Sustainable careers across the lifespan: Moving the field forward

Beatrice Van der Heijden, Ans De Vos, J. Akkermans, Daniel Spurk, Judith Semeijn, Mandy Van der Velde, Mel Fugate

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Sustainable careers are comprised of work experiences across one's lifespan that also intersect multiple life domains, notably: work, social, and family (Van der Heijden & De Vos, 2015). The creation of this contemporary notion was spurred by a combination of socio-economic factors, such as the increased complexity and globalization of business and labor markets, as well as more rapid rates of change within the world of work (Hall, Yip, & Doiron, 2018). These factors have put a premium on employee flexibility and accelerated the evolution of the conceptualization and experience of careers. Consistent with these trends, evidence for increased scholarly interest in sustainable careers is found in academic handbooks (De Vos & Van der Heijden, 2015; De Vos, Dujardin, Gielens, & Meyers, 2016) and major international conferences (e.g., Academy of Management, European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology, European Group of Organization Studies). This special issue is intended to take account of and advance this work by further developing the conceptual and empirical foundations of sustainable careers. What sets the sustainable career perspective apart from other career paradigms is its explicit and strong focus on both individual and contextual elements related to career management. Careers have and continue to be largely an individual-level phenomenon, which is reflected in research that predominantly focuses on what individuals can do to create successful and sustainable careers (cf. Spurk, Hirschi, & Dries, 2019). Despite this, however, employers play an important role in the sustainability of individuals’ careers across the lifespan, as they provide diverse work experiences, opportunities for development, and support for work-life balance (cf. Baruch, 2006). This scenario emphasizes the critical role of Human Resource Management and employer-supported career management in fostering employees’ productivity, health, and happiness in their careers (Van der Heijden, 2005) over time (i.e., sustainable careers, De Vos, Van der Heijden, & Akkermans, this special issue). Accordingly, fundamental to the sustainable career concept is shared responsibility between employers and employees (see e.g., Van der Heijden, 2005; Veld, Semeijn, & Van Vuuren, 2015). This special issue therefore aims to refine and advance the notion of sustainable careers using studies that illuminate both individual and organizational levels. In so doing, we show that the sustainable career construct complements rather than replaces existing career paradigms, such as protean (Hall, 2002), boundaryless (Arthur & Rousseau, 1996), and customized careers (Valcour, Bailyn, & Quijada, 2007), which, although acknowledging that careers are developing within working organizations, do not focus on its active role in this regard. Furthermore, and although the interplay between individual and organizational career management is paramount for developing career sustainability, a number of important questions remain unanswered. First, are sustainable careers beneficial for both employees and employers? Second, how do antecedents and outcomes of career sustainability change over one's lifespan? Third, how do planned activities versus unexpected events impact career sustainability? Answering these questions will advance research, practice, and policy related to career management. The remainder of this article is organized as follows. We first summarize and critically reflect on the contributions of the individual papers included in this special issue. This is then used to synthesize existing knowledge and present a coherent and more refined conceptualization of sustainable careers, which can then be used to guide future research and advance our knowledge and practice.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103344
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Vocational Behavior
Early online date4 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2020


  • career
  • employability
  • lifespan
  • sustainable career


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