ERIC Identifier: ED459323
Publication Date: 2001-00-00
Author: Kerka, Sandra
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
The Balancing Act of Adult Life. ERIC Digest.
Life in the 21st century seems more complex than ever, as adults cope with
the demands of multiple roles, the stresses of a fluid workplace, and the
pressures of child and elder care. Individuals feel compelled to update their
work-related knowledge and skills and to keep up with the proliferation of
information. Family resource management is increasingly complex, with expanded
choices and decisions that must be made about utilities, banking, investments,
retirement planning, etc. The Internet has simultaneously made it easier to
access information, yet more complicated to apply critical judgment to what one
finds. Many of us feel, as Kegan (1994) put it, "in over our heads" as we strive
to "balance" our life domains.
A long list of causes for these increased demands is easily found (Daly 2000;
Niles, Herr, and Hartung 2001): technological advances; the changing nature of
work, workplaces, and working relationships; international economic competition;
the changing demographics of workers, families, and communities; and longer life
spans, among others. Adults have always had roles and responsibilities as
workers, family members, citizens, consumers, and community members. However,
role expectations have changed. For example, workers now have increased
responsibility for decision making, teamwork, and their own career development.
Family responsibilities are complicated by single parenthood, blended families,
longer-lived elders, and more women in the work force. Citizens must be informed
not only about local and national issues but global ones as well. As consumers
of health care, individuals are urged to inform themselves about treatment
options and participate in decisions about their care.
These subjects comprise what Kegan (2000) calls "the hidden curriculum of
adult life" (p. 45); in this curriculum, adult roles--parenting, partnering,
working, and living in an increasingly diverse society--are "courses" in which
we are enrolled. This Digest describes a selection of adult education approaches
to helping individuals negotiate the curriculum of life challenges.
BEYOND LIFE SKILLS
In the 1990s, work/life balance caught
the attention of researchers, policymakers, and employers, resulting in the
development of a range of employment benefits, legislation, and programs aimed
at helping people cope. Life management or family/career management curricula
emphasize coping through the development of skills in communication,
interpersonal effectiveness, and money, time, stress, and household management
(e.g., California Community Colleges 1998; Mathieson 1999). As Caproni (1997)
notes, research, policy, and practice focused on work/life balance have raised
important issues and brought about changes that have benefitted some families.
However, these approaches are incomplete in several ways.
As Niles et al. (2001) point out, the usefulness of these types of responses
benefits different segments of society differently. For the working poor,
balancing work, nonwork, and life roles may be a luxury; they "are likely to be
far more circumspect in how they can commit their resources to family needs" (p.
13). Caproni (1997) suggests that the discourse of work/life balance reflects
bureaucratic values such as individualism, instrumentalism, goal focus, and
achievement orientation. The framing of imbalance as a problem and balance as
the desirable and achievable alternative suggests that there is an ideal and our
attempts to live up to it are deficient. But who gets to define what work/life
balance is? And are skill- and goal-oriented approaches adequate in dealing with
the dynamic, unpredictable, and ambiguous nature of life?
Kegan (1994) suggests that they are not. The expectations of contemporary
life demand "more than mere behavior, the acquisition of specific skills, or the
mastery of particular knowledge. They make demands on our minds, on how we know"
(p. 5). Adults need both informational and transformational learning (Kegan
2000). Learning about money, time, and stress management and becoming informed
about flextime and childcare options are examples of informational learning
related to work/life issues. Such learning is "aimed at increasing our fund of
knowledge, at increasing our repertoire of skills, at extending already
established cognitive capacities into new terrain" (p. 48). Transformational
learning, on the other hand, seeks to change how we know, altering our existing
frame of reference, our ways of making meaning.
