.

Based on the existing literature, we provide an integrative definition of career shocks: A career shock is “a disruptive and extraordinary event that is, at least to some degree, caused by factors outside the focal individual’s control and that triggers a deliberate thought process concerning one’s career. The occurrence of a career shock can vary in terms of predictability, and can be either positively or negatively valenced”. This definition implies that career shocks (1) trigger deliberate thinking, (2) are at least partially outside of someone’s direct control, and (3) can be either positive or negative. Examples of positive career shocks are unexpected promotions or job offers, whereas negative shocks could be sudden job loss or an important mentor/colleague leaving the organization.

Overall, we conclude that research on career shocks is now more relevant than ever, given the increasing complexity of careers. Therefore, we urge researchers to take these shocks into consideration when studying careers. Specifically, we formulate a future research agenda in which we encourage the development of accurate measurement tools based on extensive qualitative and quantitative research, and we hope to generate studies that examine the different characteristics of career shocks (e.g., valence, frequency, intensity, duration). We also hope that practitioners will take these shocks into consideration, for example career coaches and HR professionals who deal with career development issues in their everyday work.

Read the article: Akkermans, J, Seibert, SE & Mol, ST 2018, 'Tales of the unexpected: Integrating career shocks in the contemporary careers literature' SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, vol 44, a1503, pp. 1-10.

About Jos Akkermans
Jos Akkermans - ProfielJos Akkermans is Associate Professor of Sustainable Careers and Organizational Behavior at the department of Management and Organization at VU Amsterdam. He is the program director of the Business Administration Master program, and leading researcher on projects related to sustainable career development, changing employer-employee relationships, and young workers.