Privilege and disadvantage


back to issue

A young person’s transition into the world of work marks one of the most important milestones in her life. Reaching and crossing this milestone is influenced by numerous socio-economic, cultural and psychological forces. In some families it is the culmination of a process of being prepared and educated, empowering the young person to make this transition from a position of strength. In other families, socio-economic forces forestall such preparatory efforts and the young person enters the world of work from a position of disadvantage.

The tremendous changes in the world of work place immense pressure on a young person to make effective choices pertaining to her entry into the world of work. Yet, theoretically sound, culturally and psychologically validated career counselling services to support career development are not generally available for wider use in the Indian situation.


Most often the term ‘career’ is associated with what the ‘rich’ can afford and is sometimes dismissed as being irrelevant to the needs of the disadvantaged and those living in poverty. It is essential that career development is defined within the multiple realities and paradoxes that comprise the Indian situation. When understood to mean livelihood or occupation or vocation or in its most simple sense, a suitable job, the crosscutting relevance of career development to all sections of the population becomes immediately evident. Within this broader perspective, career counselling could serve as a tool to support young people to choose and plan effectively for a successful career.

In an attempt to document the factors that influence the Indian adolescent’s orientation to work, livelihood and career, The Promise Foundation recently conducted a survey in 15 Indian regions, covering a sample of about 7000 adolescents and young adults (WORCC-IRS, 2006). The findings of this survey were subsequently debated at a National Consultation on Career Psychology (NCCP) by scholars, government officials, NGOs, international agencies, school boards, principals, counsellors and others who work with adolescents and the youth. This paper draws on the WORCC-IRS findings and the outcomes of the NCCP.



Excerpts from narratives of WORCC-IRS participants on the theme:

‘Which career path are you going to take? What are its benefits?’

I will start working after 10th. I have to become financially independent.

Boy, Class 10, 14 years, low SES, Shimoga.

Find part time job after class 10th and also study. Learning while earning is what I like most. It is what I have to do to help my family.

Boy, Class 10, 14 years, low SES, Dehradun.

I would prefer a professional course because it has high salary and good status in society. Diploma courses do not give a good standing.

Girl, Class 10, 14 years, middle SES, Vasco, Goa.

I would like to take up commerce after 10th. I would like to take up MBA. I will be able to make lots of money and have a successful career.

Girl, Class 10, 15 years, upper middle SES, Bangalore.

I want to become an engineer, as it will give happiness and money. I will get a beautiful wife which will make my parents proud.

Boy, Class 12, 18 years, middle SES, Dhule.

Only poor people go for vocational training. My father is a manager. I cannot think of a polytechnic course.

Boy, Class 12, 18 years, upper middle SES, Srinagar.

Source: WORCC-IRS 2006.


One of our most robust findings is that the young person’s socio-economic status (SES) has a significant influence on orientations to work, livelihood and career. This may appear obvious and there is indeed an intuitive awareness among academics and practitioners that disadvantaged groups are likely to be more vulnerable to discontinuities in their career development than their more privileged counterparts. A closer look, however, reveals important psychological strands that are associated with these vulnerabilities. This paper examines the impact of three variables on SES, namely, career path orientations, perceptions of career barriers and social cognitions in the form of career beliefs. The interactions of these variables with SES throw light on how privilege and disadvantage impact career development trajectories.


Orientations to career paths: Three career paths commonly present themselves to our young at the point of transition from school, namely: (i) start working immediately if a job is available, without further qualifications; (ii) find a part-time job and study side by side; and (iii) take up full-time further studies.

WORCC-IRS reveals that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds seem to be more strongly oriented toward finding work as soon as possible. Those from more privileged homes on the other hand definitely prefer to go in for full-time further education in order to prepare for entry into the world of work.


It is the participant perception of parental approval for the three career paths that gives us deeper insights into the dynamics of career path orientations. At the lower SES level, while approval is the highest for full-time study, the difference in parental approval for the other two paths is not markedly different. On the other hand, as SES increases, parental approval for full-time study increases, pushing approval for the other two options to lower levels. The spread in parental approval becomes most stark amongst the higher SES groups where parental approval for full-time study is strikingly higher than working full-time or finding a part-time job. In fact this difference is so marked that it is likely that the other two career paths would be looked down upon at this SES level.

It appears therefore that young people from more privileged backgrounds grow up in an environment where continuing with full-time study is expected, approved and supported. On the other hand, disadvantaged young people receive family support which is more generalised. While full-time study is not discredited (perhaps even sought after), economic necessities push the young person more strongly toward working full-time or at least taking a part-time job.


An important corollary to this finding is linked to occupational prestige. The impact of SES is most marked when questions of dignity and social status are raised. Higher SES groups almost unanimously express the belief that occupations such as farmer and carpenter are of low status and require ‘no formal training’ or ‘qualifications’. They perceive a lack of respect if they opt for ‘such careers’. Similar sentiments are not as frequent and all pervasive among the lower SES group. The higher SES groups firmly believe that they must aspire for college education and obtain a university degree. The possibility of seeking further education through the polytechnic based vocational stream is rejected by those from more privileged backgrounds. Other investigations have also found that social class and not personal ability seems to be the driving force behind the orientation to career paths (Desai and Whiteside, 2000).



