What is the role of change in the professional world, and what does a career depend on? Research results paint a varied picture. © Shutterstock/Rawpixel

Careers today are marked by change – people switch jobs frequently and nourish personal ambitions. At the same time, career trajectories are getting more complex involving a higher level of flexibility and self-determination, which is something the individuals concerned consider desirable. – So much for the widespread opinion about careers which is mainly impacted by the discourse in North America. Empirical studies, however, present a different picture. In Europe, for instance, the main aspiration for a career has remained relatively stable in the past 25 years and centres on a traditional career in the world of (large) corporate organisations.

Managerial careers across four generations

This is the result of one of the few major studies that have been conducted about career trajectories for the European area. In the context of the FWF-funded Vienna Career Panel Project (ViCaPP; www.vicapp.at), scientists at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Wien) have been observing the career paths of their graduates over more than ten years. In a longitudinal study, they compared the careers of students who graduated in the years 1970, 1990, 2000 and 2010. After the ViCaPP project had been prolonged, a team around project manager Wolfgang Mayrhofer explored the managerial career paths for three more years. The researchers concentrated on the question of whether the phenomenon of change really exists in a career context and, if so, what is the influence and significance of different elements of change for career trajectories? Under the title of Change in managerial careers? A longitudinal analysis the FWF follow-up study provides new empirically documented insights as to the much-quoted element of change in the professional world in Europe. For the first time, data from the Survey Committee (SOEP) of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin) were also included in the analysis.

Freedom without limits?

“The results show a differentiated picture”, says career researcher Wolfgang Mayrhofer. “On the one hand, we do see an increasing trend towards job changes within the first ten years of a career among the respective younger cohort. And this does not, by the way, translate into a higher income”, adds Mayrhofer. For, obtaining a higher salary requires mainly one thing: experience. The career length has a significantly higher influence on pay rises than changing jobs. According to the study, the “new” careers also reflect the fact that stability in work relationships and in occupational fields is declining and progress on the ladder of success is no longer an automatic process. On the other hand, there is a decrease in perceived alternatives, in other words what alternative job and career options those concerned see as available to them. Moreover, particularly the younger generations aspire to the traditional career in an organisation referred to above. “This at least challenges the notion of more ‘limitless psychological freedom' which presupposes the absence of inner restraints when it comes to career development”, observes Wolfgang Mayrhofer.

Personality and other factors

Apart from quantitative research among the total of 1517 individuals from different generation groups, the scientists from WU Wien also conducted 42 interviews where they investigated the interaction between personality and external conditions, taking into account different work situations (freelance, self-employed or employed). An analysis carried out together with the University of Hamburg showed that, irrespective of the contractual situation, the bond between organisation and worker is still strong. Whereas organisations no longer pay for the motivation to perform and the willingness to observe instructions, they do pay for current performance as an identifiable, marketable and socially important product. Hence, the transactional performance contract replaces a work contract based more strongly on relationship aspects. In contrast to what is frequently suggested, a career is not simply the product of personal ambition and seizing individual opportunities. A career depends on many factors both on the part of the individual – including qualifications, networks or monetary means to support individual upskilling or to tide over times of unemployment – but also on the part of the organisation.

Personal details Trained in business administration, Wolfgang Mayrhofer is a full professor and head of the Interdisciplinary Institute of Management and Organisational Behaviour at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. He conducts research in comparative international human resource management and leadership, work careers, systems theory and management.


Schneidhofer, T., Latzke, M., & Mayrhofer, W.: Careers as Sites of Power: A Relational Understanding of Careers Based on Bourdieu's Cornerstones. In A. Tatli & M. Özbilgin & M. Karatas-Özkan (Eds.), Pierre Bourdieu, Organisation, and Management: 19-36. New York, London: Routledge, 2015
Kattenbach, R., Schneidhofer, T. M., Lücke, J., Latzke, M., Loacker, B., Schramm, F., & Mayrhofer, W.: A quarter of a century of job transitions in Germany. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 84: 49-58, 2014
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