Why a social justice informed approach to career guidance matters in the time of coronavirus


In this post Tristram Hooley, Ronald Sultana and Rie Thomsen discuss how the coronavirus is shaping our careers. They argue that governments need to recognise that now is a critical time to support career guidance, because people’s careers are being critically disrupted by the virus. But, they go on to argue, that managing a crisis is not enough. Career guidance also has to help people to understand the way in which politics and power are shaping the post-coronavirus world. In such a situation, we need to be thinking about how we can make the new normal a more just, humane and sustainable world.

Over the past few years we have been writing about the importance of supporting people and communities to broaden the way that they think about career. Career is not just a synonym for the time we spend on the labour market selling our time to the highest bidder. Rather, career is a thread that runs through your life joining your paid work, with your unpaid work, education, family time, leisure, citizenship and everything else. It is about exploring fresh ways of being human in the Anthropocene, ways that are respectful of self as symbiotically nested in communities and in, alas, increasingly endangered environments.

If the concept of ‘career’ is the great hero in our story, then ‘neoliberalism’ has been the villain. Neoliberal structures and the way the culture of neoliberalism has colonised our thinking is what transforms the potentially emancipatory promise of career (where you determine what you do with your life) into a process defined by individualism, competition, insecurity, wage slavery and oppression.

Our criticism of much preceding writing on career has been that it has focused on the emancipatory possibilities of agency and ignored the way in which the political economy shapes this agency and hollows out the elements of self-actualisation. Careering within neoliberalism has been transformed into little more than running in a rat race that is ultimately detrimental to our own human and highly destructive to the wider environment

The recognition of both the importance of career as a route through which human flourishing can take place and the role that neoliberalism has played in crushing hope and diminishing possibilities throws down the gauntlet for ‘career guidance’. We argue that career guidance is at its heart ‘a purposeful learning opportunity which supports individuals and groups to consider and reconsider work, leisure and learning in the light of new information and experiences and to take both individual and collective action as a result of this’ (from Career Guidance for Social Justice). Our argument has been than in the kind of world we live in, career guidance can support human flourishing and emancipation and help people to challenge and transcend neoliberal ruling mechanisms. We do not want to ignore, or seek to remain neutral to, the challenges of power and context, as that would be to abandon the promises that career guidance makes with citizens that it can help them to live a meaningful life.

Our work clearly has its roots in the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Of course, we are building on a long tradition of work in critical pedagogy, and a somewhat smaller tradition of work on radical or emancipatory career guidance, but the crisis in neoliberalism in 2008 and its subsequent wobbles and stagnation opened up space for a new conversation within our field. Neoliberal rhetoric, with its promises of ever-increasing wealth and consumption looked increasingly unlikely to be fulfilled. Indeed, such promises to the individual proved to be actually harmful to us and the ecosystem that we inhabit. Since 2008 radical ideas about alternative ways in which society can be organised have started to enter the mainstream, and in our small corner of the world, we have started to wonder about what role career guidance can play in this global discussion about the future, our future

Enter the coronavirus

In the period that we have been writing about these things the world has been throwing up increasingly confusing phenomenon. On one hand we have the new authoritarians (Trump, Orban, Modi), Brexit, and the growth of the nationalist far right. On the other, we see new forms of resistance in Greta Thunberg, Podemos, and the leftward swings of the British Labour Party and the US Democrats. It has been difficult enough to make sense of these spasms of late neoliberalism, but from the start of 2020 coronavirus entered the scene and all of the rules of political economy seem to be being shredded.

The emergence of coronavirus seems to come from nowhere. It reminds us that human beings are not the only actors on the planet and that sometimes things can happen that aren’t the result of any policy, social movement or even political and economic system. It has dramatised the fact that we are vulnerable, that what we take for granted about the game of life as we currently play it can fall apart quite quickly, comprehensively and seemingly for no reason.

Yet, despite the seemingly random nature of coronavirus we should be carefully not to decontextualise it. As the pandemic scientist Nita Madhav and her colleagues wrote in 2017the likelihood of pandemics has increased over the past century because of increased global travel and integration, urbanization, changes in land use, and greater exploitation of the natural environment’. What is more they note that countries with strong healthcare systems and the capacity to take concerted, systemic action are more able to deal with pandemics. They also highlight some of the dangers of uneven global capacity to manage a pandemic as we are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain.