Excerpts from narratives of WORCC-IRS participants on the theme:

‘What do people in your area commonly believe about career planning?’

* Only rich people get jobs and succeed.

Boy, Class 10, 15 years, low SES, Vasco, Goa.

* I believe that the path to success is through science and engineering. Vocational courses are low in value. They are meant for those from poor families who cannot afford high education.

Boy, Class 10, 16 years, upper middle SES, Bangalore.

* The main target for work is to become a wealthy person. I will achieve this by becoming a computer engineer because I am interested in computers.

Boy, Class 12, 18 years, upper middle SES, Margao, Goa.

* In my native village people are less educated, very few people are educated. Most of the low earners earn about Rs 1000 per month. So there is a belief that there is no need for better job. In their minds their job is very good.

Girl, 2nd year diploma, 19 years, middle SES, Guwahati.

* People go for higher studies thinking that they will get a good job, but fate plays a bigger role than education. General knowledge is enough to get a job.

Boy, 2nd year diploma, 17 years, low SES, Bhadravati.

* Brahmins’ occupation – priest. Low caste people – gutter cleaning or to work in municipality. Rich people – doing big business.

Boy, 2nd year diploma, 17 years, upper middle SES, Bhadravati.


Excerpts from the narratives of young people in the survey presented in Table 1 provide an eloquent illustration of the differences in orientation to career paths across SES groups.


Perception of barriers: Barriers are internal or external blocks that interfere with or disrupt career preparation. Internal barriers may be related to self-conception, motivation to achieve and negative beliefs. External barriers may be related to external frustrations arising from lack of resources, discrimination, lack of information and so on. The manner in which an individual perceives a barrier determines to a large extent how the person will approach the barrier (Swanson, Daniels and Tokar, 1996; McWhirter, 1997).

The lower SES group in the WORCC-IRS reported a higher level of barriers to their career development. As expected, financial difficulty is expressed as the most significant barrier. What is important, however, is the finding that young people from lower SES homes are expected to bear a significantly higher level of family responsibility, while young people from higher SES groups seem to be shielded from these responsibilities. Further, almost one fourth of the lower SES young people surveyed report that their personal capacities are such that they would find it difficult to make a success of their careers.


Given below is a revealing analysis of the WORCC-IRS participants’ responses to three specific statements related to career barriers:

Statement 1: My family expects me to start contributing to the family income as soon as possible. As a result I cannot continue with further education.

While 20.3% of the lower SES group rated this item as a ‘significant barrier’ (the highest rating the scale used), only 6.3% of the higher SES group gave a similar rating.

Statement 2: I have to do many things to help my family and so I may not be able to devote time or effort for career preparation.

20.3% of participants from lower SES homes rated this item as a ‘significant barrier’, while just 8.5% of the higher SES groups give a similar rating.

Statement 3: My poor performance in studies will make it difficult for me to study further.

22.4% of the low SES group rated this item as a ‘significant barrier’. In contrast, 12.9% of the higher SES groups rated this statement at the same level.


Career beliefs are a conglomerate of attitudes, opinions, convictions and notions that seem to cohere together to create mindsets that underlie people’s orientation to the idea of a career (Krumboltz, 1979; Arulmani and Nag-Arulmani, 2004). These patterns of thinking may or may not be grounded in reality. Yet, whether rational or not, these assumptions predispose the individual to making career decisions in a certain manner.

The higher SES groups recorded the most positive beliefs about planning for the future through career development. In contrast, a higher level of negativity in beliefs about career preparation is recorded in the lower SES group. Their life situation and experiences appear to push the disadvantaged young person towards a more pessimistic view of the future and of career development. Fatalistic beliefs seem to diminish as SES increases and disadvantages reduce, and are replaced by more positive and hopeful orientations. SES variations are also seen regarding beliefs pertaining to control and self-direction. The lower SES groups seem to experience difficulties in believing that they can take control and direct their lives towards future goals. On the other hand, this feeling of helplessness and lack of control seems to decrease at higher SES levels and young people belonging to the more privileged classes are willing to take control of their lives and make the best of what is available.

Excerpts from narratives presented in Table 2 provide examples of these differences in career beliefs.

Career development discontinuities – an accumulation of disadvantage: Young people from poor homes are required to consider their transition into the world of work while simultaneously grappling with poverty, unstable family structures and financial constraints. At a practical level, families that are poverty-stricken may have realistic concerns about their ability to pay for their children’s further education. The task of meeting physical needs may be of greater urgency to socio-economically disadvantaged individuals than seeking out information and making career plans. Survival needs in the present may be so pressing that planning for what could come to fruition only sometime in the future may not be consistent with the reality perceptions of the young person from a poor home.

