Life in the Baby Boomer library world: a survival guide


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Presented at ALIA New Librarians Symposium 4 (NLS4): Breaking Barriers, Melbourne, Australia, 2008.

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  • Recently there has been a proliferation of literature written for supervisors and managers in how to deal with Generation Y in the workplace – yet in comparison there has been little written for Generation Y to prepare us and provide advice in how to deal with supervisors and managers and navigate the realities of the workplace – which often don’t meet our needs, wants or expectations. Libraries are no exception where workplaces are dominated by Baby Boomers of 45 plus, offering us few peers.So this morning I am going to present you with my guide for surviving life in the Baby Boomer Library World and help you to understand and engage with the complex environments and management structures in your workplace. As I already stated, It is based on my experience over the past five years working in public, education and specialist libraries and also working at varying levels across organisations from the bottom of the heirarchy to management. It is also backed up by a little bit of generational theory and analysis of the library industry. Before we get there though we will first make sure we are all on the same page by looking at some general characteristics of who Baby Boomers and Generation Y are and check out the state of the library work force.
  • Baby BoomerBaby Boomers were born between 1946-1964 which makes them aged between 44 and 62.Major events and markers for the Boomers include the advent of television, rock and roll music, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the threat of nuclear war and introduction of decimal currency. To Boomers life is sequential, moving from one level to the next, having experienced a mostly linear lifestyle – from childhood, to secondary education, moving onto work or tertiary education (and then work), marrying, having a family and are now moving toward retirement.
  • Which brings us to the library workforce. What does it look like?
  • So this survival guide, founded in generational theory, industry research and drawn from experience, proposes insights into the complexities of cross generational relationships within the workplace. The tips offer advice to Generation Y employees for developing flexible work practices to break through barriers and shape the course of their workplace experiences.I remember in my first year as a library manager, where I was one Gen Y manager against 9 Baby Boomers, I participated in a leadership development program where one morning focused on generational theory. For me, it was an epiphany moment for why I was different to the others and proved to be a real turning point in my career. Is a survival guide necessary? This guide in many ways is common sense illustrated through my lessons learned so a survival guide is not necessary but it may help navigate a little along the way and is certainly not going to hurt – the worst that can happen is you get to have a nap for the next 10 minutes. <number>
  • Survival tip 1: Professional confidence.After you finish you degree it does take time to develop confidence in your professional skills, capabilities and achievements – but developing your professional confidence is essential for integration into the workplace and for your ongoing growth and success. I will never forget the fear I had when I sat down to do my first reference shift – the fear of not being able to answer the questions I was asked… was not long before I was craving to be asked an enquiry that was difficult to find the answer for. When I commenced my first management role in 2006 as a Campus Librarian within a TAFE Institute I was 26 years of age. I entered my first management meeting with great anticipation and sat waiting to meet my new colleagues. I didn’t know what or who to expect however as the group arrived realisation set in that within the ten member management team I was the youngest by 20 years. I suddenly felt like a little girl playing in a grown ups world. In addition, the team had worked together for the past five years, with most being with the organisation for at least a decade. My heart sank and my professional confidence plummeted as I tried to work out how I fitted in with this group. The differences in lifestyle, professional and life experiences, education and ideas proved to be vast. Finding my voice and commanding enough respect to be heard can be difficult when you’re new to a community. Discovering my professional confidence was a long process of reconciling myself with my definition and role of libraries and librarians and recognising the strengths in my different experiences.
