Supervising & Motivating an Intergenerational Library Workforce


A popular managerial maxim holds that “managing things is easy – managing people is the challenge” (Evans & Alire). This may be more true now than ever before. Recent demographic shifts have created an unprecedented situation, wherein members of four different generations are working side by side, in large numbers, in workplaces across the country. Libraries, far from being immune to this trend, are a particularly noteworthy and illustrative case study. In order to be successful, today’s library managers must understand the varied skills sets and motives of each generational cohort, know how to minimize friction between them, and strive to marshal the strengths of each in furtherance of the library’s mission.

The most popular taxonomy breaks down the generations as follows: the so-called “Traditionalists” (born 1928-1945, and aged 70-87 in 2015); “Baby Boomers” (born 1946-1964, and aged 51-69 in 2015), “Generation X” (born 1965-1980, and aged 35-50 in 2015); and, “Millennials” (born 1981-1997, and aged 18-34 in 2015) (Lancaster & Stillman).

Understanding Four Generations

“Traditionalists” are past retirement age and, by a wide margin, make up the smallest share of today’s library workforce. Moreover, nearly all Traditionalists still working do so in a part-time or volunteer capacity. However, library directors regularly report that these seniors are dedicated to their work – and evince a sense of loyalty to the organization generally – to an extent totally out of proportion with their semi-retired status.

As a general rule, library directors can expect Traditionalists to respect your authority structure, take on assignments with minimal complaining, and put in the hours and effort needed to see their tasks through to completion. Compared against other generations, however, they are uncomfortable with both ambiguity and conflict, and are more likely to resist change – even changes vital to the furtherance of the library’s mission. (Lancaster & Stillman). (Limitations to this and other such generalizations will be discussed shortly!)

Until 2011, the so-called “Baby Boomers” made up the single largest share of the total U.S. workforce. About a quarter of all library staff today fall within this age bracket, and Boomers continue to occupy many of the formal leadership roles in libraries (ALA Demographics Study).

They are sometimes referred to as the “Me Generation,” though that moniker has unfortunate connotations. Their sheer numbers (76 million), coupled with ready access to quality education, made it inevitable that they would actively compete against one another for jobs and lobby for the same promotions once they entered the labor force. Boomers, unlike their parents, do not readily downplay individual accomplishments in the interest of furthering some greater good – but they are willing to put in long hours for personal gain (Evans & Alire).

Library directors can expect their Boomer colleagues to be strong team players with above average interpersonal skills. However, most want recognition for their contributions, and are liable to be judgmental of librarians (particularly in other age brackets) who approach things differently than they do without a clear rationale (Martin).

“Gen Xers,” members of Generation X, offer a counterpoint to their parents. High on the list, managers must know that Gen Xers crave a healthy and consistent work-life balance. Many grew up as latchkey kids, a term coined with this generation in mind, and saw comparatively little of parents.

A second hallmark of this cohort is that they are markedly self-reliant and individualistic. On the whole, Gen Xers may gravitate towards backroom work (collection development, deaccessioning, etc.) requiring less interpersonal interaction and less day-to-day teamwork (Martin).

Industry publications regularly pump out stories about how Millennials, the newest generation to enter the library workforce, have the skills and outlook to galvanize the field. Alternatively called the Net Generation, members of the Millennial cohort are the first who lay claim to being “digital natives.” They cannot remember a time before computers and the internet. Ever-present technology is “as natural as air,” meaning that “kids are the authority [on an important subject] for the first time in history” (Zemke & Filipczak).

Another thing ‘as natural as air’ to Millennials is diversity in the workplace. Demographically, they are the most heterogeneous generation to date. Unsurprisingly, they are also champions of diversity, and appreciate how people from different backgrounds bring different assets and perspectives to the table (Twenge).

Naturally, both technology and diversity are important considerations in public libraries today; library leaders will certainly reap dividends from managing members of the Net Generation. However, they should also be prepared to confront high expectations. The Associated Press labeled Millennials the “Entitlement Generation.” Many have unrealistic expectations about entry-level salaries, benefits, and position flexibility – and are not shy about voicing dissatisfaction.

Supervising Four Generations

It may be tempting for busy library managers to write off generational differences as abstractions – factors that do not truly affect day-to-day operations. Well-regarded Gen Xer librarian Jason Martin, in a 2006 article in The Southeastern Librarian, offers a succinct and candid explanation of why these varied attitudes, motives, and skill sets do in fact matter.

“In order to succeed, libraries need to create an environment where all four generations feel comfortable and welcome working. If only one culture is present, only some workers will feel comfortable and welcome. Library administrators must be able to use different approaches with the different generations that work in the library.”

