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Wall Street Journal

Work & Family: Essays from the 'Work and Family' Column of the Wall Street Journal. S. Shellenbarger. (Ballantine Books, 1999)






Sue Shellenbarger, the Wall Street Journal’s award-winning columnist who writes weekly on “Work and Family,” has talked to thousands of people and written years of copy about the “work/life balance” in today’s society. “So what’s the role of the ‘new learning’ in any of that?” we asked. “Great question; interesting to think about!” she kindly responded—and agreed to talk with us for this issue of LiNE Zine. Following are excerpts of our conversation at the end of May.

Manville: Sue, you’ve made a name for yourself writing for the Journal about work and family and, to some degree, the search for “balance.” Before we start on the question of learning in that equation, perhaps you can summarize some of the major “work/life” trends you’ve been seeing.

Shellenbarger: I think one big trend is simply the erosion of boundaries between work and family. Technology is assisting this of course with increased use of cell phones and computer technology that allows us to work anytime, anywhere.

The second trend I think would be a growing resistance across the board, among all levels of the work force, to encroachments on personal time due to high expectations for overtime. I think people in general are placing a higher value on leading a balanced life and are pushing back against the demands of work.

A third is probably a greater recognition on the part of employers that a work/life balance of employees can, at least to some degree, play a role in building profit. A growing number of internal studies by companies show that a satisfied employee leads to a satisfied customer, which in turn improves profit. We will see more employers measuring employee morale improvement as an indicator of future profit.

Manville: You mentioned in your column last week some further themes about growing expectations of workers for respect, autonomy and flexibility in the workplace. That’s part of the story too, no?

Shellenbarger: Absolutely.

Manville: Okay, well, if these themes characterize today’s new workplace, what’s the place of learning and how does it fit with the life balance? We know that workers are also expecting professional development, and that’s a key part of the value proposition to join this versus another employer—so-called “employability” and resume-building. Is the quest for development complementary to, or additive to, the work/life balance? Is there a zero-sum game where companies have to make a choice between balance and development?

Shellenbarger: Ideally they fit together. In an ideal world the company will be skillful enough in integrating training and learning time into the work day—building it into the HR plan so that it can be done without upsetting the existing equilibrium between work and life. But that isn't always the case. I think, for many exempt jobs, workplace learning is okay and encouraged; but professional, managerial types are spending more time learning at home, reading the books, hitting the Internet at night, trying to catch up with trends in their field—and that’s something they’re expected to do, or want to do. Clearly, it's a trade-off. People have a yen for balance, but they also want to gain skills. They want the promise of improved jobs in the future. As long as the promise of gain is there, many people will spend their personal time learning. That's part of life.

But it’s trickier when you talk about the lower-paid workers, people who have more rigid hours and not as clear rewards for learning outside the job. When companies make learning new things a requirement of the job and then expect people to do it on their own time, it becomes a burden and an imposition.

Manville: This is one of the interesting debates. A lot of companies are putting in place elearning and the ability to learn off and on the job as well as encouraging people to do so at home. Ford Motor Company rolled out computers and free Internet connectivity to all its work force, obviously with some expectation that there’d be a lot more learning done off premises, at home. I don’t know how much they actually require—but some expectation is there. Or put another way, they’re enabling people with the resources to do more at home.

So, is this a good thing? Who's the enemy here? Is there a work/life balance problem with this kind of empowerment?

Shellenbarger: Well, as long as you assume that companies are not trying to deliberately exploit their workforce—and I don’t think most of them are consciously trying to do that—the real culprit is our own ambition. You know, “I've met the enemy and it's me.” The problem is our own internal inability to draw boundaries in these times. 

The fundamental barrier in most jobs is mental. If you have elearning at hand in the workplace and at home, day by day, night by night, and if you're ambitious, then you need to learn where to draw the work/life balance line. When do you stop working? That is a real struggle when weighing your short-term desire for balance against your long-term desire for advancement.

I think we will evolve in this regard. The next generation of the workforce will be much better able to draw boundaries—and do so by defining their values and goals up front. Those of us who are baby boomers are not particularly good at that. We are not used to setting limits.

I see people struggling with this all the time. I talk to couples and hear one spouse saying “I can't stand my husband (or wife) being on the Internet or on the software every night, or cracking the computer books—it is driving me nuts!” But then she or he goes on to say, “Yet I can't argue because I know he or she is doing it for the family.” It is a real unresolved tension. I don't see a solution soon, not until we get another generation of workers into place.

Manville: Well, as a baby-boomer myself, I’m all too familiar with the philosophy of “wanting it all” and not willing to pay for or accept the trade-offs. I sometimes feel that the third parties—the employers, here—get too much blame for what’s our own unwillingness to accept responsibility.

Shellenbarger: There is another factor at work here, especially if we are talking about the managerial and professional sector. Our generation grew up in a very crowded time. There were ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred applicants for every desirable opening. We were a big generation. And we learned to just over-achieve. We learned that we had to do more than what was asked in order to get anywhere. I think that’s less true with non-professionals. With hourly workers, there’s much more of a danger of exploitation. I want to stress that it’s different when a company demands that kind of person to learn new skills for a job on his/her own time.

