Customized Careers

Customized CareersCustomized careers are unconventional patterns of workforce engagement by individuals who would ordinarily be expected to adhere to traditional career paths. Customized careers differ from traditional careers on one or more of the following three dimensions: work time (e.g., working reduced hours rather than full time), timing (e.g., late entry into the workforce or taking time out of the workforce in the middle of one’s career rather than maintaining continuous employment), and type of employment relationship (e.g., independent-contracting work as opposed to long-term organizational employment). Related concepts include the boundaryless career and the protean career.

Customized careers are defined by their contrast to the traditional or “orderly” career, a pattern of work involving intense commitment to and continuous engagement with the occupational world, along with a striving for upward mobility and achievement of external markers of success. Traditional careers involve full-time, continuous involvement in the workforce, typically starting in one’s 20s following the completion of formal education and ending with total and permanent withdrawal from the workforce some 40 or 50 years later at retirement. The traditional career template rests on the assumption of an “ideal worker,” for whom employment forms the basis of identity and work takes priority over other life domains. By contrast, the customized career assumes that personal identities are shaped by multiple life roles, including, but not limited to, work roles.

The customized-careers construct is most appropriately applied to employees who would ordinarily be expected to work on a full-time, highly involved, continuous basis throughout their working lives. Research on customized careers focuses primarily on managerial and professional occupations, which involve individuals for whom the traditional career pattern, with its strong emphasis on significant ongoing work involvement, constitutes a powerful cultural schema. Research on customized careers examines the work lives of individuals who choose to step off the traditional career track and craft careers that respond more precisely to their own and their families’ needs and desires, even if this means rejecting the career expectations that are normative for their jobs, occupations, or organizations.

Themes in the Customized-Careers Literature

Four themes are central to the literature on customized careers. First, individuals pursuing customized careers are seen as having and exercising choice and control in career decision making. Research samples are generally drawn from populations of individuals who are not forced to adhere to a traditional career pattern out of economic necessity, but have the option to customize. In other words, individuals with customized careers have the skills and labor marketability to work as intensely and continuously as do people following traditional careers, but they also have the resources and preferences that enable them to reject that pattern. By contrast, individuals who experience unwanted career interruptions or reduce their working hours or engage in nontraditional employment relationships because they are unable to secure traditional career arrangements, as opposed to doing so out of choice, are generally not considered to have customized careers.

Second, the longitudinal quality of careers is central to the study of customized careers. Customized careers are typically punctuated by intervals during which they look very orderly indeed (e.g., intense commitment, long hours, and upward striving during the early career). It is therefore necessary to compare the pattern of an individual’s workforce engagement over time to a normative career template in order to classify that career as having been customized.

Third, the customized-careers literature acknowledges the inseparable connection between the work domain and other life domains. The traditional career model assumes near total separation between the work and nonwork spheres of life, with employment given the highest value and priority. In the traditional career, occupational success and advancement through a corporate hierarchy demand a nearly exclusive focus on work and a willingness to make sacrifices such as limiting time spent with friends and family, something that is difficult to do if one has multiple demands on one’s time and no nonworking spouse to absorb those demands. Given that the modal U.S. family in the early twenty-first century is one with two working parents, adherence to the traditional career pattern is difficult for many. The desire to achieve a satisfactory integration of work and nonwork is a major factor leading individuals to pursue customized careers. The customized career allows people to forge lives between the two extremes of continuing to meet the normative expectations of traditional careers and dropping out of the workforce entirely.

Fourth, customized careers are less institutionalized than traditional careers. Individuals who pursue customized careers challenge the prevailing norms of the traditional career path. From the traditional career perspective, striving for career success in the form of prestige, earnings, and upward advancement are both normal and noble. Making a decision to reduce one’s working hours or take time away from one’s career is often seen as deviant. Thus, persons pursuing customized careers bear the burden of justifying their choices, persuading others as to the feasibility and sensibility of their plans, and negotiating the specific arrangements that will allow them to fit work into their preferred life patterns. Pursuing a customized career means persuading and negotiating—with oneself as well as with one’s family, organization, and occupational community.

Characteristics of Customized Careers

As indicated at the outset, three key characteristics differentiate the customized career from the traditional career. They have to do with schedules and time: the number of hours worked and the schedule that guides them, the timing of paid work throughout the life cycle, and the employment relationship.


Customized careers often involve a reduction from standard full-time work schedules, either in the form of fewer hours per day on an ongoing basis, fewer days per week, or fewer weeks or months per year. Job sharing and part-time jobs are two vehicles for customizing. The desire to place some sort of boundary on the often seemingly limitless work time norms of the traditional career is one of the most potent forces leading people to seek customized careers. The work schedule modification is not necessarily permanent, and individuals may change their working time periodically over the course of their careers in response to personal preferences and to demands and resources emanating from other areas of their lives.