To deal with life demands, adults need the skills, techniques, and behaviors
for mastering the "hidden curriculum," but the more important goal of adult
learning is fostering cognitive complexity (Kegan 1994). Tinberg and Weisberger
(1998) provide an example of how educators can gain a sense of learners' current
level of cognition and then facilitate the transitions to more complex levels:
Through a sequence of reading and writing assignments, I wanted students to
engage such questions as the following: What do I know? How do I know it? What
schemes or taxonomies do I employ to order the world? What languages do I use to
capture my experience? In essence, I was asking my students to define what, for
lack of another phrase, I call "working knowledge," knowledge that we put to
work in the world. I was asking them to achieve an awareness of how they know as
well as what they know. (p. 8)
A supportive learning environment helps build the bridge to the next level
(ibid.). Fishback and Polson (1998) also found that adults' cognitive
development was facilitated by an environment that was dialogic, challenging,
Several frameworks have been developed that acknowledge the cognitive
challenges of contemporary life. Some are still theoretical, and evidence is
just beginning to be gathered about their effectiveness. One example is the
National Institute for Literacy's Equipped for the Future (EFF). EFF's framework
of knowledge and skills that adults need is based on four broader integrative
concepts (Merrifield 2000): (1) a purposeful, constructivist approach to
learning; (2) education that is rooted in the context of people's lives; (3)
emphasis on application of skills; and (4) a view of adult development as
transformative rather than additive.
EFF identifies adults' key roles and responsibilities as citizens/community
members, parents/family members, and workers. The 16 content standards for what
adults need to know and be able to do to fulfill these roles are organized in 4
categories (Stein 2000):
Communication Skills--read with understanding, convey ideas in writing, speak so
others can understand, listen actively, observe critically
Decision-Making Skills--solve problems and make decisions, plan, use math for
problem solving and decision making
Interpersonal Skills--cooperate with others, guide others, advocate and
influence, resolve conflict and negotiate
Lifelong Learning Skills--take responsibility for learning, learn through
research, reflect and evaluate, use information and communications technology
EFF drew upon concepts of adult development formulated by Kegan and others
that involve transforming ways of knowing: "A developmental approach to
performance means it is seen not simply as mastering more and more knowledge and
skills in a cumulative way, but as making conceptual leaps in understanding and
viewing the world--as transformative more than additive" (Merrifield 2000, p.
An Australian adult and continuing education curriculum framework (Bradshaw
1999) also takes a transformative approach. This framework contains eight
lifelong learning goals that focus on higher-order thinking:
Understand complex systems that interact unpredictably
Identify and integrate existing and emerging personal, local, national, and
Prosper with different paradoxical and multiple sets of realities
See and make connections between past, present, and future
Encourage sustainability in relationships and the environment
Engage in a process of change, privately, publicly, civically, and
occupationally throughout life
Extend learning styles and repertoires
Develop insights through questioning
Underlying these goals are four key principles: multiplicity, connectedness,
critical intelligence, and transformation. The curriculum recognizes the
significant contribution of learning to the creation of personal and social
futures. It is intended to provide "a solid foundation for a full and active
life for the variety of roles we play" (ibid., p. 23).
"BALANCE" IS FOR CHECKBOOKS
"Balance" of life roles may be
an illusive pursuit and defining what it means is highly individual (Niles et
al. 2001). Secretan (2000) asserts that it isn't balance that we need, but
integration. Balance implies either/or, that investing in one role requires
taking something away from another. "Creative people use their brains and deploy
their gifts whenever and wherever they feel the urge....Balancing is what we do
to our checkbooks; integration is the happy confluence and merging of all of the
activities in our lives" (ibid., p. 29).
Working toward integration requires transforming our perspective about life
roles. Transformative learning involves a questioning of assumptions and a
fundamental rethinking of premises. Attempting to deal with conflicting life
roles and the complexities of contemporary life certainly presents us with
"disorienting dilemmas" that are often the starting point of perspective
transformation (Imel 1998). Educators can support adults in integrating
different ways of knowing--the cognitive, rational, and objective and the
intuitive, imaginative, and subjective (ibid.)--because, as Kegan (1994)
suggests, we need to draw deeply on both what we know and how we know in order
to handle the demands of contemporary life.
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