Friday, March 17, 2006

Generational Conflict? Says who? Oh, them. . .

This post is another one of those that started out as a comment and got too long. Mark Linder recently wrote a post entitled "More on generations and library literature." In his post, he addresses a short article that appeared in the March 2006 issue of C&RL News. The article citation is as follows:

McCaffrey and Martin Garnar. "Long-range planning across generational lines: Eight tips to bridge the differences." C&RL News 67.3 (March 2006).

Unlike Mark, as of this writing I have not received my copy even though I am a paid member. Readers can add another reason to my list of why I am not terribly happy about ALA. Expensive as heck, and it can't even get me my journals in a timely fashion. I read it out of the ALA website, which is another reason of my unhappiness, but let's leave that aside. We have more interesting things to consider. To save you time, here is the list of tips that the authors give:
  • Be respectful.
  • Encourage broad representation.
  • Have a timeline.
  • Mix it up.
  • Consult ACRL standards.
  • Plan for the future.
  • Gather data.
  • Get outside opinions.
It seems like a nice list on the surface, but there are certain questions I had as I was reading the article. To be fair, I did read the article first before reading Mark's reply to it. However, he anticipated a lot of what I had in mind, in some cases, much more eloquently than I could have, but here we go. The overall impression I got from the article is that an unknowing reader would think the generations are just fighting each other with hatchets and axes.

Let's start with that little generational overview pap at the article's opening, the one about the four generational categories. The authors write:

"Before we go any further, let’s take a quick look at the four major generational categories: Traditionalist, Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Millennial. Traditionalists are loyal employees, committed to the institutions for which they work. Baby Boomers are competitive and idealistic, a generation that has been able to focus on themselves. Generation Xers, by contrast, are skeptical and self-reliant. They have seen their parents divorce and institutions fail. Finally, Millennials are technologically savvy, diverse, and have been raised with a global media perspective."

Apparently, according to them, the traditionalists are the only ones who are loyal to their institutions. Based on that scheme, I am a self-reliant, skeptic with no loyalty and likely lack technological savvy since that trait belongs to the Millenials. This sounds like an example of an overgeneralization, something that in my days as a composition teacher I would warn my students to avoid in their writing. First, as far as I can tell, most librarians have a sense of loyalty to the place they work and a commitment to serve their constituents (clients, patrons, students, so on) well. Sure, we can make exceptions for some deadwood here and there, but those are exceptions rather than the rule.

Now, a little about myself in the hopes it may dispel some of this overgeneralization. If nothing else, just look at it as me being willing to serve as the guinea pig. As I hinted, I would fall in as a Generation X person. I have a fairly healthy commitment to my institution and am fairly loyal (as long as you deserve it. Loyalty, like respect, are things you earn). I am pretty idealistic; it comes with the territory of being an educator, but that idealism is tempered, for good or bad, by a realism that can border on cynicism and a very good dose of skepticism. You see, I do believe in questioning everything. I am even questioning the article in question now. Questioning and skepticism are healthy things. In terms of the divorce issue for Gen X'ers, I was fortunate my parents were married, and they still remain happily so. Having said that, I did see a lot of my classmates suffer in school because their parents divorced, some of them in quite ugly ways. In terms of technological savvy, I may not be someone who takes severs apart before breakfast. I may not be the coder extraordinaire that some of the ubertech L2 folks want every librarian to be, and I sure as heck don't dream in code, but overall, I do have some technological savvy. Hey, give me some credit, I am blogging for one. I also make use of some Web 2.0 tools, even if I am very selective about what I choose to use. You see, the skeptic in me does not believe that Web 2.o, and by extension L2, is the answer to everything (that answer happens to be 42). There are different questions, and each question needs a different answer. And in the times when my technological savvy only goes so far, I am not too proud to ask someone who knows more.

