Life-Role Balance

Life-role balance refers to the construction of a desired life structure that reflects a person’s own definition of a balanced life. Work occurs within a person’s overall life structure, and addressing this basic fact in career theory and practice fosters life-role integration or balance. Helping clients clarify their desired life structure and empowering clients to move toward life-role participation that reflects their definition of a balanced life is an increasingly important component of the career intervention process. When career practitioners help clients examine how their involvement in multiple life roles provides a sense of meaning and identity, they provide holistic career assistance that reflects life as people live it and increases the probability of living a life in balance.

Challenges to Life-Role Balance

Changes in the nature of work, the influence of technology, demands created by dual-career parenting or single parenting, and lifelong learning requirements represent some of the challenges confronting contemporary workers. Workers today also work longer and earn less than their counterparts did several decades ago. Many workers experience heightened anxiety about the prospect of being laid off from work as record downsizing occurs throughout the world. Technological advances also displace many workers and often make it necessary to work more hours.

These are not benign challenges confronting adults. For example, in Japan the second leading cause of death, after cancer, is referred to as karoshi, which is defined as death from overwork. Overwork is not gender biased. Many women report a lack of family time as their greatest concern. Many dual-career parents experience conflict trying to find time to express their work and family commitments. The stress associated with such conflict often creates marital tension with negative outcomes for family systems. Managing decisions about life-role participation can become overwhelmingly complex in the face of such challenges.

Unfortunately, career practitioners and theorists tend to operate as if lives are lived in compartmentalized silos. Choices regarding work are conceptualized as if they occur in isolation from other domains in a person’s life. This approach represents a false scenario and is ineffective practically and theoretically. It fosters life-role conflict rather than life-role integration and balance.

Acknowledging Life-Role Interactions in Career Development

When practitioners and theorists acknowledge the challenges to achieving a balanced life, they begin to approach career as it is lived. They link career development with human development and embrace the fact that there are few things more personal than a career choice. This fact raises an important point concerning life-role balance: defining a balanced life occurs at the level of the individual.

Defining what constitutes a balanced life, or a satisfying life structure, requires substantial self-awareness. Being aware of which life roles are important and which are peripheral helps to prioritize time and commitments. It is essential to effective time management, which is a core skill related to achieving a balanced life.

Knowing which life roles are important in the present, however, is insufficient. Knowing which life roles will be important in the future helps guide the planning behavior of children and adolescents. Because life-role self-concepts evolve over time, adults must also maintain a high level of self-awareness pertaining to which life roles are most salient in the present and which are likely to be most salient in the future.

Thus, a prerequisite to achieving life-role balance is developing crystallized life-role identities. The crystallization process commences with the beginning of life as infants are exposed to multiple learning experiences (e.g., having nurturing parents vs. less nurturing parents, engaging in enjoyable leisure activities, experiencing success as a learner) and continues throughout life as adult life-role identities evolve.

People are exposed to life-role models in the home, community, school, and workplace. The accumulation of life-role experiences leads to general life-role beliefs (e.g., “lifelong learning is essential”) and self-referent life-role beliefs (e.g., “I enjoy participating in competitive team sports”). These cumulative learning experiences reflect numerous interactions between the person and the environment and shape four significant aspects of life-role identity development. Specifically, these are (1) role expectations, (2) role conceptions, (3) role acceptance, and (4) role performance.

Role expectations are the historical and cultural prescriptions that are generally assigned to a role (e.g., the role of worker in the United States in the 1800s was defined very differently than it is defined today in the United States). Role conceptions involve the way in which people actually perceive or interpret the role-related expectations (e.g., to be a “good” parent, I need to be a good provider, behave in a nurturing way to my children, and be fair and consistent in disciplining my children). At times, people can inherit, from society and/or from the family, role conceptions that can become dysfunctional (e.g., “I would love to be a stay-at-home father, but that is not a role that is acceptable for men”). Role acceptance involves the willingness of the individual to become involved in the role. Role performance involves the actual behavior of the individual in the role situation. Collectively, these aspects of life-role identity development influence whether a person moves toward or away from participating in a specific life role and guide the person in constructing a balanced life structure. Understanding a person’s life-role beliefs fosters a deeper understanding of a person’s motivation, goals, and obstacles relative to life-role behavior and life-role balance.

In this sense, it is important to note that life roles are enacted rather than occupied because life roles reflect interactions among personal determinants, situational determinants, and societal expectations as well as the individual’s expression of those expectations. Occupying a role suggests that roles are fixed positions that are stagnant and rigid, a description that is not the case. Two individuals can enact the same life role differently because of their unique contexts. Finding outlets for expressing one’s life-role self-concepts is essential for experiencing satisfaction in life. Although temporary departures from what the individual defines as a balanced life are normative, extended deviations are problematic. Thus, managing one’s life structure in a way that is consistent with one’s values becomes an essential career development task for career and life satisfaction.

Career Interventions to Address Life-Role Identity Development

Career interventions that address life-role identity emerge from the work of Donald Super. Values clarification activities provide a starting point for achieving an acceptable level of life-role balance. Beyond values assessment, Super used the life career rainbow to help clients examine their life-role behavior in the past, present, and future. Individuals can use the rainbow to plot their previous and current life-role activities. They can discuss the values they seek to express in each life role and their level of satisfaction with their current life-role activities. Future scenarios can also be clarified as individuals identify future life roles they hope to participate in and the values they hope to express in those life roles. The rainbow also highlights the fact that various personal (e.g., values, needs, and interests) and situational determinants (e.g., community, school, and social policies) influence when and how people play particular life roles.

Constructing a family genogram can be a useful strategy for exploring the interaction between family background, cultural prescriptions, and career planning. The family genogram provides the opportunity to focus on the career and life-role beliefs passed down through the generations. This information can also be used to contrast influences on life-role salience emanating from group-oriented cultures with influences from more individualistic cultures. The effects of sex-role stereotyping on life-role salience can also be examined in these discussions. The goal of this intervention is to increase awareness as to the factors influencing peoples’ beliefs about the primary roles of life.

Career practitioners can also help their clients explore life-role participation by encouraging them to consider questions such as the following: How do I spend my time during a typical week? How important are the different roles of life to me? What do I hope to accomplish in each of the life roles that will be important to me in the future? What do my family members expect me to accomplish in each life role? Answers to these questions help clients consider behavioral, affective, and cognitive dimensions of life-role behavior.

Collectively, these interventions help clients acquire an understanding of their life structure. This understanding then becomes the catalyst for constructing a desired life structure that increases the probability of living a balanced life as each person defines it.


  1. Allport, G. W. (1963). Becoming: Basic considerations for a psychology of personality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  2. Niles, S. G. (1998). Developing life-role readiness in a multicultural society: Topics to consider. International Journal for the Advancement of Counseling, 30, 79-87.
  3. Niles, S. G., Herr, E. L., & Hartung, P. J. (2002). Adult career concerns in contemporary society. In S. G. Niles (Ed.), Adult career development: Concepts, issues, and practices (3rded.). Tulsa, OK: National Career Development Association.
  4. Super, D. E., Savickas, M. L., & Super, C. M. (1996). The life-span, life-space approach to careers. In D. Brown & L. Brooks (Eds.), Career choice and development: Applying contemporary theories to practice (3rd ed., pp. 121-178). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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