Governments have opportunity to use career development as a tool to advance social justice, sustainability and social change

 Pete Robertson

Author headshot.In the early years of the 21st century, public policy for career development began to be taken seriously by researchers, policy-makers and service leaders. Around that time, there were some international comparison studies led by key figures including Tony Watts, Ronald Sultana, Richard Sweet and Helmut Zelloth. From this work there emerged an international consensus about what governments were seeking to achieve when they created policies for career development. It seemed that governments were a) trying to make the labour market operate more efficiently, b) trying to make the education system and its interface with work operate more efficiently, and c) trying to promote social equity.

One of the great achievements of this work has been to secure recognition from international bodies that career development can contribute toward these governmental aims. A good indication of this is the joint statement by CEDEFOP, ETF, European Commission, ILO, OECD and UNESCO, which highlights the value of Investing in Career Guidance.

I have argued that this work is excellent for highlighting what governments do and say they do, but it does not capture everything they could do. The full potential contribution that career development services could make to society has not yet been recognized by policy-makers. By using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as inspiration, we can systematically consider all the policy goals of responsible governments. From this, we can identify additional potential contributions we can make to:

  • Health and well-being goals, through supportive guidance and access to good-quality (health-promoting) meaningful work and learning
  • Environmental goals, through guidance to support the transition to a green economy
  • Peace and justice goals, through reducing crime and social tensions by providing fair access to work and learning

It is for the career development profession to make the case that it can have an impact on multiple socially desirable outcomes. While it can be useful to identify separate categories of policy goals, there are some concerns that cut across all of these categories. These include the three s’s: social justice, sustainability and social change.

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Social justice

Most people are in favour of social justice, but we do not all agree on what it is. Arguing about justice and fairness has kept philosophers and politicians in work for centuries. There are a variety of different ways we could think about it. When applied to career development, for some, social justice means providing the same standard of service to all; for some, it means proactively targeting key groups; and for others it means a more radical stance of supporting people to challenge the system.

Nonetheless, it is relevant to all aspects of practice. It is also relevant to the big-picture policy objectives for career guidance. Disadvantaged groups find it harder to access and benefit from good educational opportunities and good quality jobs. They are more likely to have poor mental and physical health. They are likely to find it harder to avoid environmental degradation. And they are more likely to be on the wrong side of the criminal justice system.

Issues of social justice are central to career development work and should infuse all aspects of policy with and awareness of the needs of disadvantaged groups.

Hand holding light bulb with icons showing energy sources for renewable, sustainable development
The need to promote environmentally sustainable careers is increasingly as unavoidable as the impacts of climate change. (iStock)

Sustainability is another slippery concept, with many people seeing it as broadly a good thing. It has been used cynically in some corporate marketing to “greenwash” carbon-producing corporate interests. Nonetheless it is a useful and multi-faceted idea. Of course, the UN goals give great prominence to sustainability. The term has become familiar from its ecological sense, and the need to promote environmentally sustainable careers is increasingly as unavoidable as the impacts of climate change. But sustainability is a usefully ambiguous term: it means the potential to endure over time. This does not imply a static position; renewal and adaptation are necessary to survive.

The notion of the “sustainable career” has been explored by management scholar Ans De Vos and her colleagues. De Vos, Dujardin, Gielens and Meyers (2016) suggested that the sustainable career needs to be on policy-makers’ agendas. With longer life spans come longer careers, and the need to find pathways through education and work that can be sustained and renewed over several decades. Work needs to be health-promoting rather than harmful in order to be sustainable, and this may require some re-adjustment as we age.

Societal change

In considering career development policy, there is a distinction to make between a reactive and proactive role for career services. In some conceptions, career services are seen as part of the education and employment systems, perhaps even as a lubricant to help the machinery work more smoothly. This positions services as more or less supporting the status quo. It is very different from seeing career services as proactive agents or levers for social change. This latter position could be described as “radical.”

This does not mean distorting individual career counselling to push the political agenda of the practitioner. But it might mean re-envisaging career education and career learning in group settings to raise awareness of social issues and change. Career development does not have simply react to socio-economic change; it can help to drive the transformation.


Career development services will continue to focus on supporting the operation of the labour market and education system, and in promoting social equity. In addition to their traditional role, career services may also be able to make a contribution to public health policy, to environmental policy and to criminal justice policy objectives. Infusing all of these areas must be a concern to promote fairness in society, to help individuals find long-term sustainable solutions and to reflect a willingness for services to take a pro-active role in the social changes that we face.

A former career adviser, Pete Robertson is Professor in the School of Applied Sciences at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland where he teaches policy and theory to trainee career development practitioners. He is a Fellow of the National Institute for Career Education and Counselling (NICEC) and promotes the work of the Career Development Institute (CDI) in Scotland.