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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 4


Generational generalizations: dealing with a cross-generational library workforce

Even if you believe generational issues lack any validity in the workplace, we need to be aware of the generational assumptions others may make about us and our work, the underlying assumptions we may hold about them, and take steps to break out of our generational cliques.

Any mention of generational issues in libraries tends to get peoples' hackles up: I've received more negative e-mails and comments about my writing on generational topics than about everything else I've written combined. Most of these messages attack, not so much what I actually said, but the stereotypes expressed by other writers on generational issues.

Why does this happen? Those who write and speak about generational issues tend to talk in absolutes: this lends itself to sound bites, and provides cute labels to slap on various generations. None of us, though, likes being put in a box. No one likes having assumptions made about their abilities, knowledge and beliefs based solely on their year of birth. No one likes being categorized and labelled – even librarians, who by nature like to categorize everything!

Generational generalizations hurt us all; when we talk in generational absolutes, we risk obscuring the fact that there are generational issues that need to be dealt with. Putting people in boxes turns them off: if the box doesn't fit them or those they know, they dismiss the entire subject.

Accusations of ageism, though, make me realize that this actually is an issue worth exploring, because it stirs up people's passions. Anything that makes us this touchy needs closer examination.

Trends, not definitions

Beyond not wanting to annoy people, it's more useful overall to talk about generational issues in terms of trends rather than in terms of definitions. Our generation doesn't define us, but provides one piece of the puzzle and tells something about the events and zeitgeist that influenced us.

For an amusing look at this zeitgeist, visit the Beloit College Mindset List (http://www.beloit.edu/mindset/). Each year, Beloit College (Wisconsin) publishes a list of experiences that shaped the lives of the class of incoming freshmen. Observations for the class of 2002, for example, include: “They have never owned a record player”, and “They were 11 when the Soviet Union broke apart, and do not remember the Cold War”. (Why do I pick on the class of 2002? They've had time to graduate, go to library school, and become your colleagues!)

While some of the items on the Mindset List are simply silly, others serve as defining events for generations, or shape assumptions about technology and about the world.

To see the truth of this, I simply think about my older son – 32 years younger than I, he is growing up in a world of instant technological gratification in which I recently had to explain the concept of "rewinding" when we unearthed a box of cassette tapes to sell at a garage sale.

In my first post-Master of Library and Information Science degree position, my direct supervisor was 34 years older than I: the same age gap as between me and my son.

We tend not to think about this in the workplace, where we're all adults and all focused on the same organizational goals. But the events and technologies that helped shape my former supervisor are as different from those that helped shape me, as are today's events and technologies shaping my son. An awareness of this can help us avoid stumbles and avoid working at cross purposes.

We need to know about these boxes

Even if you believe generational issues lack any validity in the workplace, we need to be aware of the generational assumptions others may make about us and about our work. Assumptions about technological expertise make people especially angry, but are especially prevalent.

If hiring managers, colleagues and supervisors are making assumptions about our technological abilities (or lack thereof) based on our age, we need to know about these assumptions so we can take steps to counteract them. If co-workers are neglecting to invite us to after-work activities, to lunch, to coffee because of a perceived lack of commonality based on age, we need to take steps to break out of our generational cliques.

We also need to be aware of the underlying assumptions we may hold about others. Even if you believe you aren't making generational generalizations, I'd be willing to bet on a group of characteristics that pop into your head if I say, for instance, “Generation X”. (Cynical slackers, anyone?) These images subtly shape our opinions of our colleagues and our supervisors, and we need to be aware of our assumptions in order to avoid making decisions based on generalizations.

When I wrote my book on generational issues in the workplace, The NextGen Librarian's Survival Guide (ITI, 2006), I surveyed a number of people from different generations. Their statements included things like:

  • "I'm not hiring any more GenXers, because they don't listen and have no work ethic."
  • "My older peers are set in their ways and don't want to bother with shaking things up."
  • "NextGen librarians are more interested in machines than in public service."
  • "Librarians who have been in their jobs a while are not open to new things or new people."

While people are often more blunt in a semi-anonymous survey than they might be when talking with colleagues, when we hold these kind of views about entire groups of people, it can't help but influence the way we interact in the workplace. The best way to combat stereotypes is through awareness, both of our own assumptions and of those others may hold about us.

Our mutual responsibilities

Whatever our generation, we each have a responsibility to challenge our own assumptions and work with those of all generations towards meeting the goals of our libraries. The move towards participatory management and the unique position of four generations currently in the same workplace mean that multiple generations are participating on more equal ground than in the past. We also have the responsibility to watch our words and treat all our colleagues like the professionals they are.

The current global economic crisis can exacerbate these issues because it means delayed retirement for a number of people. This leads to increased tensions between long-term library workers and those who feel they were recruited into to the profession to fill gaps that simply aren't occurring.

We can work within our institutions and organizations to defuse these tensions by providing leadership and development opportunities for new generations of library workers.

Some libraries reserve slots for new graduates, some provide internship opportunities, some encourage new and front-line staff to manage projects and otherwise take on responsibilities to prepare them to lead in the future. Others embrace the idea of vertical teams, deliberately pulling people from different departments, levels and areas to work together on projects. Doing so both helps avoid groupthink and gives people of different generations (and departments, and levels) the opportunity to work together and learn about each other's perspectives and strengths.

We can also work to create a healthy workplace for all library staff: increasing flexibility, providing opportunities for growth. The programmes we institute to benefit new generations really work to benefit us all.

We're all working towards the same goals

It doesn't matter how big an issue we believe generational issues to be. We all need to remain open to new ideas and to working together, calling on diverse strengths to serve our communities. For every thoughtless survey comment I received, I also received one that showed a commitment to work together to resolve issues and benefit from everyone's viewpoints and inputs.

Let me leave you with one of these positive quotes from the NextGen survey, which sums things up best:

"Each librarian, new or experienced, old or young, brings valuable experiences, perspectives, skills, and ideas to the profession. We need to find a way to acknowledge those assets and put them to good use."

That about says it! When we incorporate multiple experiences and perspectives, we can only benefit as a profession.


Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster, LISjobs.com, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (www.lisjobs.com/blog/).