The strong predisposition of the disadvantaged to search for work before acquiring work skills implies that they will only occupy an unskilled status in the world of work. This has far reaching ramifications on the continuity of their career development. Research into the effects of premature entry into the world of work on later employment indicates that the poorly educated are at highest risk of unemployment in their later lives (e.g. Ekstrom, Freeberg and Rock, 1987). Others have found that those who left school at the minimum age to get work were likely to spend most of their lives in part-time, unskilled jobs or on social welfare (Banks, 1992). In the absence of social welfare in India, unemployment is an ever-present reality.


Career development discontinuities – when privilege turns to disadvantage: This paper has consistently highlighted the psychological factors that underlie the career development difficulties of the disadvantaged. This does not mean that those from more privileged backgrounds do not face the risk of career development discontinuities. The higher SES groups in this study present a picture that is typical across cultures. This SES level offers a comfortable lifestyle, with enough left over to give the children in the family a start in their lives. Middle class families have usually been able to accumulate sufficient resources to offer their children a foundation upon which they could build their lives. However, these resources are not sufficient to preclude the necessity of children from these families having to become independent earners. In the absence of surpluses, therefore, the middle class family’s primary concern is the utilisation of existing resources in a manner that would yield the highest benefit.


Making effective career choices and developing a career plan that would optimally use family savings is thus an important concern for families at this SES level. Furthermore, the middle classes have tasted the fruits of prosperity and have also equipped themselves with the wherewithal to rise to higher levels of prosperity. The middle classes in almost all cultures are simultaneously confronted by the threat of slipping back to lower levels of social standing and the real possibility of rising up to higher levels along the status continuum. Indeed, it is this group that has everything to lose and everything to gain. Career success is one of the most important mechanisms available to these families to ensure that they keep moving higher up along the SES continuum.

Driven as they are by high aspirations and the desire to reach higher pinnacles of success, the middle classes are at high risk in choosing careers based on what the career offers rather than grounding career choice on the personhood of the career chooser. At one level, the findings on parental approval discussed above, indicate the quality of support that young people receive from their parents and families. At another level this could also be indicative of the kind of pressure young people experience to ‘get into the right college’, and choose ‘good’ careers. Privilege could bring with it the burden of making career choices that are socially acceptable – pushing the personhood of the individual to the background. In such situations people from privileged backgrounds could be entering the world of work from positions of disadvantage.


Ours is a country where services that support the career development of the youth are bereft of the consideration of policy-makers, researchers or practitioners. It is imperative that greater attention be directed toward this aspect of education in order to bring to full flower our youthful human resource. Having said this, the point we make is that career counselling needs are present, albeit in different forms, irrespective of whether the individual is from a background of disadvantage or privilege. In reality the importance of career planning is independent of socio-economic status. Career counselling is relevant and necessary for all social classes.

The crucial point to be noted is that counselling needs significantly vary across social groups. A single, standardised intervention cannot adequately address career development needs over a wide range of groups. While the themes and targets of counselling are perhaps similar, the methods of implementation need to be finely tuned to the special requirements that emerge within different socio-economic status groups. For example, career counselling that attempts to facilitate livelihood planning for the socio-economically disadvantaged would need to take serious note of the fatalistic overtones and the negative career beliefs that seem to characterise the young person’s view of the future. Of course this is not always the case. Yet, interventions for livelihood empowerment often do not account for the career beliefs of the disadvantaged young. In similar manner, career counselling would need to address the single minded search of middle and upper middle groups to find success through ‘good’ careers.


A relevant career counselling programme would address the question of transition from school in a person-centred manner. Irrespective of social class, for some this may mean college education, for others it could be vocational education. Effective counselling would take privilege and disadvantage into account and empower the individual to enter the world of work from a position of strength rather than disadvantage.


* This paper is based on the WORCC-IRS (2006), for which partial support was received from the Sir Ratan Tata Trust.



Arulmani, G. and Nag-Arulmani, S. (2004). Career Counselling: A Handbook. Tata McGraw Hill, New Delhi, pp. 107-109.

Banks, M. (1992). Careers and Identities. Open University Press, Milton Keynes.

Ekstrom, B.R., E.N. Freeberg and A.D. Rock (1987). ‘The Effects of a Youth Employment Program on Participation in Later Employment’, Evaluation Review 11(1), 84-101.

Krumboltz, J.D. (1979). A Social Learning Theory of Career Decision Making, in A.M. Mitchell and G.B. Jones (eds.), Social Learning and Career Decision Making (pp. 19-49). Carroll Press, USA.

McWhirter, E.H. (1997). ‘Perceived Barriers to Education and Career: Ethnic and Gender Differences’, Journal of Vocational Behaviour 50(1), 124-140.

Swanson, J.L., K.K. Daniels and D.M. Tokar (1996). ‘Assessing Perceptions of Career-Related Barriers: The Career Barrier Inventory’, Journal of Career Assessment 4(2), 219-244.

Work Orientations and Responses to Career Choices: Indian Regional Survey (WORCC-IRS) (2006), The Promise Foundation, Bangalore, India.