Ken Roberts Opportunity Structure Theory – Theories Every Careers Adviser Should Know

Ken Roberts in his opportunity structure theory argues that sociological factors pre-determine occupational choice. Roberts in effect sees our environments dictating to us the opportunities we have. Where we live, the qualifications we have, the state of the economy, our family background, our gender etc. all come together to in effect remove choice from us. For Roberts the focus is on being realistic about the hand society has dealt us and to come to accept it for ourselves.

To quote Roberts,

“An adequate theory for understanding school-leavers’ transition to employment in Britain needs to be based around the concept not of `occupational choice’, but of `opportunity structure”

Roberts went on to set out that careers are not about choosing a future because that is a myth but adjusting yourself to the opportunities that are available to you. Roberts research focussed on school leavers and the interplay between careers support and how socially close to various occupations were on the basis of class, race and gender. He concluded that these social factors were more significant than careers support. According to Roberts we all in face an opportunity structure based on who we are.

If we look back over news around the economic recession of the last few years we can see evidence to support this to some extent. During the recession women are lost their jobs at a disproportionately greater rate than men. In the UK youth unemployment is at a high of around 20% but if you are a young black man it rises to over 50% . It also appears where you live in the UK matters, live in the South East unemployment stands at 6.3% but if you live in the North East it stands at 11.6%. This shows that social factors like gender, age, race and location affect our careers.


For most career workers Roberts can be uncomfortable reading, as a profession careers workers tend to focus on psychological factors over sociological ones. We tend to focus on how aspiration can overcome background. It’s easy to want to disbelieve him but I think he is worth bearing with.

Roberts does seem to be overly dogmatic, I think from our experiences as practitioners we all know of people who are overcoming who they are in the search for what they want, on top of that Roberts has been criticised for his initial research (especially by Bill Law) on the basis of his methodology.

That said I feel we would be careful to pay attention to structure. Partly because even if it isn’t entirely deterministic it is often significant, understanding the structures we face can be an important part of being realistic in the world in which we live. Secondly I feel careers workers should recognise the importance of structures and so should be prepared to raise awareness and being politically active to support those we work for.


Roberts, K. (1977) `The social conditions, consequences and limitations of career guidance’, British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 5, p1-9.

Roberts,K. (1984) School Leavers and their Prospects, Buckingham: OU Press.

Roberts, K. (1995) Youth Employment in Modern Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

6 thoughts on “Ken Roberts Opportunity Structure Theory – Theories Every Careers Adviser Should Know

  1. What a sad indictment on society if we are to believe that we can only ever be a product of what society dishes out to us. How limiting a view for our youth and the unemployed if career inventions by trained career counsellors provide no opportunities for growth and improvement. Bernadette Gigliotti Australia

  2. I don’t think that Roberts is preaching fatalism. I think that his point is that we should be sceptical of viewpoints that say “you can be whatever you want to be” without acknowledging the structural differences that exist between individual’s life chances. I think that Roberts would argue that it is possible to changes these things but this requires collective action rather than individual choice making.

  3. Yep, I feel Roberts is under valued in a lot of discussion on theory. I feel that careers professionals don’t want to give negative messages to those they work with, which is right to an extent, working with an individual I always believe that they can break through their circumstances with the right support but I also need to recognise that some groups I work with have curtailed chances which challenges me to think what I should do about it. I think Tristram raises a good point, I wonder if partly the profession isn’t as good at collective action as it could be because it holds onto “you can be whatever you want to be” too much…

  4. Great points. Surely, the best career support includes not only helping clients identify and work towards goals, but also acknowledging systemic issues clients come up against, offering them a safe space to talk about those barriers, and advocating for change.

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