All of this reminds us that while neoliberal thinking and acting did not cause the coronavirus, the world as it is is highly susceptible to such pandemics and natural disasters – a lesson many of us learnt, or should have learnt, from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in 2005. Neoliberal policies designed to ‘roll back the state’ and individualise responsibility for health and social care inevitably reduce our capacity to collectively manage crises like pandemics at a societal level when they come along. As the political economist Will Davies wrote in the context of the coronavirus crisis, the ‘end of Keynesianism is so often seen in fiscal and monetary terms. But it was epistemological too. [The] neoliberal state abandoned efforts to govern collectively, and now doesn’t know how to.’ At the moment, we are witnessing different kinds of responses from different states’ governments. From those making no clear policy response to the crisis to governments (both in social welfare states and in more fiscally liberal economies) compensating idle workers and covering necessary business-maintenance costs while ‘businesses are hibernating’ as Berkely economists Saez and Zucman put it.

All of this has led to the unedifying spectacle of the political leadership of the world in complete panic and uncertain about what to do next. While a few ideologues like Britain’s Ian Duncan Smith are holding on to neoliberal ideology throughout the pandemic, most are desperately searching around for any tools that might allow them to prevent social and economic collapse. This has led to some strange realignments, for example with former US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney exploring universal basic income and South Korea receiving international praise for the high levels of state intervention that have characterised the countries response.

There are various scenarios that we can model on the long-term impacts of the pandemic. In the most optimistic we are back to ‘normal’ by the summer. But, more realistic models note that even if the pandemic disappears through some miraculous technofix, the damage to the economy is likely to be real and substantial. Many restaurants, bars, airlines and shops will have closed their doors during the period of social distancing and may not be able to open them again without substantial state support and economic stimulus. Much high skilled work is in the process of shifting online and it is unclear whether this will prove to be a long-term change, but what is clear is that there is going to be a battle about what the new normal is going to look like in terms of work and working life.

Where do career and career guidance fit into this?

The experience of the coronavirus has already seen one of the most profound and collective shifts in our careers since the Second World War. This is especially the case when seen in conjunction with the growing realisation that we have reached the tipping point in the climate emergency, and that notions of work based on an ever expanding economy are, quite simply and quite irrevocably, unsustainable. The pandemic served to give the knock-out blow to stable conceptions of the nature of work, leisure, family life, and society. Much of the advice that we might have given about how to build a successful career can simply be cast aside. In a world where going into the office, networking and attending an interview are all things of the past career guidance needs to radically and quickly reform its messages. What is more, career guidance has always been weaker when it is talking about informal and precarious forms. Yet, in the current environment precarious workers are in desperate need of help and support as many of the industries that they are in have collapsed.

While the coronavirus’ primary threat is to our health, in many ways the secondary threat to the economy is likely to have an even greater impact. We can expect unemployment to rise, occupational shifting to increase, and job content to change. With school closures and leisure activities disappearing we can also expect to see work becoming more central to people’s lives and increasingly tangled up with family life. We are also likely to see the emergence of new inequalities as white collar workers, with the exception of health workers, who remain on the front line, hide away from the disease behind their laptops while blue collar workers have to continue to brave the outside world.

In such a situation career guidance should be an essential service (see also Emma Bolger on this topic). How are you going to deal with changes to your earning potential, work, family and social life? What are the right strategies to deal with these changes, both individually and collectively? Exploring different answers to these questions together with citizens is something that career guidance practitioners can take on. Career guidance can act as a sounding board for personal reflection and as a pool for socially acquired knowledge. Obviously this requires careers professionals to make use of online forms of practice, but thankfully there is already a lot of practice to build on (here and here for example).

There is also a need for government and other stakeholders to react quickly to the major shifts that coronavirus is bringing about in people’s work, learning and leisure and recognise that career guidance is exactly the kind of support needed. What are people thinking about how they want to live their lives with education, learning and work in the new future? Governments need to fund career guidance as part of the package of measures that are offered in response to the crisis.

