This article is based on a presentation at the Tennessee Library Association Annual Conference (Murfreesboro, TN) in May 2014.
Tennessee libraries are increasingly staffed by members of various, and outwardly incompatible, generations. Generational distinctions can be a source of confusion and conflict, but they are also a rich source of diversity. This article reports the findings of a survey of Tennessee library employees concerning generations in the workplace. The results are contextualized with a discussion of the research on generational differences in professional settings and strategies for effective library communication and collaboration.
Four generations currently work side-by-side in libraries; these groups of individuals grew up in different times and have different experiences and memories (Silver, March 2005). Our libraries are increasingly staffed by members
of various, and outwardly incompatible, generations. The much-heralded graying of the profession and the influx of younger “NextGen librarians” (Gordon, 2006) is creating a work environment rife with potential conflict.
Despite these outward differences, there is little conclusive data showing that the workplace behaviors and attitudes of various generations differ (Becton, Walker, & Jones-Farmer, 2014; Benson & Brown, 2011).
Generational distinctions can be a source of confusion and conflict in the workplace, but they are also a rich source of diversity. The profession is increasingly diverse, if unevenly so. The diversity of the profession is
reflected in librarians’ racial and ethnic makeups, their ages, and their educational backgrounds. Libraries are taking advantage of this diversity by advertising for newly created positions in instructional technologies or
fundraising; these positions require a different skill set than was historically required (Wilder, 2007). The University of Memphis has recently hired Community Engagement and Emerging Technologies Librarians.
Generational differences are present, even when not explicit, in the way in which employees communicate and relate to their co-workers. McMullin, Duerden Comeau, and Jovic (2007) observed that popular understanding of generations
helps workers make sense of the dynamics of the workplace (p. 299). They surveyed workers about their job-specific skills, work-life balance, and the aging workforce. Although they did not ask specific questions about generations,
their findings showed that the employees “invoke[d] generational discourse” when speaking about these issues (p. 313).
Numerous articles in the popular press and scholarly literature problematize conflicting generations in the workplace and discuss aspects of the intergenerational workplace: navigating the generation gap (Burk, Olsen, &
Messerli, 2011; Jennings & Markgraff, 2010), the Google divide (Berry, 2006), and generational dynamics (Cooper & Cooper, 1998). Still others address generation-specific management, hiring, motivation, training, and work-life
balance issues (Mosley & Kaspar, 2008; Munde, 2010; Taylor & Thompson, 1976).
How do generational differences affect, positively and negatively, our working environment? This article describes perceptions of generations currently working in libraries, reports the findings of a brief survey on the
generational attitudes held by Tennessee library employees, examines generational diversity in libraries, and presents best practices for intergenerational communication.
In helping people cope with day-to-day social complexity, stereotypes might be thought of as a necessary evil. Constantly confronted with unique individuals, people need a cognitive device that turns the unpredictable eventfulness
of social encounters into mental “business as usual,” without losing too much information in the bargain. By representing the supposedly typical characteristics of social groups, stereotypes qualify as such a device.
Stereotypes allow perceivers to treat many unique individuals as similar members of a category and to assume the presence of many other category-relevant qualities without having to verify their existence (Garcia-Marques & Mackie,
1999, p. 979).
Because we use generalizations to sort and simplify groups of individuals, age-based stereotypes and characteristics abound. A simple Google search produces thousands of results that describe generations. Whether or not these
characteristics accurately describe each generation, stereotypes are maintained through the language people use, often without realizing that they are doing so (Kite & Whitley, 2012). It is therefore useful to look at the
descriptions of the characteristics of four generations as presented in the literature.
Traditionalists (born before 1945, age in 2014, 69+), also known as Veterans, lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They have been described as respecting authority, being loyal and hard-working, avoiding risks,
resisting technology, and lacking initiative. They value titles, monetary rewards, family and patriotism, and expect to be respected (Blauth, McDaniel, Perrin, & Perrin, 2011; Cogin, 2012). Traditionalists are known for their
hard work and believe that work is its own reward. As managers, many adopt a top-down style that may not be easily accepted by later generations (Lancaster & Stillman, 2002). Lieber (2010, p. 86) describes Traditionalists as the
“brick layers” of corporate culture.
Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964, currently 50-68 years old) entered a much different world, one that prospered following World War II. Part of the post-war baby boom, they formed the largest segment of the
workforce for much of their working lives. They have been described as the “Me Generation,” competitive idealists who demand respect, believe they can change the world (for better or worse), loyal, team players, hard-
working, and reliable (Munde, 2010). In the workforce they are characterized as workaholics, out-of-touch, not technologically savvy, and inflexible. The elimination of a mandatory retirement age has allowed many to postpone
retirement. Some Boomers continue to work for financial reasons, others continue because they enjoy working (Lancaster & Stillman, 2002; Pankl, 2004). Succeeding generations, eager to enter and advance in the workplace, lament
that this generation is not retiring in the expected numbers (Davis, 2005). They are also the parents and grandparents of the Gen Xers and Millennials--adding yet another dynamic to the environment.
Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980, currently 34-49 years old) are the children of the hard-working Boomers. They have grown accustomed to relying on themselves while their parents focused on careers; they have been called
“latchkey kids” (Deeken, Webb, & Taffurelli, 2008). Although Gen Xers are highly educated and expect to advance quickly in their careers, they tend to place a higher value on quality of life as a response to their
workaholic parents (Johnson, 2013; Patterson, 2007). In addition, they depend less on institutions to provide stability and focus on careers that are more portable. Gen Xers can grow frustrated with those who have been in positions
for a long time but who do not possess cutting-edge skills (Patterson, 2007).
As employees, Gen Xers value flexibility and informality in the workplace and appreciate leaders who consider their input, offer feedback, and provide a clear support system. They like to be involved in decision-making, especially
in their own areas. In general, they are results-oriented and work well on projects independently (Patterson, 2007). Many members of Gen X have had other careers before coming to librarianship and bring diverse skills to the field.
They appreciate the fast-paced and varied work of busy libraries, and adapt well to the frequent changes required to maintain relevance.
Millennials (born between 1980 and 2002, currently 18-33 years old) have been the subjects of a significant amount of literature. Scholars have written about Millennials in general as well as on Millennial librarians and library
users. Jenny Emanuel’s dissertation (2012) on Millennial academic librarians contains the most comprehensive description of the characteristics of Millennial librarians. Rachel Singer Gordon (2005b; 2006) has written extensively
on NextGen librarians, and many of her articles address the technological savvy of these librarians. Wilder researches librarian demographics and his 2007 article on the “New Library Professional” discusses the non-
traditional roles that the younger generations are serving in academic libraries. Smith and Galbraith (2012) address the supervision, recruiting, and retaining of Millennial librarians. Jennings and Markgraff (2010) specifically
address the generational gap between Millennials and Boomers in libraries. The bulk of the literature is written by non-Millennials and has the distinct goal of “dealing with” or “managing” this generation.
Millennials are ambitious and have high self-esteem, which may be related to their parents’ coddling (Emanuel, 2012; Smith & Galbraith, 2012). They came of age during, and continue to bear the brunt of, the 2008
recession. Accordingly, an unprecedented number have had to move in with their parents (El Boghdady & Badger, 2014). Because they grew up with several minutely and graphically documented school shootings, they are attuned to
their personal safety. Computer technologies have always been an integral part of Millennials’ lives and education. Accordingly, they expect information and interfaces to be personalized or customized to their preferences
(Tapscott, 1998). Technology has helped shape a global generation, which has led to an increased interest in and acceptance of diversity. Millennials are also more diverse, both ethnically and racially, than previous generations
(Taylor, Keeter, & Pew Research Center, 2010; Wilder, 2007).
