Preparing Adult Learners to be Resilient in a World of Non-Stop Change

Al Siebert, PhD

Presented at the National Conference on the Adult Learner 2000, Atlanta, Georgia

Professional Development Center, School of Business, Portland State University


The people best suited for today’s world of non-stop change are different from those who were raised to fit into an unchanging world. To survive and thrive in constantly changing work environments, people in every occupation must be adaptable, highly resilient, and change-proficient. This interactive session will focus on ways to facilitate resiliency and change-proficiency in adult learners.

Session Content

For many decades, children were trained by their parents and teachers to act, dress, talk, feel, and think as told. This training produced thousands of high school graduates who were conditioned to be "good" boys and girls. The training prepared them for employment in large, unchanging organizations. A person with a high school diploma and nothing bad in their record, could expect to find a job pretty easily. Then, if you were an obedient employee who followed your job description, were receptive to performance evaluations, and didn’t cause problems for managers, you could expect to have a job for life, and eventually be old enough to stay home and still get checks.

In recent years, however, large organizations laid off tens of thousands of managers and employees in order to make their organizations leaner and more competitive. Executives, to save expenses and have more flexibility in workforce numbers, laid off good workers when projects were finished.

Organizations are using many more temporary employees now. The emphasis in organizations these days is "faster, better, smarter." The pressure is on to get more work done with fewer people in less time with a smaller budget while keeping up with constant change.

Many adult learners feel bewildered when they discover that jobs are changing and evolving so rapidly, that many large organizations no longer provide job descriptions. Most employers now want people who can make themselves useful in new situations without being told what to do. People applying for positions must document strengths and skills appropriate for the job applied for. Adult learners raised to be modest and not brag about themselves, often find it difficult to tell interviewers what they are good at doing. In today’s world, getting a diploma or a degree is not enough.

Employers want college educated people who:

  • can work well in teams,
  • are self-motivated to keep learning,
  • have good communications skills,
  • don’t have negative attitudes about change,
  • have computer and internet skills,
  • are not "technophobic,"
  • can work without a detailed job description,
  • do not need constant supervision,
  • provide excellent customer service,
  • use common sense to solve problems,
  • hold up well under pressure,
  • are resilient and handle change well, and
  • do consistently high-quality work.

Computer literacy, for example, used to be the new skill that employers required. Now, for a person to be competitive in a career, internet skills are essential.

Does Your College Provide Good Role Models of Resiliency?

People in difficult circumstances will either react like victims who blame others for their distress or they will find ways to cope, learn, and adapt. Unfortunately, it is not unusual to hear some college staff and instructors complain about all the pressures and stresses in their jobs. People who complain and blame, however, are confusing the situation with their reaction to it. Work that is distressing for one college employee is enjoyable and satisfying for another. It is important for student morale to have instructors and staff to be good role models for resiliency and coping well with pressure. The following list summarizes the research findings about people able to recover quickly from disruptive change, illness, or misfortune without being overwhelmed or acting in dysfunctional ways. They:

  • experience few upsetting events in routine activities,
  • feel capable of taking effective action when upsetting events occur,
  • draw action choices from a wide range of inner and external resources,
  • experience family and friends as caring and supportive,
  • manage self-change well, and
  • convert negative experiences into beneficial learning.

For most adult students, the challenge is not having to deal with one major setback, the challenge is how to hold up week after week handling lots of little things without feeling helpless and at the mercy of external forces. Indicators that the pressures are getting to be too much include: sleepless nights, drinking alcohol to get to sleep, losing one’s temper over a minor incident, migraine headaches, frequent colds and illnesses, auto accidents, ulcers flaring up, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems, losing track of time, falling asleep in class, and forgetting to bring a paper the student stayed up late at night to finish. Time to recommend seeing a counselor.

Role-Modeling Professionalism and Resiliency

People who thrive in constant change do not need detailed job descriptions. They have a strong attitude of professionalism that lets them find ways to be useful and successful in new and ambiguous situations. Changes in the workplace now occur so rapidly it is rare for anyone to have an up-to-date job description.

One of the best ways for staff and instructors to role-model and facilitate resiliency is to exhibit attitudes of professionalism. Everyone has an understanding of the differences between someone who has an attitude of professionalism and someone who is unprofessional in their work. In this session we will talk about the differences and discuss ways to enhance professionalism in staff and students. Most people have the inner attributes to be resilient, and appreciate the contributing qualities when given an opportunity to explore them.

In this session, participants took and discussed a resiliency self-assessment developed by the presenter. Take the quiz here or get more information about resiliency from his website, The Resiliency Center.