As for diverse, well, shall we go the ethnic route? (Puerto Rican, born and raised on the island) Or shall we go the foreign language fluency route? (Spanish language native fluency, plus some working knowledge of French). Or shall we go my current place of employment route? (I work at a campus defined by the federal government as a minority serving institution). Dear readers, when it comes to diversity, I live the experience on various levels. I may not be perfect, but I do make a good effort to be aware and open when it comes to diversity, but in reading the article, readers may believe that only Millenials are diverse. I work with a very diverse group of students and members of my academic community. As for the global perspective issue, I think Mark makes a good point, so I will let him say it:

"And for the global media perspective. Please, just give me a break! If we're talking about Americans here then please show me this vaunted global media perspective. Are you really claiming with any seriousness that our current media has a more global perspective than it did when I was raised? Hah! Get out a bit more. Like to another country on a different continent. Consume some of their media and then come back and tell me American media provides a 'global perspective.'"

Now, I am not as well travelled as Mark probably is, since he served in the Armed Forces for one, but I have had the fortune to travel a little myself. I am not even going to remark on surveys that often point out to Americans' serious lack of geographic awareness. OK, I will, find out about it here. We can also mention how the U.S. has a serious deficit when it comes to reading the literature of the world. And don't even get me started on the overall attitude that learning a foreign language could be a bother. Now, I will be a bit more blunt: I am guessing that the authors may have been referring to Millenials in some other part of the world when it comes to having a good global perspective. Now, the lack of a good global perspective is not just a Millenial issue, but you would believe they are the only ones with some global perspective from the article. I have to agree with Mark, the authors do need to get out more. If not, maybe reading some blogs from around the world may help. Here is one place to do that.

Now, another question, the one about the lack of young middle managers. The authors cite William Curran, who claims there is a "relative scarcity of younger middle managers" for leadership roles. I think at this point some readers may be asking, what scarcity? There are plenty of younger librarians and library workers who could be moving into leadership positions. Our library schools are producing librarians at a good clip, and those folks are coming to work in libraries, when they can find a job. You see, there is no shortage of librarians, and there is no real shortage of young leaders. What there is happens to be a serious shortage of planning succession and sharing the power. And I am not going into the retirement flood that everyone says is about to happen, in a decade according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook entry for librarians. You see, they are not necessarily retiring, which is consistent with other patterns in society where people retire later. In fact, I am not the one who says this; I just think it is fairly known, but readers can find out more about this later retirement trend from ALA (warning, PDF document). In our profession, the job outlook gets aggravated because if any do retire, their position does not get reopened for a new hire. Yes, I wil grant some of that may be funding, but a lot of it is just a lack of insight on the part of the institutions. The problem is not a lack of librarians; the problem is a lack of entry level jobs where institutions can groom those young middle managers they may be needing later on. Now, I look at that and wonder if that may also add fuel to the generational conflict the authors of the article refer to. Just a question to ask.

Now, looking over the list from the article. The one item I definitely agree with is respect. You can't have much occur if there is no respect. You do have to respect those who came before you, but by the same token, those that came before us have to respect those that are coming up. And I don't mean condescension. I mean a sincere respect that can lead to a sincere desire to truly communicate. Until all sides decide to have a little humility, this so-called conflict will just go on and on. Once we get some humility what we see is that the generations are not really all that different. Sure, they may have different perspectives, but under all that, there are human beings striving to grow and be better.

Mark covered the thing about the ACRL standards pretty well, so I think I will let him do the writing at this point:

"I really want to pick on one of their "tips:"

Consult ACRL standards. The standards represent what our profession values and may shine a light on areas that need improvement. If a Boomer is concerned about a proposed change, the standards can help bridge the gap.

We found that pointing to the standards made proposed changes more credible rather than being just another crazy idea the Generation Xers created over their morning café au laits.

OK. These are two of the most inane paragraphs that I have ever read. Are they saying that the standards aren't important to Gen Xers or Millenials but that they only need to be trotted out to calm the recalcitrant Boomers? I would certainly hope that if you are doing long-range planning for your university library you would pay close attention to the ACRL standards no matter your generation."