From crisis to transformation

In the current situation it would be very easy for career guidance to go into crisis-management mode and focus solely on helping people to adjust to the process of careering during, and in the aftermath of, the pandemic. Such an approach would inevitably focus on adaption and adjustment and runs the risk of constructing the outside world as a fixed and unchanging reality. People are experiencing a new reality during the coronavirus. These experiences, as complex as they are, might hold something that individuals and communities wants to and will take further.

The social distancing strategy has created a transformative pedagogic moment, that will of course be exploited in different ways by different interest groups (political, religious, and others) who will all seek to use it to foster different kinds of learning and lead people to different conclusions. In such a situation our role as careers workers is to help people to see that there are a range of different solutions to this crisis and that we need to think them through carefully and consider who benefits from each of them. This kind of analysis can help individuals to consider how to career more effectively and to recognise that careering is not just about learning to videoconference, but also about exerting pressure for better sick pay, healthcare, job security and control over the direction of the economy.

Therefore, we argue that a social justice approach to career guidance remains relevant, indeed even essential, within the context of the coronavirus. In Career Guidance for Emancipation we offer five signposts towards what a socially just approach to career guidance might look like. In the context of the coronavirus this looks like this:

  • Build critical consciousness. During this period of crisis careers workers can help people to understand the situation, not just to react to it on a personal level. This means to encourage people to think about the politics of the situation and consider where they stand on the approaches that are being taken by governments, businesses and other actors.
  • Name oppression. It is already clear that the coronavirus is not going to affect everyone equally. Older people, those with pre-existing conditions and the immunocompromised look set to be made increasingly vulnerable to losing work, health and potentially their lives. Meanwhile, precarious workers, those on low pay and those without reserve capital also face unique challenges that go beyond maintaining their health. Unless these groups are supported they look set to bare the brunt of the crisis. Careers professionals can recognise the specific needs of these groups, help them to see injustice and inequities in their treatment and organise in solidarity with them to ensure that they can still have access to a decent career.
  • Question what is normal. What is normal is shifting quickly in the current situation. But discussion about a ‘return to normal’ and what the ‘new normal’ look like are likely to become the frontiers in political debate and discussion. Within our careers this is likely to manifest as a thousand micro-struggles about where and when we are expected to work, what work consists of, what constitutes sickness, stress and wellness and so on. Encouraging individuals to question and challenge these ideas of normality is a key role for career guidance.
  • Encourage people to work together. The coronavirus creates a complex environment for social solidarity. On one level it has created a recognition of common experience that transcends age, race, nationality and other markers of difference. On the other hand it has atomised us, preventing us to come together. Careers workers can help individuals to come together for the purposes of support, solidarity and action. Mutual aid groups are emerging quickly and we need to be part of them. As the new normal emerges individuals can together figure out how they respond both personally and politically to the new context for careering. Careers working can play an important role in facilitating this social interaction through a variety of online and other tools.
  • Work at a range of levels. Finally careers workers canrecognise that career isn’t just be viewed as work with individuals. We are in a period of rapid change and renegotiation and ensuring that people can build meaningful careers is going to require intervention into organisational, social and political systems as well as advice, counselling and education.

Not our final words

The coronavirus pandemic is an ongoing situation. We don’t claim to understand what is happening or where it will lead. This post is an early attempt to try and theorise the situation and think through the kind of response that career guidance might make to it. We would be interested to hear from other people and would welcome hearing from people who want to write more about this.

In the meantime, we urge people to stay safe, continue to practice socially just career guidance where they can and hold on to the idea that the future might still lead us to a better world.


  1. This is brilliant…I work for the Church of England (Gill Ferario is on my Advisory Group) and part of my project is around social vocations and how we are more attentive to this in our life as a church and in how we encourage ideas of calling and service. Really helpful read this…would love to dialogue further.


  2. To me, social justice is about many things including combatting religious discrimination, gender discrimination, racial and cultural discrimination, and ethnic discrimination. It’s about forms of governance, dictatorships, nationalism, monetized elections, monetized passports, corrupt government, clientelism, modern slavery, off-shore tax havens, organized crime including state supported money laundering, forced economic migration, civil wars such as Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and the Kurdish and Palestinian rights to a home country etc. etc. It’s also about the poverty that arises from any or all of the above. International economic trade wars and trade barriers, post-colonial global supply chains, and economic philosophies such as neo-liberalism also contribute to social injustice.