In professional settings, Millennials have proven eager to take on increasing responsibility. They expect opportunities to continually grow and learn and “prefer regular, consistent feedback and recognition” (Smith
& Galbraith, 2012, p. 143). Millennial librarians have more diverse academic backgrounds and they are less likely to have a library science degree (Wilder, 2007). Their technical skills have been widely touted. Although
technological savvy varies from one individual to the next, Millennials’ insistence on integrating technology into various aspects of their professional and personal lives is unique to this generation. Hershatter and Epstein
refer to this incorporation of technology as the Millennial’s “sixth sense” (2010, p. 213). Millennials are more assertive (Twenge, 2009) than previous generations and they are determined to redefine academic
librarianship in the 21st century (Gordon, 2006). Both of these characteristics can bring them into conflict with their colleagues and supervisors.
Survey: Working with Generations in Tennessee
In the spring of 2014, we sent a survey (see Appendix) to the Tennessee Library Association listserv (TLA-L). The survey asked library employees to comment on perceptions of generations and intergenerational differences, including
perceptions of their own generation and the generations of their colleagues. There are currently 777 email addresses subscribed to TLA-L. We received 63 responses, from 39 employees at academic libraries, 18 employees at public
libraries, 5 employees at special libraries and 1 employee at a school library. Staff sizes ranged from 2.5 to 275. Respondents self-identified as Traditionalists (3), Boomers (31), Gen Xers (18), and Millennials (11). Participation
in the survey was voluntary and the findings cannot be generalized. Responses were alternatingly interesting, honest, humorous, empathetic, and harsh. The survey did not suggest generational characteristics or stereotypes. However,
many, if not most of the responses, reflected the generalizations noted by McMullin, Duerden Comeau, and Jovic (2007) in the literature. It reminds us that we think both in terms of people and in generalizations. This is what we
There were the fewest comments about Traditionalists, probably reflecting the smallest number currently working in Tennessee libraries. Several people commented that this was the most rigid group, unchanging in their ways,
frequently unable to connect with university students, more formal, and resistant to change. Others saw no problem and praised Traditionalists for their experience and depth of knowledge, their dedication, and their service
orientation. One respondent characterized them as being a stabilizing force in the organization. Such comments echo the stereotypes of Traditionalists as hard working, stable, and somewhat authoritarian (Lancaster & Stillman,
2002; Lieber, 2010).
Every respondent, including those who self-identified as Boomers, had something to say about Boomers, and their responses indicate that they are a significant portion of library staff (for example: “We have quite a few
Boomers in the library” and “All the librarians here and one staff member are boomers”). Generally, Boomers were praised for their experience, hard work, and dedication. They are service-oriented and are willing to
work long hours, evenings, and weekends. This group started using computers as adults and their knowledge of and acceptance of technology appears to vary considerably (see Hewlett, Sherbin, & Sumberg, 2009; Pankl, 2004). Younger
colleagues commented that Boomers might focus on the past but are also willing to try new ideas. Others felt that this group is even more resistant to change than the Traditionalists.
One person summed up this group by acknowledging that Gen Xers felt the job should fit the person rather than the person fitting the job--presenting a work ethic that differs from preceding generations. Gen Xers appear willing to
change jobs frequently. This group tends to be self-sufficient, believing that they can find the answers on their own rather than asking for help. They are comfortable with technology, having worked with computers in most of their
professional positions. One respondent commented that this group would eventually be the leaders in the library, replacing the retiring Traditionalists and Boomers. These comments reflect observations made by Johnson (2013) and
Patterson (2007) about Gen Xers valuing quality of life and being results-oriented and self-reliant.
The youngest generation of library staff also includes student workers. Having known technology all their lives, they are the most technologically-savvy. Some respondents suggested that they are overly reliant on technology. Their
work ethic appears less strict than that of the other groups; they may not pay attention to punctuality and they may not complete assignments. They have a high need for feedback, but they are often not willing to ask for it. Survey
responses emulate terminology about Millennials’ self-reliance and assertiveness (Emanuel, 2012; Twenge, 2009).
Benefits of an Intergenerational Workforce
Respondents summed up the benefits in one word: diversity. They enjoyed working with people with different experiences and knowledge. Respondents commented that it “provides broader perspective of ideas and creates a richer,
more interesting work environment” and that the generations “balance each other out and create a strong, functional library.” Respondents also felt their patrons appreciated the differences and these differences
allowed them to better work with diverse populations. Another respondent said, “working with members of other generations is great preparation for working with customers of other generations.”
