The lyrics to the song criticize the culture of demonizing the unemployed and assuming that taking a low-level, dead-end job is better than being unemployed at all ('The offered me the office, offered me the shop/They said I'd better take anything they'd got', and 'Career opportunities are the ones that never knock/Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock'). It is about unemployment and the culture of no-hope for those stuck in menial jobs, like that is the best they will ever get in life.
In an interview with Caroline Coon in 1976, guitarist Mick Jones baulked at the suggestion that someone had to do the dirty and menial jobs, noting that technology and machines had advanced to the point where a lot of manual labor jobs in factories could be done with machinery now, before adding, "There's a social stigma attached to being unemployed. Like Social Security Scroungers every day in The Sun (a British newspaper)...go up North and the kids are ashamed that they can't get a job." Clash bass player Paul Simonon said that this song is about the lack of jobs and how kids had the same old, nearly identical lives. Most of Paul's friends from school went to work at a factory around the corner because the school didn't give them any other opportunities or decisions.
The title of Career Opportunities came from taking a headline in the Evening Standard newspaper - the same method the band (and bassist Paul Simonon in particular) used to name the band.
Part of the lyrics (largely the line 'I won't open letterbombs for you') could have been inspired by Mick Jones' experiences in a part-time job he held a few years before forming The Clash, where he worked as a clerical assistant at a DHSS Benefit Office. At the time, government buildings were on a high terrorist alert, with the IRA terrorist organization using letterbombs as weapons. So with no one wanting to open the mail at the benefit office, his senior co-workers made Jones, as the most junior staff member, open and check all the mail. He mentioned in a 1977 interview to Tony Parsons about his experiences, saying "Most of the letters the social security get are from people saying their neighbors don't need the money. The whole thing works on spite."
According to Mick Jones, the whole song was written in half an hour at their rehearsal space, and that included an argument about a section of the lyrics concerning pensions, which Paul Simonon refused to sing and were eventually dropped from the final song.
The song was one of many early tracks The Clash recorded for their early demos before signing to CBS (including a version recorded for Polydor featuring production from future London Calling producer Guy Stevens, which is included on the compilation package Clash on Broadway), before being recorded again at Whitfield Studio 3 for their debut self-titled album.
An unusual remix of the song, totally different from the original, is featured on 1980 triple album Sandinista! On it, pianos replace the guitar riff, and session musician Micky Gallagher's two sons, Luke and Ben, sing vocals featuring amended lyrics ("civil service rules" is changed to "my school's rules," for example).
Nobody quite knows why it exists, perhaps as a band in-joke, and many critics who panned Sandinista! for being overly long cite this track as one of the many which could've been cut from the LP to trim the run time.
As The Clash became more famous and popular (and as a result more wealthy), there were issues amongst the band members as to whether they could still play "Career Opportunities" live, considering its subject matter. Nevertheless, it was first introduced into The Clash's set in October 1976, and stayed there for the rest of their career as a firm staple of their set, along with other first album tracks like "White Riot
" and "Janie Jones." Along the way it was played in such massive venues as Shea Stadium in the US, prompting singer Joe Strummer to quote in a 1999 interview, "Who'd have thought five years previously when we'd written it in Camden Town that we'd play 'Career Opportunities' at Shea Stadium? These are the things that make the world interesting."
This was covered by the Sri Lankan Heavy Metal band Stigmata for the City Rockers tribute album in 1999, and it was also covered by the Canadian Rockabilly band The Farrell Brothers for the This Is Rockabilly Clash tribute compilation album.