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Generational Dynamics and Librarianship:
Managing Generation X

Julie F. Cooper and Eric A. Cooper


Given the changing role of librarianship in today's society, libraries can greatly benefit from the unique and varied abilities offered by Generation X. Library managers from the Silent and Boomer Generations should attempt to motivate Generation X librarians and capitalize on their talents through work assignments, consistent feedback and decision-making input. An appreciation for and acceptance of generational dynamics will allow librarianship to attract those individuals who best understand current and future library technology, competition and patrons.


Libraries are populated by generations of individuals with attributes that impact our interactions and decision-making. As new technologies become more pervasive and library infrastructures more complicated, librarians must understand the similarities and differences of our colleagues in order to manage library operations more effectively. The following discussion will focus on the generational dynamics that exist within libraries and strategies managers can follow to effectively motivate members of Generation X and utilize their diverse talents. The three groups discussed are the Silent (born 1925-1942), Boomer (born 1943-1969), and X (born 1961-1981) generations.1 These ranges highlight specific time periods when each generation was growing-up. The Silent Generation was raised during the Great Depression through World War II; Baby Boomers when America was winning the war through the optimistic and prosperous 50's; and, Generation X during the socially and politically uncertain 60's and 70's.

Age Demographics and Generational Attributes

To properly analyze the generational dynamics in libraries, we must be aware of the age demographics, characteristics and values of current and prospective library professionals. A salary survey taken from the 108 member libraries of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in 1994 indicates that library administrators are generally older and will continue to age as a group.2 This survey shows that 56.6 percent of ARL library directors were born between 1940 and 1954, primarily a Boomer population, with nearly all of the remainder being members of the Silent Generation. This same survey also indicates that 55 percent of ARL assistant and associate directors were born during the 1940's.3 In 1993, the American Library Association randomly surveyed 973 members and found that 64 percent of the 614 respondents were born between 1941 and I960.4 Given today's stepping-stone path to library administration, the majority of these Boomers have presumably made their way into managerial positions. As the Silent Generation retires, it is probable that even more Boomers will assume top library positions.

Unlike administrators and librarians, current M.L.S. students appear to be significantly younger and more representative of Generation X. A 1994 survey of M.L.S. students indicates that 67.8 percent of library students were between the age of 25 and 45 and half were born after 1962.5 This is almost an exact match to a 1988 survey conducted on ALA-approved Library and Information Science departments, which found that 67.9 percent of M.L.S. students were age 28 to 45.6 These figures provide evidence that the age distribution of M.L.S. students has not fluctuated much over the last decade. With half of new entries into librarianship being members of Generation X and the student age distribution staying constant, we can expect to see continual increases in the percentage of Generation X librarians over the next decade. New entries will overwhelmingly fill lower-level positions within libraries. This, combined with an increasing number of Boomers in library administration, creates the need to understand the characteristics and values of each generation so that libraries can deal more effectively with personnel matters and patron expectations.

What attributes characterize these generations? Members of the Silent Generation were born during

*Julie F. Cooper, Adult Services Librarian, Champaign Public Library; and Eric A. Cooper, Assistant Professor of Library Administration, University of Illinois Law Library, Champaign.


the Great Depression through the first half of World War II. As children, they were under pressure to conform to the social order defined by their parents and expected to marry and have a family. They caused no stir due to overprotective parents who relished the peaceful family life gained following World War I. The Silent Generation has been an advocate for the public good and has attempted to assist others in society through helping professions such as teaching, the ministry and librarianship. This group is most comfortable with order and happiest when everyone is pleased. They will work as mediators to smooth things over.

Like members of the Silent Generation, the Boomer Generation, born during the second half of World War II through the 1950's, were welcomed by protective adults. However, unlike the Silent Generation, Boomers became focused on the "self" while rejecting the established order. As children, Boomers experienced post-war optimism and adoring parents groomed to have the perfect family life. As they grew-up, boomers enjoyed constant attention from a child-obsessed, idealistic America and naturally grew to focus on themselves.7 At the same time, parents of boomers amassed sufficient resources to send them to college in record numbers, prolonging the childhood stage and helping to foster the idealistic perspectives that permeated the 60's and 70's. As this group aged, however, society's work environment became more complex and earnings for boomers were lower than that of their parents. In response, boomers began to embrace societal institutions and currently experience personal freedom, power and material well-being. Consequently, Boomers are more likely to favor the status quo or incrementalism when performing decision-making duties.

