Amelia is a web designer. After graduating from ITC in Milan in 2013, she went through a series of precarious, underpaid, jobs in ITC firms until a friend of a friend commissioned her with the development of his firm’s website. It was then that she realised that being a freelancer could be more profitable and satisfying. Amelia now manages her own career, usually collaborating on 3-4 projects at a time for different firms.

In 2016, the European Forum of Independent Professionals (EFIP) published a research report titled “Future working: the rise of Europe’s independent professionals”.

Freelancers’ (also known as independent professionals, portfolio workers, self-employed, iPros, etc.) rate is increasing all across Europe (but the same applies to the U.S. and other developed economies), and now it reaches 14 per cent of European labour force according to Eurostat.

Do we know enough about freelancers’ jobs and careers? The answer is no – just mention that the EFIP report provocatively included this sentence on its very cover: “iPros are virtually invisible in academic literature”.

Building on this, our study examined how individual attitudes about one’s career related to perceptions of subjective career success, also taking into account activities aimed at developing one’s employability and the commitment towards freelancing as a profession. Subjective career success, also known as career satisfaction, is nowadays more important than objective career success (e.g., pay, career advancement) for that increasing quota of the workforce that values aspects such as work-life balance, expression, hedonism, social responsibility, and so on.

Attitudes: protean vs boundaryless

The protean and boundaryless career concepts became popularised in the 90’s in order to address changes such as increased organisational outsourcing and de-layering, consequent jobs flexibility and workforce segmentation, with unavoidable employee accountability for their own careers and employability.

The protean idea refers to careers in which success standards are psychological and driven by personal values and in which career management behaviours reflect personal choice rather than the direction of the employing organisation. The boundaryless idea refers to careers characterised by either mental flexibility within and between organisations and/or actual physical mobility across organisational boundaries.

However, it must be noted that the protean and boundaryless careers concepts were postulated for workers who, although being more autonomous, networking, and hedonistic than in the past, typically looked for being employed within an organisation, thus neglecting an increasing quota of the workforce: freelancers.

Freelancers are a sort of hybrid of both employees and entrepreneurs: on one hand, they can be considered as employees because they usually have long-term relationships with client organisations; on the other, they can be considered entrepreneurs because they assume all business risks on their own and client organisations do not determine their career prospects. Therefore, building strong relations with actual and prospective client organisations (thus, being more employable) and putting substantial effort in developing and maintaining strong professional networks with other freelancers (as a source of potential job opportunities and also for trade union protection) is fundamental for freelancers to buffer against the risks of being on their own and thus to more easily reach career success and satisfaction.

Through an online survey carried out with 425 Italian freelancers, we found that a boundaryless mindset facilitated the enactment of activities aimed at fostering one’s employability, thus having a stronger attitude in building relationships across organisations is fundamental to freelancers for being more employable. More importantly, freelancers who took responsibility for their career management were more employable, more committed to freelancing as a profession, and perceived their career as more successful.

Activities aimed at developing one’s employability and commitment towards freelancing as a profession were sequential statistical mediators, meaning that career success for the more boundaryless and protean among freelancers is the final step of a process that encompasses behaviours aimed at developing one’s employability, and attitudes about one’s loyalty towards the profession.

These findings extended our understanding of protean and boundaryless careers by demonstrating that these behaviours serve not just those who react to organisational memberships (i.e., employees) but to those whose careers are almost entirely non-contingent upon any singular organisational membership (i.e., freelancers). Career success and its relation to these constructs is something not associated just in relief to organisations but to the individual and ongoing expression of these attitudes and behaviours.

Important implications can be drawn for freelancers, their associations, and client organisations:

  • In order to successfully manage their career and stay on top of trends, freelancers should engage in career learning and continually develop their employability and positive career attitudes through, for instance, diversifying one’s portfolio of skills, engaging in environmental exploration of career opportunities and barriers, and developing networks both within and outside organisations;
  • Freelancers’ associations, traditionally very active in supporting their members in developing their professionalism and formal and informal networks (also buffering for missing trade union representability), should also promote membership as well as career and guidance interventions aimed at fostering such attitudes with respect to employability and career management;
  • Finally, client organisations should develop appropriate peculiar strategies for dealing with freelancers, given their increasing economic and organisational importance. Given their peculiar mobility, organisations need to attract and establish stronger relationships with those freelancers whose talents are fundamental to the organisation. Additionally, protean and boundaryless career attitudes do not apply only to freelancers but attention must be paid also to the rest of the organisational internal labour market, given the importance within matrix and project-oriented organisations of dealing with employees who need to find their own career success across projects, counting on their own self-reliance and networking ability.

Recalling a quote from the father of the protean career concept (Hall, 1996), a protean career is “a contract with oneself, rather than with the organisation.” This may be no better personified than by Amelia and the other freelancers, who present themselves as a breed apart from the wider occupational force.



Alessandro Lo Presti is associate professor of work and organisational psychology at the University of Campania “Luigi Vanvitelli” (Italy). He studies career attitudes and success, employability, job insecurity, work-life balance, well-being at work. He currently coordinates two Italian research groups: “Employability and Career Development” and “Work and Organizational Quality of Life”.


Jon Briscoe is professor of management at the Northern Illinois University, U.S. His key research concerns career management and cultural differences in careers across countries. In addition he studies leadership, leadership development, and values in organisations. He is a co-founder of the 5C (Cross-Cultural Collaboration on Contemporary Careers) research group and a past president of the careers division of the Academy of Management.