The Life Career Rainbow
Finding a Work/Life Balance That Suits You
Just as we move through different stages in our life, so we also move through different stages in our career. And just as demands for our time in our personal life can vary, so can demands at work.
When peaks of demand in one area match troughs in another, life can be good. However, when demands are in sync we can experience dissatisfaction, stress, anxiety, depression and a whole host of other ills. This makes it important to find an appropriate balance between your career and your life.
In 1980, Donald Super introduced a theory that describes career development in terms of Life Stages and Life Roles. Super's original work on career development began in the 1930s and he wrote his defining book, "The Psychology of Careers," in 1957. He modified his theories in 1980 to account for the fact that people were no longer continuing on a straight path of career development.
Super called this theory the "Life Career Rainbow." The Life Career Rainbow represented in this article is adapted from Super's work to further take account of modern career life patterns.
Here, we look at how you can use the Life Career Rainbow to find the work/life balance that suits you at this stage of your life and career.
Understanding the Model
The Life Career Rainbow (see figure 1 below) helps us think about the different roles we play at different times in our life.
"Life Roles" are represented by the colored bands of the rainbow, as shown in the diagram below. Age is shown by the numbers around the edge of the rainbow. And the amount of time typically taken with each life role is described by the size of the dots in that colored band of the rainbow.
Figure 1: The Life Career Rainbow
Note that we use the word "typically" above – this is the pattern that most people find suits the way they want to live their lives. This may or may not suit you and your circumstances.
Before moving on to see how to build your Life Career Rainbow, let's make sure we understand Super's Life Roles:
Eight Life Roles
1. Child – This is the time and energy you spend relating to your parents. The role begins at birth and continues until both parents are deceased, often into your 50s or 60s. You spend a great deal of time in this role early on which decreases over time until the parents become elderly. At this time, there is often a surge in time and attention spent caring for elderly parents.
2. Student – You can become a student starting as early as three or four (depending on culture.) The student role usually continues until at least the age of 16, although it is now common to see students in their early 20s in many countries. People are also increasingly engaging in masters programs or participating in career training or further education throughout life.
3. Leisurite – This is a word created by Super to describe the time people spend pursuing leisure activities. Many people tend to spend more time on leisure as a child or adolescent, and after they have retired.
4. Citizen – This describes the time and energy spent working for the community, with time spent in non-paid volunteer work. People often engage in this as their children get older and they have more free time available.
5. Worker – This is the time you spend in paid employment.
6. Parent – This role describes the time spent raising children and looking after them. The parent role is usually significant until children reach their mid-teens but, with many grown children staying at home during higher education or moving back home as adults, the parent role can continue at a relatively high level for quite a while after this.
7. Spouse – This role represents the time and energy spent in a committed relationship. It also includes activities that keep the union strong.
8. Home-maker – In this role, people are expending time and energy on maintaining their home: cooking, cleaning, repairing and shopping. This role typically starts as soon as a person leaves his or her parents' home. (Note that there are no gender associations with the home-maker role.)
When Super developed his model, people's lives tended to move through five clearly defined "Life Stages", which were a major feature of the model. Today, people's careers tend to follow a less predictable pattern, so if you want to use the Life Stage idea (which may or may not be appropriate) we recommend you adjust them to fit the pattern of your own life.
Super's stages were:
1. Growth (ages 14 and under) – This Life Stages focuses on physical growth, and is a time when people begin to form ideas about their self-worth. During this time people start to discover many of their interests, talents, and abilities.
2. Exploration (typical age range 14 – 25) – This stage is when people start learning about the different types of work available and what is required to be successful in different careers. During exploration, the more you learn, the more committed you become to a few of the choices and you start to narrow the field to those types of jobs you would like to pursue. Near the end of the exploration stage you will (ideally!) have analyzed the career options against your personal skills, talents and interests as well as your expectations from a career (salary, hours, benefits, opportunity for advancement.)
(Explained like this, it sounds like a well-thought-through process. In reality it is not, which means we often make "quirky" career choices. While your first experience with this stage happens usually between the ages of 14 and 25, it is increasingly likely you will return to this stage at least once later in your life as you think through your choices again, hopefully in a more rational and considered way.)
3. Establishment (typical age range 26 – 45) – This Life Stage starts as people settle into their chosen career, and become productive members of society. This stage is marked by increased responsibility and personal satisfaction from work and career.