Since the mid-1970's, America has experienced large inflationary increases in education and housing cost along with decreasing salaries, benefits and job security. At the same time, the divorce rate in the U.S. has increased. These are the circumstances under which Generation X, born during the 60's and 70's, matured. Generation X as a whole did not have protective adult role models who concentrated their efforts on their children. It is estimated that more than 40 percent of this group's members are children of divorced parents.8

Because costs and minimum qualifications for professional employment have rapidly increased, members of Generation X have been forced to work at younger ages than boomers to support themselves and attain the professional skills necessary to build career security in today's downsizing, skill-oriented marketplace. Xer's often find it necessary to relocate laterally early in their careers to obtain professional marketability and security. For these reasons, traditional concepts of organizational loyalty and paying dues has yet to appear beneficial to members of Generation X. Xer's possess a flexible and survivalistic orientation and consequently have little difficulty adapting to change.

Technology, Generation X and the Seniority System

In traditional librarianship, older is considered better. As we referred to earlier, the majority of people in the highest library positions are over age 45. These individuals have not, for the most part, attended library school during the 1990's, when technology-oriented curricula have been par for the course. Instead, they must rely on continuing education, professional literature, product representatives or colleagues to be introduced to new technological advances. Departments are increasingly offering masters degrees in Information Science, and students are completing masters programs with more experience about networks and networking, electronic information storage and retrieval and library automation. Students are exposed to the Internet, online databases and other electronic resources. Also, today's students learn how to maintain an index on computer rather than on a card file and evaluate resources in different formats for the strengths and weaknesses they offer. Members of the Boomer and Silent generations, particularly those with non-academic settings, often have not been as thoroughly exposed to or trained to use library technology and, consequently, tend to favor more traditional methods of librarianship such as using print resources, paper copies and newspaper clippings. This is not bad in itself, but if administrators repeatedly hesitate to implement new technologies, Xer's lose the opportunity to gain experience in an area that promotes their career advancement. Likewise, new librarians with technological skills will not have an opportunity to further develop those abilities.

Xer's are concerned with gaining skills to enhance their professional marketability and security. Where administration is reluctant to implement technological change or involve their younger peers in such projects, tension often will result. Conflict often occurs between generations when one refuses to let go of something and the other pushes the novelty. If Xer's are not given a voice in decision-making, or must pay "dues" first, then a library that does not proactively use technology will not offer the necessary career opportunities Xer's need. This difficulty is destined to increase as technology becomes more prevalent, boomers increasingly assume administrative roles, and Xer's continue to filter into entry-level positions.

Many library administrators still hold to the belief that younger professionals must pay their dues before they will be allowed a voice in library operations. This seniority-centered system places too much emphasis on time and age and permeates all levels of library


staff. For example, in some libraries, shelvers who have been with the organization for years may have more impact and credibility than a newly hires M.L.S. graduate. Generation X is not necessarily looking for the easy and fast-track to the top, nor is there any indication that such a track exists today. Instead, what Xer's need and desire are tasks that use their unique qualities and provide enhanced marketability. For example, weeding, reference and maintaining the vertical file do not by themselves offer these rewards. Xer's have grown-up with technology in the Information Age. They are not only knowledgeable about technological equipment and capabilities, but are naturally cognizant of society's expanding information needs and expectations. At a time when librarianship is being questioned, libraries could greatly benefit from the unique knowledge Xer's possess.

Loyalty to oneself has been part of the socialization of Generation X and, for many, technology served as the focal point of library school training. If managers do not offer the younger generation the opportunity to further these skills, some Xer's will leave and join other library and non-library organizations that will. This would be unfortunate for the individual library and librarianship when technology has such a central and critical role in our future existence.

To achieve the greatest benefit for everyone, generations of librarians need to work with, not in spite of, one another. Employees and employers generally do not think in terms of generational socialization. However, the wide disparity between Generation X and older generations, along with dramatic changes in information expectations, necessitates enlightened and understanding thought in considering these differences. To effect such a change, many library managers need to re-evaluate their daily management activities. To assist in this process, we offer practical suggestions of how best to manage Generation X librarians and attract younger individuals to librarianship.

Getting the Most from Generation X Librarians

One pronounced change in today's workforce is the breakdown of the traditional employee-employer relationship resulting from increased organizational restructuring in the wake of budget cuts, spiraling costs, and a higher need for skill specialization.9 These factors have created higher turnover rates in today's libraries and, consequently, lower job security and increased competition for younger professionals. Library education, external competition, and patrons have also changed. Library education has become more interdisciplinary, combining with fields such as technology, communications, education and business. For example, the University of Arizona School of Library Science encourages students to take marketing courses and incorporates for-profit management theories within the curriculum.10 Libraries are being confronted by more competition from online networks, super-bookstores, private information providers and home computers. The sophistication and expectations of library users has increased as society's population becomes more computer-dependent. Younger library patrons also frequent bookstores, own personal computers, and are sufficiently independent to find the best information provider, be it via a library or not.11