    Social justice is not just about economic justice. I have huge difficulty when a group of learned scholars reduce ‘the challenges of power and context’ to a single issue, economic philosophy, especially given that their references to this are more likely to be for developed economies which leaves out a huge swath of Mother Earth. All forms of discrimination and corrupt government block people from ‘living a meaningful life’, all forms, and not just a single issue like economic philosophy. Likewise, pandemics are not the only natural disasters. Think of the devasting social and economic consequences of earthquakes on the lives of inhabitants and communities in some countries.

    The stated intention of the three authors is ‘an attempt to theorise the situation’ arising out of the current pandemic and to develop a response for career guidance, forecasting ‘a knock -out blow to stable conceptions of the nature of work, leisure, family life, and society’. This to my mind is a very Western view of the world. Populations and communities of many countries have been living these ambiguities and the accompanying poverty for centuries before this pandemic struck and will continue to do so after it ends. Certainly, it’s a big shock to western societies who have varying degrees of welfare and health safety nets, and for different groups of workers. In other countries, these safety nets are non-existent and without any plans for their development. Maybe western countries can learn from such countries or re-learn experiences such as family and extended family and community solidarity, entrepreneurship, and how to survive in precarious living conditions and in informal economies.

    As the authors point out, this is a moment in time and an opportunity for resetting the clock of economic philosophy. But for which countries? And for which people in which countries? It is not clear at this point in time how different the effects of this pandemic will be from those of the 1918 Spanish flu, the Great Depression, the two world wars, and the 2008 crash. But, just as for all of these world crises, the effects will be different for each country and for different groups within a country because economic philosophy, where it exists, is only one of many features of a society, and does not address the religious, racial, ethnic, cultural, gender, and governance factors, among others, that contribute to social justice.

    So, let’s look at the career guidance response proposed by the three authors. Career practitioners should engage in ‘emancipatory guidance’, use their individual interviews and group interventions with clients to get the clients to “exert pressure for better sick pay, healthcare, job security, and control over the direction of the economy…to think about the politics of the situation, name oppression, help them to see injustice and inequity, organize in solidarity, respond personally and politically, intervene in organizational, social and political systems”. Really? All in the space of a 40-minute (or less) interview or group intervention? I think I must be living on another planet. Is that the job of a career practitioner or of someone else? Do clients come to meet the career practitioner for such ‘emancipatory guidance’ or do they come for other reasons? If ‘emancipatory guidance’ is the menu to be served to clients both physically and virtually, it will be no surprise that clients will vote with their feet and fingers. Career guidance which is already marginalized in policy terms will be decimated by ‘emancipatory guidance’!

    In my view, social justice proponents with a single focus on economic philosophy have hijacked the field of career guidance in recent years, especially the themes of IAEVG international conferences and national conferences. It’s almost as if all other forms of social injustice do not exist. I am not aware of any joint statement of these authors (or indeed of the IAEVG annual conferences) on the social causes and effects of devastating wars in Syria and Iraq nor of the conditions of the prisoners in Syria, Egypt and Guantanamo, nor of the Uighurs in China, nor of the caste system in India and Nepal, to give just a few examples. The focus on neoliberalism is like a paper tiger. It’s very easy to attack it, where it exists, but it’s not the only nor the main contributor to social injustice worldwide. And the solutions for career guidance proposed by the authors, as described in the previous paragraph, ignore completely the work contexts of the career practitioners and the actual needs and cultures of their clients. There is a huge and unbelievable disconnect. Imagine a client telling a friend: ‘I went there to get help with my CV but all I got was a lecture on social justice’!

    In conclusion, I expect learned scholars who write and speak about social justice to have a wider view of a ‘just society’ and also not just a western (and mainly Anglo-Saxon) view, and not just an economic view. Similarly, I expect that all citizens, individually and in groups, acting in civic duty, should play a role in promoting all forms of social justice in the society in which they live in accordance with their capacity and time and means to do so. I expect national curricula in schools in every country worldwide to inform young people of their social justice rights and obligations in all spheres of human activity. And I expect that career practitioners, in the contexts in which they work, to undertake the jobs for which they are being paid and have been trained, and to address the real needs of their clients as expressed by the clients.

    John McCarthy, Nice, France
    30th March 2020


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