Timing refers to “biographical pacing,” or the patterning of work engagement across the span of a person’s working career. The customized career is often marked by discontinuities. Women are more likely to participate in alternative timing than men, reflecting the “traditional” division of labor in households. Women are more likely than men to enter the workforce late or leave it temporarily to care for children. Individuals who make this type of modification may find themselves in entry-level or early career stages when others of their age cohort are in more advanced career stages. Reducing work prior to retirement and/or returning to some form of employment after retirement are two more ways in which people customize their careers.

Employment Relationship

Customized careers may involve a variety of employment relationships that differ from the traditional career arrangement of long-term employment with one or a few employers. Customized careers are more likely to include work that is performed in the context of a temporary employment relationship or as an independent contractor or agency employee, as opposed to a regular organizational employee. For example, when professionals decide to essentially go into business for themselves by performing a variety of assignments for different clients rather than working exclusively for a single employer, they are moving away from the traditional career template into customized careers. The impetus to make this kind of modification may stem from the desire to avoid the politics that often accompany long-term organizational employment, to have more freedom over the conditions of work, or to stay active in one’s field following retirement from a traditional job.

Main Research Findings

Rationales for pursuing a customized career can be grouped into two main categories. The first has to do with care work and family or community engagement. For example, an individual (typically a woman) may choose to switch from a full-time schedule to a part-time schedule to care for children or to spend more time volunteering. The second type of rationale, which overlaps somewhat with the first, is the desire of people to bring their work careers into better alignment with their personal values. For instance, a corporate manager may decide to start an independent consulting business because he wants to have the freedom to take on only the projects that interest him most. Or a physician may decide to work a reduced-hours schedule in order to spend more time gardening.

Several factors are associated with the pursuit of a customized career. Having high levels of human capital (e.g., skills, credentials, experience) gives people the labor market power to demand the type of work arrangements that suit them best. (Curiously, however, human capital is typically accumulated by spending some time in the traditional career mode.) Household-level resources give individuals the freedom to choose customization. For example, it may be possible to take time out of the workforce only if one has a working spouse who has a job with sufficient income and good benefits.

Customized careers are heavily gendered. At this point in time, women are much more likely than men to customize, particularly when it comes to working reduced hours or taking time off from work. These forms of customization are strongly associated with caregiving, which continues to be primarily the responsibility of women. Furthermore, it is seen as more acceptable for women than for men to customize in order to take care of children or to support a spouse’s career. These findings highlight the theme of the inter-relatedness of work and family and emphasize the importance of taking the family context into account when examining the decision to pursue a customized career.

Customized careers are also associated with features of the employment context. Some jobs allow for greater flexibility than others. For example, emergency room physicians, who work scheduled shifts, have a greater opportunity to modify their working hours than do surgeons. The nature of an organization affects its employees’ ability to customize. It is more difficult to customize in the context of an organization that has downsized its workforce and placed additional work on the remaining employees, for instance, than it is when there is more slack in staffing levels. Supportive supervisors, a flexible and accommodating organizational culture, and the presence of policies that lay out alternative career paths all facilitate customized careers. By contrast, employees have little opportunity to customize when they work in organizations with rigid, traditional cultures and when no alternative career policies have been developed and implemented. In such conditions, employees are often limited to two extreme options: stay on the traditional career path, regardless of the personal cost, or quit entirely.

Customized careers always involve costs and benefits. In general, people who pursue customized careers gain some control over their time and, in many cases, over the conditions of their employment. Individual productivity and satisfaction with work tend to be higher among individuals pursuing customized careers. They are also generally better able to integrate their work and nonwork lives, have less work-family conflict, and have higher levels of life satisfaction. On the downside, they tend to suffer in terms of traditional markers of career success, including earnings, prestige, and advancement. They receive less support for career development from their employers and have fewer opportunities for promotion. They also frequently feel that they have made career sacrifices and experience some ambivalence about the state of their careers, reflecting the potent normative expectations of the traditional career they have chosen to customize and the extent to which career and identity are intertwined among professionals. The success of customized careers from the point of view of people who craft them appears to depend to a great extent on their own values and identities. For instance, people who are happiest in customized-career arrangements tend to value personal growth and family involvement more highly than pay, promotions, and prestige.

Although people who work part time have traditionally earned less than their full-time counterparts (even when compared on an hourly basis), received few or no fringe benefits, and had little or no opportunity for upward career progression, recent studies of reduced-hours work among professionals provide hopeful evidence of the existence of part-time jobs that are relatively permanent, have career potential, and provide salaries and benefits prorated on the basis of full-time standards. People who leave traditional employment relationships to pursue independent contracting work sometimes make substantially more money, particularly when economic conditions are favorable and there is high demand for their skills. Of course, there is no guarantee of increased earnings, but independent contractors do take on increased financial risk.

In summary, customized careers represent an individual adaptation of a traditional career pattern that does not fit the lives of many highly skilled working people. The increasing prevalence of this form of career is influenced by multiple factors, including demographic shifts (e.g., large numbers of dual-career parents in the workforce), the trend toward less employment security in U.S. corporations, and changes in lifestyles and values, with a decreasing emphasis on climbing the corporate ladder as the ultimate measure of success and greater emphasis on engagement in multiple life roles.

See also:


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