Challenges of an Intergenerational Workforce
Respondents identified communication as one of the biggest challenges of an intergenerational workforce. Comments included: “different frames of reference,” “different ways of dealing with change,”
“not having someone who thinks like me,” and “Older folks sometimes perceive a dismissive arrogance.” One person stated, “It is easy to assume that another person thinks or approaches a problem the same
way, which is definitely not true.” One Millennial felt that “Communication is a huge challenge. The Traditionalists and Boomers are not big on communication. They prefer the cloak and dagger method. Resistance to change
and new ideas and technology is also a challenge.” Still another stated, “It is very challenging to work with other generations when I don't or can't understand where they are coming from in terms of
Several themes came out of the survey: the pervasive nature of generational stereotypes, the benefit of generational diversity, and the need for best practices for intergenerational communication. Assumptions and stereotypes are
always tricky. We often do not acknowledge that we stereotype individuals; yet, these stereotypes may unconsciously influence our attitudes and actions and warrant examination. Younger workers may look at older workers and assume they
are resistant to change or have years of experience and knowledge; older workers may look at younger ones and conclude they are technologically adept or disrespectful and arrogant. One Millennial described being treated as a child or
grandchild rather than as a colleague (Jennings & Markgraff, 2010, p. 96), which was totally unintentional on the part of the older colleague. Misconceptions and miscommunication can lead to workforce conflict. Johnson and Johnson
(2010, p. 17) assure us there is usually a generational component to workplace conflict. Sixty-five percent of the respondents to a survey by Lancaster and Stillman (2002) indicated that the generation gap makes it hard to get things
done. They cite lack of communication; tension between “that’s the way we’ve always done it” and a “let’s change it because we can change it” attitude; differences in generational values on
issues as diverse as work ethic and dress codes; workforce shifts; and the problem of obtaining and retaining multi-generational talent. For example, workplace tension may arise when a younger worker does not see the Boomer
manager’s autocratic formulation of a strict dress code as an appropriate solution to differences in workplace attire.
Generational diversity was identified by most survey respondents as a benefit of intergenerational libraries. The common experiences and characteristics that unite a generation can serve as a rich source of diversity, but they can
also cause contention between members of different generations. The human resources literature reveals that diversity strengthens organizations (Jehn, Northcraft, & Neale, 1999; Mannix & Neale, 2005; Page, 2008). However,
generational diversity has not received as much critical attention as racial, gender, and other forms of diversity. According to Martin (2006), this has contributed to the proliferation of generational stereotypes and it has kept us
from leveraging the benefits of generational diversity (p. 4).
Ignoring the richness of generational diversity can create an unproductive and uncomfortable workplace. Greenberg-Walt and Robertson (2001) found that “Any organization that is not tolerant of the different generations making
up its workforce is likely to suffer through high turnover and suboptimal performance” (p. 161). Libraries, like other organizations, need to make accommodations to ensure the happiness and productivity of staff. Part of this
process is the acknowledgement of some of the ways in which our generations differ.
Members of the generations have had different experiences. These formative experiences have shaped how each generation collectively sees the world. For Boomers, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy remains not only a
vivid recollection from their youth, but also an event that proved pivotal for the generation. For Millennials, the Columbine shootings and subsequent school shootings have meant an increased sensitivity to personal safety.
Generations have defining characteristics that surface in the work they perform and their relationship to their employers. Boomers are described as being loyal to a fault, and Gen Xers are described as being nomadic and self-interested (Howe & Strauss, 2007). Different generations have different work-related priorities; while Boomers are “workaholics,” Millennials are more interested in maintaining work-life balance and a desired
Library employees can learn from their oldest and youngest colleagues. While it is important to acknowledge the individuality of our colleagues, generational groups do demonstrate various traits and characteristics that cannot be
ignored. Our generations have different goals and talents, and appeal to various library patrons. Boomers are much closer to retirement than their Millennial counterparts, and many have had the experience of raising children to
adulthood. Boomers typically have more professional experience than their Gen X and Millennial colleagues. This perspective and maturity lends itself to mentoring, and the research demonstrates that all generations of librarians can
benefit from mentorship (Neyer & Yelinek, 2011).