  • Tip 2: The Age paradoxThis sign says: Glassbreaker hammer...Break the glass to get the hammer. As a Gen Y librarian your age is your greatest strength and also your greatest weakness. A classic example occurred when I went for two job interviews within a week for the same role, as a campus librarian, at two different TAFE Institutes in Victoria, not long after I graduated. It was evident to me immediately in the first interview that despite my credentials, capabilities and achievements on paper that the employer was after experience, and more experience, someone who could walk in and take charge. The second interview was the exact opposite where it was evident my youth, fresh education, ideas and approach were in my favour. Needless to say, I was successful in my application for the second institution, but not the first. Despite the experience, knowledge and capabilities I had displayed in my application to be granted an interview it was timing, opportunity and chance that determined by success. The result was more a consequence of meeting organisational needs and future directions rather than my application and interview.
  • As Gen Y’s we particularly want someone to look up to, respect, someone to aspire to be like and someone we can go to – a mentor, a coach, a good friend.
  • It has been stated that the greatest cause of miscommunication is not cultural or gender diversity but generational misunderstanding. Within the workplace, Baby Boomer leaders and managers do not often communicate clearly, providing directives rather than guidance, and rarely provide constructive or positive feedback. Often the only comments offered are when an employee does something wrong. For example a few months ago I was working on a particularly complex tender submission for work – yes you heard me correctly I was preparing a tender submission – and yes I am librarian – I had never prepared a tender submission before in my life let alone one that was overly complex! I worked exceptionally hard to read the two hundred page brief and schedules and understand all the jargon and legal speak and put together as much of the information for the tender as possible and gave it to my supervisor. The following day he called me into his office and all he said was ‘it’s obvious to me you didn’t read the requirements properly’. No ‘feedback sandwich’ no offer of training or any kind of support – particularly considering I had never done anything like that before! This is reflected in that 42% of Gen Ys reported that poor management and leadership was the primary reason for leaving their previous role – I admit that I am one that adds to this statistic.One of my previous senior managers would often state ‘I don’t need to be thanked for my work, I get thanked every pay day!’ A Gen Y employee seeks positive reinforcement, learning opportunities and being valued by their managers. For example, a colleague of mine wrote a report for publication and sent it to her supervisor for review. After the report had been published she noticed the conclusion to the report had been heavily edited. She had no issue with the change however commented ‘I would like to know how to make my conclusions better for next time’. Before I mentioned the leadership development program I participated in - I remember another epiphany moment I was talking to the group about wanting and needing more feedback – and my manager mentioned that it wasn’t that she didn’t want to give feedback she just never thinks to do it. This was a lesson to me – once I knew this I didn’t look for her feedback – I asked for it when I needed it. So, I say be empowered and ask for feedback. Don’t wait for it as you may be waiting a really long time! Baby Boomers often do not realise or just forget to offer the feedback you need. It is not malicious; it just doesn’t come naturally. In my experience, managers appreciate the forthrightness to ask for informal performance appraisals and guidance. Baby Boomers are motivated by respect, so by asking for advice and feedback you are respecting their knowledge and experience.<number>
  • According to generational theory Gen Y are characteristically impatient due to over stimulation caused by media and technology – we have short attention spans and need to continually be challenged. Peter Sheahan, a well respected professional in this field, has a great quote which says ‘They (Generation Y) are all ADD compared to those many years older than them’ This impatience manifests itself in many forms including ambition; constantly on the lookout for something better; delusions of personal ability and competence; and a need for instantaneous communication and feedback.
  • So what do we make of all this?Generational understanding is the key to success. Through learning and appreciating generational backgrounds and life stages it’s possible to avoid a number of workplace frustrations and break through personal and professional barriers faced. It’s forever a balancing act between generational understandings and respect for the experience and knowledge of the Baby Boomers, and the skills and education of Gen Y. And just think in 15 years time we will be at another conference learning how to deal with Gen Z!
  • Life in the Baby Boomer library world: a survival guide

    1. 1. Zaana Howard Project Executive – Knowledge Exchange CPA Australia
    2. 2. Blue Aliens by Redgum. Source: Flickr
    3. 3. Generations by Joe Thorn. Source: Flickr.
    4. 4. Librarians in shower caps mosaic by Libraryman. Source Flickr.
    5. 5. Survival biscuits by the queen of subtle. Source Flickr.
    6. 6. Need a little pick me up? By hojusaram. Source Flickr.
    7. 7. Paradox by echiner1. Source Flickr.
    8. 8. Sharing by ryancr. Source Flickr.
    9. 9. Some people need to… by Caro Wallis. Source Flickr.
    10. 10. House of Cards: Tower of Babel – Station by chrisnb20 Source Flickr.
    11. 11. Go confidently by Son of Groucho. Source Flickr.