Career Development, Vulnerable Populations and the Lens of Scarcity
By Elizabeth Robertson
Scarcity, as defined by Mullainathan and Shafir’s (2013) book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, is a mindset. “When scarcity captures our attention, it changes how we think – whether it is at the level of milliseconds, hours, or days and weeks. By staying top of mind, it affects what we notice, how we weigh our choices, how we deliberate, and ultimately what we decide and how we behave” (p.12). Scarcity affects how we interpret the world around us and is a reflection of current circumstances.
A deeper understanding of how scarcity shows up in the lives of clients allows career practitioners to see the circumstances impacting client behavior more clearly. This clarity offers a unique opportunity to understand why behavior may be out of alignment with a client’s motivation, values or goals.
What Do You Wish You Had More Of?
No one is exempt from scarcity. To understand scarcity in the lives of those you serve you must start with yourself. Ask yourself, what do I wish I had more of? I offer the example of Kate, who wishes she had more hours in the day. Kate works two jobs to makes ends meet for her children and identifies being present to her children as her top priority. There is a rhythm to her life and, when everything goes as planned, Kate feels alignment with her values. However, one unexpected expense on her time has the potential to significantly disrupt the pattern. The scarce time starts pulling Kate away from time with her children, capturing her thoughts, and focusing her efforts on how the unexpected circumstance could have been prevented as opposed to considering alternative solutions. Now, take a look inward. Consider when your time was so scarce it had the ability to capture your mind and dictate your behaviors, possibly leading you to neglect other areas of your life that are otherwise deeply valued. This is what Mullainathan and Shafir (2013) refer to as an “empathy bridge” (p. 150). While it is not enough, the first step in understanding scarcity in the lives of others is to recognize it in your own life.
Now consider how scarcity shows up in your role as a career practitioner: what are the circumstances that appear to throw clients into a different behavioral pattern? When goals appear to change frequently or commitments are dropped, what circumstances are impacting behavior? This requires a critical move away from assumptions about behaviors, particularly behaviors that are out of alignment with stated goals or assume lack of motivation.
Pulled from Mullainathan and Shafir (2013), the concepts below provide four key and foundational definitions of how scarcity drops in, using the example of Kate above:
- Tunneling: focusing single-mindedly on managing the scarcity at hand. This is Kate’s inability to see alternative solutions as her focus remains narrow and immediate.
- Bandwidth: our capacity to pay attention, make good decisions and stick with plans. A taxed bandwidth for Kate may make it harder to control impulses and make decisions.
- Packing and Slack: Scarcity creates packing experts; “the big suitcase is packed carelessly, with room to spare. The small suitcase is packed tightly and carefully” (p.70). Kate’s focus on how far her resources will go make her an expert packer.
- Borrowing: a consequence of tunneling; scarcity in all forms leads to borrowing. Kate’s focus on making ends meet now may create a short-sightedness for the future, potentially leading to more scarcity.
Review Your Programs with a Critical Eye:
Experience your program as a client. Consider the components of your programs, workshops or expectations for program compliance that prompt a change in circumstance. Recognize the impact changing circumstances may have from the client’s point of view. Consider how taxed bandwidths show up in group settings and how to balance the effort someone is putting in with the circumstances they are currently facing.
- Create goals and map out career plans early on in the program or relationship with the client, or at times when bandwidth may be less taxed
- Be upfront with clients about upcoming timelines and create plans to move through expected changes as well as strategies for unexpected changes
- Highlight what support is available now and in the future
In group settings, such as the classroom, allow additional time/space for processing material and revisiting key concepts
- Set expectations around appropriately handling immediate situations taxing bandwidth, modeling skills for future employment.
Coach with New Intentions
Inform your coaching with your newfound lens of scarcity. Intentionally assess barriers, particularly when you have identified a behavior change, and look for the “predictable consequences” (p.162) of an overtaxed bandwidth. Seek opportunities to increase bandwidth by identifying incentives that fall inside the tunnel for someone experiencing scarcity.
- Identify discrepancy in behavior (e.g., “In the past I have seen, today I am seeing…”)
- Build on areas of expertise with clients and encourage application of expertise toward other areas
- Expand the range—hold the vision for someone who doesn’t have the current bandwidth to hold it for themselves
- Increase bandwidth with proactive support for planning and frequent deadlines that allow clients to see their end goal.
For practitioners working with vulnerable populations or individuals living in poverty, the effects of scarcity on goal setting and follow-through may be significant. While circumstances may remain outside of our control, understanding the scarcity mindset provides an opportunity for all practitioners to proactively approach and support clients experiencing scarcity.
Mullainathan, S. and Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. New York, NY: Times Books, Henry Holt and Company.
Elizabeth Robertson, M.A., holds a Masters in Higher Education from the University of Denver where she focused her training on student and career development. She is passionate about implementing career development practices that value the experience and meaning of employment for individuals with limited volition. Elizabeth serves as the Manager of Employment Services at the Center for Work Education and Employment (CWEE), a nonprofit in Denver, Colorado that works with low-income parents on their path to becoming self-supporting. Elizabeth is an active member of NCDA and serves on the board for the Colorado Career Development Association (CCDA). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org