4. Maintenance (typical age 46 – 65) – People at this stage are maintaining their current career and participating in career development activities that will keep them up to date in their present job.
(With the much-heralded "end of lifetime employment", people may or may not enjoy such a settled, stable period. Recent trends have shown discrimination against people in their 50s and 60s, although anti-discrimination laws may reduce this in some countries.)
5. Disengagement (ages 65 and up) – This is the stage when someone has chosen to slow down and eventually retire from their career. During this stage, the emphasis moves away from paid work and leaves people with time to concentrate on the other roles they engage in like leisurite, home-maker, and citizen.
Re-emphasizing that this was the general pattern of life in industrialized countries when Super developed his model. In particular, the middle of life was taken up with the intense and often-conflicting activities of hard work and parenting, with relatively little time dedicated to the role of leisurite.
With forethought and effective time management, you can often find a balance that is more satisfying than this.
Finding a Better Work/Life Balance Using the Model
The Life Career Rainbow helps you think about your work/life balance now, and how you can adjust it to better suit your needs. It then helps you think about how you want your work/life balance to change over the next five years.
We do this with three pie charts. With the first, you'll look at your current work/life balance. With the second, you'll look at what you want it to be right now, while with the third, you'll think about what you want it to be in five years time.
Where you identify imbalances between your current and desired pie charts, we'll look at how you can address these, developing goals that will help you move towards your desired state.
Step 1: Draw Your Current Work/Life Balance Pie Chart
Using the first blank pie chart on our Life Career Rainbow Worksheet, mark out the time you currently spend in the eight different Life Roles.
Figure 2: Example Current Work/Life Balance Pie Chart
Try to be objective when you do this. It's all-too-easy for people to let emotion cloud their judgment here, and think that they routinely spend more time on roles they dislike than they actually do.
Step 2: Develop Your Ideal Work/Life Balance Pie Chart
Using the Life Career Rainbow diagram in figure 1 as a starting point, reflect on your values and the things that you hold to be important in your life, as well as thinking about your current satisfactions and dissatisfactions as you develop this ideal. As an example, people who intensely value professional achievement may spend much more time in the Work Role than people who predominantly value nurturing a healthy family. The latter will emphasize the Parent or Spouse Role.
On the second blank pie chart, mark the amount of time you would like to allocate to each of the roles right now.
Figure 3: Example Ideal Work/Life Balance Pie Chart
Step 3: Develop Your 5-Year's Time Ideal Work/Life Balance Pie Chart
Again, look at the Life Career Rainbow, and think about changes in the pattern of your life that you can reasonably expect to occur. Then think about how you would like your life to look in five years time.
On the third blank pie chart, mark the amount of time you would like to allocate to each of the roles in five years' time.
Step 4: Look at Discrepancies and Identify Barriers and Challenges
Compare your ideal charts from steps 2 and 3 with the current chart from step 1.
Identify the discrepancies, and list the reasons for them. Have you become complacent and let yourself get swept away by events. Or are there real factors that are preventing you from achieving your ideal work/life balance? If so, identify those factors.
Step 5: Develop Goals to Meet the Challenges in Step 4
This is where you identify specific strategies to achieve the ideal work/life balance you want.
Look at the discrepancies and barriers you identified in step 4 and set appropriate goals to move from your current state to your desired state. Just be aware that if you want to make a substantial change to your work/life balance, you'll need to think this through carefully, including understanding and reconciling yourself to the trade-offs that will result from the change.
Taking a simple example, if you're a hard-working male manager and your wife is pregnant with your first child, now is a great time to develop great time management and delegation skills! And taking this further, if your paramount goal is to be a great father, you may need to slow down at work and accept the trade-off that unless you're particularly astute, you probably won't earn as much over the next five years as the career-focused person who's currently your peer.
The overall message of Super's Life Career Rainbow is that career development is a lifelong process that is influenced greatly by other areas of life. There is no one-way to develop a career and one of the most important aspects of career planning is finding the balance between work and the rest of life.
The Life Career Rainbow is a useful tool for thinking about how the demands on your time change depending on life circumstances. It helps you understand why you might be overloaded or experiencing stress, and helps you understand what you can do about it and the trade-offs you should expect as a consequence.
Once you can "see" how you split up your work roles and your life roles, it can be much easier to identify where your work and life is out of balance and begin the process of creating the harmony you need.
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