Indeed, every book published on this subject in the last decade cites a fluid supervisory style (i.e., an ability and willingness to take generational styles and preferences into account when managing different individuals) as the best way to ensure the smooth operation of an intergenerational workforce (Lancaster).

For instance, when relaying a work assignment to Traditionalist volunteers and part-timers, remember that members of this generation are often uncomfortable with ambiguity. Offer clear direction, including recommendations for how best to proceed with that project and an explanation of what end deliverables should look like. Be frank about timing and budget parameters if these apply. At the same time, make it a point never to write off Traditionalist opinions or marginalize their considerable experience.

Critically, the workplace morale of Baby Boomers – many of whom have worked in the library field for forty years or more – also hinges on the belief that they are truly valued for their contributions. However, a manager versed in generational differences will know to communicate with and motivate Boomers differently than their parents’ cohort. Unlike Traditionalists, who appreciate but are often willing to forego individual recognition if they believe their efforts are serving some greater good, Boomers desire public acknowledgement of their contributions (Lancaster).

Library managers have precious few opportunities to grant promotions, bestow titles, or award bigger offices. However, time invested in extending affordable recognition opportunities, such as achievement awards and newsletter or other public profiles, is time well spent when managing Boomer employees (Evans & Alire).

Generationally conscious managers will also take into account that Boomers thrive well in teamwork environments and in situations where, to use Lynne Lancaster’s phrasing, they are allowed to “put their own stamp on things.” While collaboration is valued, micromanagement is unappreciated, and likely to prove counterproductive.

When managing Gen Xers, directors can expect pushback if they attempt to delegate library assignments that a Gen X employee feels are outside the scope of their job or will require more time than the standard work week allows. Supervisors should be cognizant of “their reasonable boundaries and respect the Gen Xers’ desire for a balanced life” (Martin).

Overseeing Millennials, who are poised to overtake Gen Xers as the largest generation in the library workforce in the coming decades, requires a different approach. A 2005 article in Library Administration & Management centered around this generation’s evolving relationship with libraries summed it up concisely: “Supervisors must show Millennials how library work can be flexible, innovative, and intellectually compelling — not boring—and give [opportunities to] learn skills they can potentially use in a vast array of future jobs” (Sweeney).

Library leaders intent on marshaling the best efforts of Millennial workers should assign diverse, dynamic tasks whenever possible. Insofar as the library’s personnel situation allows, do not assign these younger workers to seven-hour shifts at the reference desk. A day divided between the reference desk, back-of-the-house tasks, and meetings will elicit a better performance and better morale, even when the workload is demanding.

Part and parcel with this, managers should also be prepared to give their younger works advice and reinforcement at regular intervals. That is a noteworthy departure from the Baby Boomer and Gen Xer proclivity toward self-management and away from micromanagement (Twenge). For most Millennials, however, workplace satisfaction relies on “constant, specific, constructive feedback” about job performance (Zemke & Filipczak). An open dialogue doubles as a chance for library managers to rein in any unrealistic expectations Millennials may have about rapid promotions or other workplace entitlements.


Clearly, a thoughtful evaluation of the salient differences between the generations yields valuable, usable insights. However, generational experts are generally quick to point out an equally important caveat. Managers should never draw fixed conclusions about any individual based solely on their age bracket. Each employee is unique. Moreover, the artificial and not altogether consistent cut-off line between the four generations speaks to the limitations of generational analysis.

Lancaster frames this caveat as the critical difference between generalizations and stereotypes. She sums it up well, by saying that leaders must have “the moral sense to try earnestly not to use their knowledge to stereotype people – but rather to become better listeners, better observers of the human condition, and better bosses.”
Sources / Further Reading

Evans, G. Edward, and Camila A. Alire. Management Basics for Information Professionals. Chicago, IL: Neal-Schuman, 2013.

Lancaster, Lynne C. “Click and Clash of Generations.” Library Journal 128, no. 17 (2003): 36-39.

Lancaster, Lynne C., and David Stillman. When Generations Collide: Who They Are, Why They Clash, and How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

Lowe, Sidney and Susie Skarl. “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation: Exploring Age-related Resources.” College & Research Libraries News 70, no. 7 (2009): 400-403.

Martin, Jason. “I Have Shoes Older Than You: Generational Diversity in the Library.” The Southeastern Librarian 54, no. 3 (2006): 4-11.

Ng, Eddy, Linda Schweitzer, and Sean Lyons. “New Generation, Great Expectations: A Field Study of the Millennial Generation.” Journal of Business & Psychology 25, no. 2 (2010): 281-292.

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