In addition to changing conditions, the library field is increasingly populated with members of Generation X who possess a new set of abilities and motivations. Along with their technical-orientation, Xer's have an ability to bring together seemingly unrelated elements from diverse information resources.12 This talent results in creative solutions to problems and comfort with competition, a reality that many traditional librarians are not prepared to face.13 The ability to draw together dissimilar elements may emanate from the fact that many Xer's have obtained varied abilities from other experiences, education and careers. It is unlikely that Xer's followed a straight track into librarianship and more likely that they possess a variety of talents and interdisciplinary skills as they enter the library setting. However, these varied talents may also be an Xer's ticket out if he or she is not managed properly. Managers should assign Xer's diverse tasks that use their current skills while helping to develop new skills. For example, recently hired Xer's with a marketing background may be asked to conduct patron surveys and implement new public service programs in addition to reference duties. If a younger staff member has more knowledge about electronic resources than other personnel, allow that person to conduct internal training sessions.

Allowing Xers' independence to complete specific tasks clearly central to the library's mission will motivate them by meeting their needs for independence and marketable skills. However, where managers bestow autonomy, they should continue to motivate Xer's by providing consistent, constructive and timely feedback, both positive and negative. Providing informal feedback as well as short-term (e.g., quarterly) evaluations will help enhance productivity.

Library managers should attempt to further develop the Xer's skills by providing learning opportunities beyond the specific tasks associated with his or her job. Expose Xer's to diverse facets of the organization through cross-training, inter-departmental committees, etc. This will give younger librarians a better sense of the overall library operation and a better understanding of how each assigned task fits into that operation. As a result, assigned tasks will be more meaningful and motivational. To further motivate Xer's and improve


the knowledge of the library staff, encourage on-the-job professional development activities (e.g. seminars, certification, programs, or subject-specific degrees). This provides Xer's not only with increased skills, but an increased sense that the library does care about its younger librarians. Following these suggestions can help bring out the institutional loyalty Xer's have never had reason to offer.

With all the complexities of the Generation X lifestyle comes the need for simplification and balance. Xer's have the uncanny ability to focus on what is important. They are not enamored with the same issues as previous generations. This is often confused with being aloof or uncaring. However, to the Xer, nothing has remained long enough to become attached to or certain of, including places of residence, family members, institutions and jobs. Managers should not expect Xer's to believe that a long period of paying dues will be to their benefit, when Xer's know their job security is low. They are trying to enhance career security by obtaining marketable skills. Instead of institutional disloyalty, this is the survivalistic thought society has instilled within Xer's. If library managers understand and accept this, they can fully utilize the varied talents of Generation X to improve the individual library and profession as Xer's move along their career paths.


Given the information Age and its impact on today's society, library managers need to be aware of the generational attributes of colleagues and staff. One advantage to continually having members of Generation X as librarians is that their age and life experiences allow them to understand the needs and expectations of other non-librarian Xer's. It is these people who represent the majority of our current and future patrons and funding base. An Xer's ability to identify with such a large portion of library patrons is one good reason to involve them in the decision-making process.

They naturally understand patron expectations and competitor strengths. Consequently, Xer's can help implement programs and services that generate enhanced customer appreciation and resources.

Capitalizing on the abilities and motivations of Generation X will allow libraries to effectively respond to the evolving needs of society. Managers will enjoy productive librarians who value the environment in which they work. This type of atmosphere will attract increasing numbers of Xer's into librarianship and provide added security for the field today and in the future.


1. William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 (New York: Quill, 1991).

2. Stanley J. Wilder, The Age Demographics of Academic Librarians: A Profession Apart (Washington, D.C.: Association of Research Libraries, 1995), ix.

3. Ibid., 52 (Fig. 27).

4. Gerald Hodges and Mary Jo Lynch, "1993 ALA Member Opinion Survey Reveals One New Major Player," American Libraries, 25, no. 6 (June 1994): 596-598.

5. Wilder, The Age Demographics, 26 (Fig. 12).

6. Kathleen M. Heim and William E. Moen, Occupational Entry: Library and Information Science Students' Attitudes, Demographics and Aspirations Survey (Chicago: American Library Association, 1989), 87.

7. Strauss, Generations, 301-2.

8. Geoffrey T. Holtz, Welcome to the Jungle; The Why Behind "Generation X", (New York: St. Martins Griffin, 1995), 27.

9. Bruce Tulgan, "Employee Development: Managing Generation X," HR Focus 72, no. 11 (Nov. 1995): 22.

10. Tibbett L. Speer, "Libraries From A to Z," American Demographics 17, no. 9 (Sept. 1995): 54.

11. Leigh Estabrook, "Polarized Perceptions," Library Journal 122, no. 2 (Feb. 1, 1997): 47.

12. Tulgan, "Employee Development," 23.

13. Speer, "Libraries From A to Z, " 50.


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