Does Relative Poverty lead to sub-optimal career decisions?


Poverty as it is known has been defined as the state of living in perpetual scarcity and is classified into Absolute and Relative poverty. Relative poverty is a poverty standard which varies across different countries, the threshold on which it is measured differs from one society or country to the next. Regardless of the societal differences, the concern on poverty is not only with regards to the short term effects but also on the ripple effects resulting from the presently existing dilemma which has far reaching consequences that can determine or shape the entire course of one’s whole life.What often comes to mind, when we think of poverty, is the lack of food and physical strength but, the other related factors are as devastating as the physical impairments. Not being physically fit acts as a barrier to an individual’s ability to create or engage in activities that might enable them get out of the poverty trap, however, the psychological consequences of poverty on the psyche shapes the way people think, their actions taken and decisions they make. It is self-evident that the career decisions of people are influenced by their state of being, so the two fundamental questions are! What is a sub optimal career and how much does poverty lead someone into choosing a career path that is sub-optimal to their default desires? Before diving into this there are some basic key terms I would like to elaborate on.

In this context I would define a career as the progress and actions taken by a person throughout a lifetime, especially those related to that person’s occupations, therefore a sub optimal career can be considered to be actions taken by an individual in acquiring an occupation that is below the standards optimal for them in achieving the state of wellbeing. In my opinion, relative poverty directly influences career decisions to a great extent. Individuals who fall under relative poverty might not attain entirely their full potentials, they pursue opportunities which will enable the provision of certain basic artefacts. These opportunities might unconventionally become careers not by choice but given circumstances. Now if I were relatively poor, my first instinct will be to go after any opportunity which most often only provides the very basics for survival. Hence poverty might affect the career path one choses or goes for due to a number of factors which ranges from financial to psychological aspects and these factors can be seen as follows:

Psychological factors

Cognitive Bias: An article written by Matt Helmer in 2015 analysed how poverty and cognitive bias did impact decisions and actions. He established that the circumstances and stress of poverty consume a great deal of one’s cognitive abilities, attention and self-control thus making one less objective which limits their capabilities in making optimal decisions.

Risk adversity: People in poverty do experiment rarely or take any kind of risk scarcely. They are easily overwhelmed by complex decisions as they try to reduce to the minimum, the margin of error when it comes to decision making compared to wealthier people who can easily recover or change a career path if they made a bad decision. The consequences of the actions of poor people has a more significant effect on their lives. They tend to be less experimental and risk averse, thus settling for the easiest route or safest career choice which is most often not their optimal career choice if circumstances were different.

Identity: Poverty as any other aspect in our social environment forms part of the identity of those afflicted by it. People who are thought of as being poor are associated with negative stigma and stereotypes which can influence their view of themselves and hence subconsciously condition their mind to aim for nothing better. Whilst some may change their view of their place of origin into motivation many do associate themselves to these stereotypes feeling that they as well are incompetent. According to the literature by Ridge (2009) some side effects of poverty are; lower esteem and confidence, lack of belief in one’s capabilities, therefore, settling for a career which needs only base requirements and these usually tend to be poorly paid jobs.

Peer influence: We are all familiar with the saying that birds of the same feathers flock together, they talk together, walk together. Who your friends are affects more than just what the type of jeans you buy, friends have the capacity to affect ones tastes, activities, and lives overall. You tend to act like the people you are associated with over time and this condition is described as homophily by sociologists. It has been established that humans naturally conform to social influence — to their surroundings, environment, strangers, peers, friends, and the like. People tend to socially conform or mimic their friends’ behaviour and attitudes based mainly on these two reasons: the need for information and the need to feel accepted by other people. So if one’s friends consist predominantly of people of the same social and financial background which is most often the case, they might tend to choose the same career as their peers because that is all they know about and also to be accepted and not ostracized or excluded from their communities. This is closely related with the identity crisis which I mentioned above i.e. settling for something less because everyone else around is doing the same and lack of self believe and trust in one’s capabilities.

Financial constraints

Work vs. dream job: A person with a job can still find themselves in a relative poor state. Someone can be doing what they love and consider self-fulfilling but if they are faced with relative poverty coupled with added pressure which might come from family, they could, contrary to their wishes take up a different job in order to meet the needs of their families. In this case the job could be well-paid but remains nonetheless a suboptimal career decision for them as they would love to do something else. The sole importance of a career is not only the provision of economic wellbeing (although it is the primary reason) but also to bring about a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. This privilege is often rare for poor people as the seldom have the luxury to choose their careers or career path based on their wishes due to lack of economic resources.


Education: Amongst other reasons like skills and ability, interest and personality type, one of the major factors that influence career choice, is type of education and level of education which is directly influenced by the financial resources available to acquire this education. This has been addressed in several career theories such as social cognitive career theory and social learning. According to these studies, events that take place in our lives may affect the choices available to us and even dictate our choices to a certain degree. To be able to get the adequate training needed for one’s dream job there has to be the necessary financial resources available, thus the absence of this leads young people to settle for something less than what they envision or hoped for.

Unemployment: Pressures from being unemployed can force an individual into a taking a job offer which they might not really like. They take up such jobs only for the economic benefits which again might not be their optimal-career decision.


In conclusion, our decisions and actions are guided greatly by our state of mind and resources available and this is influenced by the circumstances we find ourselves in, which intend might influence our career decisions. Therefore, there is no surprise that the decisions taken by a person leaving in poverty is determined by their circumstances. So to a great extend relative poverty does indeed influence career decisions of people faced with it, which I arguably state could be suboptimal to their default desires or full potential. However, I do not fail to recognise that rich or poor, career decisions are weighted decisions relative to each individual’s situations.