Several studies have indicated that Millennials have a special talent and passion for integrating technology into their workplace (Gordon, 2006). Gen Xers have been called the Bridge Generation for their ability to mediate
generational communication (Gordon, 2005a). Such talents can easily be accommodated and will help draw the Millennial into an organization. While some of the employees’ preferences cannot be indulged, our users’ preferences
are not ours to control. If a user would rather talk to a librarian of the same age, or one that reminds him or her of a favorite kindergarten teacher, who are we to judge?
In order to benefit from this diversity, we must explore, and not ignore, our perceived differences and allow members of each generation to contribute to our libraries. Several survey responses addressed potential benefits of
generational diversity. Perceived benefits of generational diversity include:
“I like the breadth of views that we all bring to the table--we balance each other well.”
“Each come[s] with different skills sets and backgrounds. I like having a broad range of possible solutions to a problem, or project.”
“We have a wide variety of customers so the age helps with meeting the needs of the public.”
“It keeps everyone--no matter what the age–‘on our toes’ and engaged in what is happening in the world around us.”
“Provides broader perspective of ideas and creates a richer, more interesting work environment.”
“…blend of work styles and values.”
The most common themes were a variety of perspectives/values/ideas/work styles, the ability to balance each other out, and an appeal to our diverse users. In these, and less obvious ways, even the perception of generational
diversity strengthens libraries for both our users and ourselves.
In order to encourage the most productive and harmonious collaboration between members of a diverse workforce, library administrators must leverage the talents, traits, and preferences of the generations and promote collaboration
among these seemingly disparate age groups. Suggested strategies from business literature include “providing clear communication and expectations up front” (Deyoe & Fox, 2011, p. 10), “communicate change
clearly” (Patterson, 2007, p. 21), and "adapt the way content is delivered to the needs of each employee” (Mullan, 2008, p. 16). Coordinators of larger projects involving several library employees such as assessments,
hiring committees, exhibitions, moving materials, digitizing collections, programming, and ILS migration should outline plans and individual assignments as soon as possible and communicate them either in meetings, conference calls,
e-mails, or other methods of group communications. When expectations, strategies, or deadlines change, coordinators must communicate them to everyone at once so the project can move forward smoothly.
Another way library employees can maximize the heterogeneous skills and perspectives of an intergenerational workforce is to “provide all generations with opportunities for learning, growth and professional development”
(Patterson, 2007, p. 21). Whenever possible, supervisors should send notifications about database training, webinars, introductions to new technologies, programming, opportunities for presenting and publishing, and research funding
opportunities (especially in academic libraries) to everyone in the library. Deans and directors should also encourage all employees to take advantage of tuition remission and professional development funds, regardless of age.
Similarly, as Munde (2010) suggests, “when designing or selecting training, libraries should take into consideration age differences in preferences and learning styles, and encourage a greater variety of vertical/lateral and
internal/external mentoring arrangement” (p. 106). It’s important for planners to be flexible with training times, formats, and required levels of participation. Involving stakeholders early in the planning process can
ensure that intergenerational needs are met, and offering opportunities for questions and feedback will help engage all attendees. In addition, all librarians can benefit from either formal or informal mentoring programs. Peer-to-peer
and senior-junior employee mentoring can facilitate understanding between librarians of all ages.
Finally, it is crucial for library employees to consider departmental, team, or committee communication preferences. For example, Mullan (2008) found that Millennials prefer Facebook or instant message style of communication, but
Boomers are less comfortable with text messaging. Of course, not all communication platforms are equally suitable for workplace communication. Information appropriate for the whole organization should be disseminated in several ways
to ensure all recipients have the same opportunity to receive and respond. Though these strategies are designed to help facilitate intergenerational communication, library employees must remember that communication styles and
expectations may be modeled on family or other non-professional interactions and may trigger certain feelings or responses. In other words, it’s best to give one another the benefit of the doubt.