Manville: I’m not sure the “ambition” and “get ahead” motivation doesn’t apply to all workers today. One of the themes we hear about in the learning business is the similar erosion of boundaries between learning and work. Work is increasingly about learning and vice versa—it’s not something separate, nor is training something separate off in some special department.

Also, I think we need to figure in the whole element of time-shifting and flex-time, for example, people seeking schedules more adapted to their personal preferences. You hear cases like “I want to be able to see my kid play Little League, and I'm willing to work at night to make up for it.” Learning has to figure into that kind of flex time and time shifting too.

Shellenbarger: Well it’s a great point, and a fascinating one. This image just popped into my mind of this dad with a cell phone on the soccer field and an Internet hookup in his lap and he's watching his kid and reviewing some learning tools on his laptop and has his cell phone in hand at the same time. I have a headache just thinking about it! But I also know it can be done. I see plenty of people with their laptops in the bleachers at sports events.

Manville: But let me press you here. Would you say that, all things being equal, all learning ought to be done on the job?

Shellenbarger: No. I think there should be time made for some learning on the job. But here again there is a delicate equilibrium. Some should also be done on your own time. If learning helps advance your skills for a new and better job, or a promotion, or if it benefits you in some broader sense, you ought to be willing to do it on “off hours.” 

If I'm not learning something every day, I feel I'm not living fully. And I think people are redefining success to include both personal and professional learning.

Manville: Let's tackle the technology question. How, in your view, is technology shaping the work/life balance, beyond the obvious theme of “anywhere, anytime”? Can you reflect a bit more on this, and the learning challenge?

Shellenbarger: I’ve written about the impact of technology in about five different columns of mine. In every case, I found that the role of technology depends on the intention of the user. I've tried to look at whether technology enhances business or family relationships—whether it gets in their way. I've tried to look at whether technology enables better work/life balance or interferes with it and I found again and again that the intention of the user precedes the answer. We are greatly empowered by technology to draw our lives as we want them—but if we are confused about our priorities and our values, then we are going to end up in a boundaryless world.

Manville: So this ties back to your earlier perspective—one needs to have one’s values and priorities aligned before starting to play with the fire of technology.

Shellenbarger: That's one way to say it.

Manville: In any of your many interviews have you ever thought or heard about learning as a family oriented activity? Most discussions about at-home learning center on the idea of the individual sitting alone at his or her computer. What about the rest of the family? Are any companies trying to provide skills and learning for spouses or children to better support the ties between the company and the employee?

Shellenbarger: Ah, what a great idea. I think the opportunity is there but I don't know any company that's doing that. I know maybe a dozen families, from my limited perspective as a reporter, who are making learning a family group activity. And technology is clearly part of the story. I know one family that worked together to network their home. The teenage son and the dad were sort of playing off each other's skills and goading each other along to learn from each other; meanwhile the daughter and mom were downloading music from the Internet until they had developed a family system of shareware, networking music that they would play for each other. The way kids are more familiar with technology, and are increasingly teaching their parents…there’s some kind of opportunity for group learning here that companies could capitalize on.

Manville: Well we could go back to a sort of medieval model in which father and children are all working together to learn the same craft.

Shellenbarger: I love that image. I know a couple in Portland Oregon who formed an international Internet business in their garage, and juggled the business with raising their kids and also involved the kids in the business itself. They built a little cottage industry, kind of like the new family farm of the Millennium I think we're going to see much more of that.

Other families bring together work and home in some interesting ways; for example, a software designer who's constantly networking with his colleagues at work and then his kids pick up tips and ideas that they pass on to other family members and friends. We can imagine the family as a sort of crucible of technological creativity and innovation. Not much has been written or said about that. A lot is going on though.

Manville: Sue, any summary reflections or thoughts about family, work and learning? What does the future hold? What should learning providers, professionals, and industry players be thinking about?

Shellenbarger: Well the key word is “integrate.” Learning professionals need to think of ways to integrate learning into family lifestyles and look for ways to provide families with some of the same learning opportunities that they are providing to the worker. And to think in the holistic terms that learning is a value for the family and not just the individual.

We also tend to forget that part of the American work ethic is self betterment and professional betterment. Work/life balance is not opposed to learning. People need to integrate it within their own work/life balance. They can see, or should be helped to see, that if they learn more they’ll make a better living for their family and will be a better parent. Given the opportunities of technology now, it's a pretty exciting time.

Sue Shellenbarger is a columnist and news editor for The Wall Street Journal. She originated and writes the "Work and Family" column that appears most Wednesdays on the front page of the Journal's Marketplace section. In 2000, she was awarded the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ first-place prize in the general interest category and a Missouri Lifestyles Journalism Award in the best short feature category. She is also the author of Work & Family: Essays from the 'Work and Family' Column of the Wall Street Journal.

Brook Manville is Publisher of LiNE Zine and Chief Learning Officer of Saba. He can be reached at



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