Do you agree?


  • Ferry, N. (2006):’Factors Influencing Career Choices of Adolescents and Young Adults in Rural Pennsylvania. [online] Journal of Extention. Available at: [Accessed o2 June. 2016]

5 thoughts on “Does Relative Poverty lead to sub-optimal career decisions?

  1. I like this topic and I enjoyed reading your blog 🙂

    I would like to raise some questions 🙂

    1. The writing seems to be more about “how” relative Poverty lead to sub-optimal career decisions instead of “how much”. I think it is very difficult to quantify the impact of relative poverty on career decisions. Do you think it may be better that the title is changed to “how”?

    2. By choosing better careers, people become rich; they are not poor anymore. Therefore the poor can make optimal desicions. I think there might be a reverse causality issue, i.e. sub-optimal career decisions lead to relative poverty.

    3. I wonder how the “optimal” career should be defined. Although I agree that the poor may choose some “sub-optimal” career due to their circumstances, I am not sure whether the rich have the “optimal” career. Could the rich be richer? And is “being rich” or “having a high income” a good standard for choosing “optimal career”?

    So maybe by better clarifying the concept of “sub-optimal career decisions”, the arguments will be further substantiated. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am in full agreement with you with regards to the title of the blog post so i had it changed from “how much” into “Does” 😉
      However on the point you raised on poor people taking optimal decisions, i agree only to a certain extend. People indeed become rich if the get a job that allevaites them out of poverty but defining the job as an optimal career will have to depend on the individual’s ideals and personal preferences. So because of their previous circumstances, they are pushed to a corner with limited bandwidth to make the most optimal decisions for themselves, so they might take optimal decisions but the chances are limited. Also feeling fulflled in an occupation one undertakes should not only be measured in monetary terms, thus taking up a certain job in itself might be an optimal decision but at the same time could still remain a sub optimal career choice. From my pespective, a sub optimal career can be considered to be actions taken by an individual in acquiring an occupation that is below the standards optimal for them in achieving the state of wellbeing, state of wellbeing meaning that the are fully satisfied, fulfilled and motivated with the occupation they are undertaking.
      I do also definitely agree that there is a situation of reverse causality, thats why i did not focus on the fact that poverty in itself was the sole reason that led to a sub optimal career choice (which answers your last question) but tried to identify the effects of poverty from its standpoint on the career choices of people faced with this.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. To an extent I agree that poverty influences the decision of the poor in choosing job careers. But a famous saying goes that poverty discover ones talent. By your definition of sub-optimal career decisions, I disagree that poverty influences the poor to make sub-optimal career decisions. Judging from the facts that some of the richest people (like Howard Schultz, Ken Langone, Oprah Winfrey, Shahid Khan , and the list goes on) today were once poor or very poor . Will you then say their decisions was sub-optimal? Even though today they are billionaires. I think a well-defined meaning of sub-optimal career decisions is needed to understand the influence poverty has on the decision of the poor in choosing job careers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There is no denying that some people from very poor backgrounds are some of the most successful 🙂
    As i stated under the psychological factors, those who succeed in seeing and thinking beyond their circumstances and take risk regardless, if successful will pull themselves out of poverty. However most others would not be willing to take such risk, they would prefer a surer route or a more attainable career choice rather than an dream job since the consequences of their actions have more far reaching effects than that of a rich person so the shy away from risk reducing the span of possibilities availble to them.
    Also to be noted is the fact that a sub-optimal career does not necessary mean a low paying job and should not be measured only in monetary terms. From my pespective as i defined above, a sub optimal career can be considered to be actions taken by an individual in acquiring an occupation that is below the standards optimal for them in achieving the state of wellbeing. With the state of wellbeing meaning that the are fully satisfied, fulfilled and motivated with the occupation they are undertaking. Additionally, i was not qualifying in absolute terms everyone faced with poverty to always taking less optimal decisions. Nonetheless a decision can be optimal based on given circumstances but still be a sub-optimal career choice.


  4. Interesting blog post! I would be cautious in mentioning a handful of billionaires as ´proof´ of poverty being an incentive to optimal career choices as Emmanuel suggested. We can make the mistake of cherry picking examples of famous celebrities or billionaires but i have 2 issues with such an approach

    1. Every rich person seems to have a rags to riches story which somehow, in my opinion, smoothens out any guilt or criticisms from the less fortunate and ensures an alignment with the poor both of which help the former´s public image and justifies their continuous pursuit of wealth. I am sure if I won the lotto today, my ´rags to riches´ story would be of the likes you have never seen! wouldn’t you agree? 🙂

    2. Poverty is relative to the environment, culture or society you find yourself in. Being poor in America could be perceived as being totally different from being poor in a developing country. Buying power, access to credit and reliable institutions that guarantee individuals have equal access to informed educational and career choices are quite different around the world

    I would like to contribute in general to the blog post in mentioning that sometimes not too much is said about the importance of the future value of money, the accumulation of assets and wealth and the impact it has when offspring inherit from their parents or grandparents. This might be a little too broad but i do believe that in lots of developing countries where entire societies and cultures have been ripped apart either by the evils of slavery or even more recently colonialism and wars, it has been impossible for any ownership of property to exist or let alone be handed down either in the form of inheritance or accumulated societal capital. As such, the very poor, in certain areas of the world, have absolutely nothing in their name and as such are already doomed in their ability to make wise career choices. For laughs, there is a trend now in certain African recruitment agencies where prospective employees are asked to write down ´who they know´ in a bid to give some type of social capital to their relatively inexistent professional ties. In all, I personally believe that the most frequent condition of the extreme poor is a life of limited irregular income possibly obtained from family, charity or social networks.


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