Do generational differences exist and do they matter? Several studies conclude that there is little if any empirical data proving that different age groups perform and behave differently in the workplace (Becton et al., 2014;
Benson & Brown, 2011). Other research, however, shows that generational stereotypes do exist and can be a source of tension in the workplace (Blauth et al., 2011; Cogin, 2012; Twenge, 2010). The purpose of this study was to
examine attitudes, in particular those of Tennessee library employees, towards generations in the workplace. Survey responses reveal that generational differences are present in the minds of those who work in Tennessee libraries, even
if the actual workplace behaviors and attitudes are nonexistent.
Although we did not provide generational characteristics, respondents used generational language to describe age groups. This is supported by the research of Kite and Whitley (2012) who maintain that “stereotypes also are
transmitted and maintained through the words and phrases people use, often without their thinking about them” (p. 54). It would be interesting to investigate how the language perpetuating generational stereotypes affects
employee relations in the workplace.
Generational diversity, communication issues, and the ubiquitousness of generational stereotypes were the major themes identified in the survey and the topics of our focus. Other areas of investigation include management of a
multigenerational workforce, improving generation-specific recruitment and retention, ageism and the devaluing of older workers (Munde, 2010, p. 96; Pankl, 2004), Boomers as mentors (Neyer & Yelinek, 2011), and the eventual
changing of the guard as Boomers, who currently make up 70% of library workforce (Munde, 2010 p. 89), retire and Gen Xers take over. Although other aspects of library employees’ identities, such as gender, race and sexuality,
which likely impact generational differences, are beyond the scope of this article, further study should address this interplay.
As we have explored the literature and analyzed the survey results, our eyes have been opened to the importance of generational issues in the workplace. Generational differences, whether perceived or real, have huge implications
for library services and administration. While casual and far from comprehensive, we hope that our survey piques the interest of the readers and that the topic will receive continued investigation.
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Berry, J. N. (2006). The Google divide. Library Journal, 131(17), 10-10.
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Cogin, J. (2012). Are generational differences in work values fact or fiction? Multi-country evidence and implications. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 23(11), 2268-2294.
Cooper, J. F., & Cooper, E. A. (1998). Generational dynamics and librarianship: Managing generation X. Illinois Libraries, 80(1), 18-21.
Davis, D. M. (2005). Library retirements. American Libraries, 36(8), 16.
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Deyoe, R. H., & Fox, T. L. (2011). Identifying strategies to minimize workplace conflict due to generational differences. Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business, 4, 1-17.
El Boghdady, D., & Badger, E. (2014, June 26). Millennials may be about to move out. The Washington Post.
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Gordon, R. S. (2005a). The “Bridge” generation. Library Journal, 130(19), 46-46.
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As an extension of a presentation we made at the TLA 2014 Annual Conference, we are interested in discovering more about the generations that work in Tennessee libraries. Please take a moment to complete the following survey. If,
when talking about your colleagues, you do not know their exact ages, just estimate. We hope to publish the results in an upcoming issue of Tennessee Libraries.
Betsy Park, Rachel Scott, & Jen Schnabel (University of Memphis)
1. Which generation do you belong to?
Traditionalist (older than 68)
Boomer (Age 50-68)
Gen X (age 34-49)
Millennial (age 18-33)
2. What type of library do you work in?
3. There are ______________ staff members in my library.
4. Describe working with Traditionalists in your library.
5. Describe working with Boomers in your library.
6. Describe working with Gen Xers in your library.
7. Describe working with Millennials in your library.
8. What are the benefits of working with members of other generations in your library?
9. What are the challenges of working with members of other generations in your library?
10. Are there any comments you wish to add?
Thank you for taking the time to respond.
Betsy Park, Assistant to the Dean for Planning & Assessment at University of Memphis, can be reached at email@example.com.
Rachel Scott, Integrated Library Systems Librarian at University of Memphis, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jennifer Schnabel, Assistant to the Dean for Community Engagement at University of Memphis, can be reached at email@example.com.