Apparently, if we do not use the standards, those old school veterans are going to get restless. It sounds like we can use the standards as a lion tamer would use a chair and a whip to keep the lions in place. And by the way, what is wrong with an idea a Gen X'er, or any other generational representative, creates over coffee? Heck, I get some great ideas in the shower, do I have to now make sure they match ACRL standards? I am not saying standards are not important. Standards provide guidance and some ground to work from in implementing ideas and making sure you have a solid program, but again, they are not the ultimate answer. They are a tool, a valuable tool, but a tool nonetheless.

The one tip I will pick on myself is the one about "plan for the future." I can certainly see the importance of this, and I definitely agree this is significant. The authors of the article state that "generational differences may affect employment and turnover." To that, I can only say, "duh." I am not being snarky here. Let's be honest, how many people actually would like to be stuck in the same rut for decades to come? I value learning opportunities and challenges, and those of my generation and coming up after me do as well. Also, many of those who came before me value learning and challenges as well. The worst thing that the powers that be can do is take a new librarian, no matter the generation, and stiffle their creativity and energy by refusing to provide him or her with learning, leadership, and growth opportunities. Managers and directors doing this will be faced with a lot of turnover. Loyalty to an organization only goes so far; managers who fail to plan and involve all their librarians and library workers are just asking for a bleak future to happen. This is not a generational issue. Just look at library schools. In them, you have students from all generations and walks of life. I went to school with people younger than me (Millenials) as well as older (Boomers) and those in my generation. What I found is that they all bring different experiences and ideas to the table. They will all be happy to offer such ideas and share their expertise; they will even lead if given the opportunity or if they find such an opportunity. What they will not do is tolerate closemindedness and lack of insight. It's not just one generation against another one. We are looking at the need for significant changes in libraries as institutions and as living organisms. The new librarians offer an infusion of energy, enthusiasm, knowledge, and dedication. It is now up to those in charge to take advantage of it.

I probably said more than I intended, but I think these are things that need to be said, and they need to be said plainly. The generations conflict more often than not is just a lure to confrontation. We don't need confrontation, and we don't need half-baked overgeneralizations that may sound nice on an LIS article, but then may not make as much sense when questioned. You see, what bothers me is when some people use this issue to write their articles, get their tenure if they are academics on the tenure line (some of us are academic not on tenure lines), or go to fame and glory in ALA's (or insert your favorite LIS big organization here) top tiers. It bothers me because articles like this seem to spread a certain stereotype. The image I see on reading stuff like this is that of white settlers worrying that they have to figure out how to speak to foreign natives (insert your favorite colonial historical setting here). "Ooh, those Millenials. We don't understand them, how can we make peace with them?" I don't know about the rest of the readers out there, but I find that condescending and even offensive. For now, I am going to end the post here, let readers out there think about it, or totally ignore it, or some can fume about it. Me? I have other questions to ask and ideas to explore.


Jenne said...

I find it interesting that all the generations had positive descriptions except for ours. I'm guess the writer of the article is a Baby Boomer. (This reminds me of the time one of those advice twins- I can't remember if it was Ann or Abby- trashed GenXers for being lazy and unmotivated while praising Millennials for how industrious they are. I've not read them since.) People have a hard time understanding that loyalty must be earned-- it should never just be taken for granted. I think that's one of the roots of the disdain others feel for GenXers. We question the status quo-- we just do it much more quietly than the Baby Boomers did, and we still do it, even though we're in our 30s.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Jenne: Thanks for stopping by. Yea, for some reason, we are just bums, so to speak. As for the twins, I wonder how they define "industrious." Anyways, loyalty is something that is earned, but since it seems that it is a value barely instilled in the younger generations (along with civility, but that is another whole post), I wonder if that may have to do with why some people want to take it for granted or just assume it no longer exists. Just a thought. Anyhow, let us continue to question. Best, and keep on blogging.

Mark said...

Actually Jenne, both of the authors are Gen Xers and they were addressing what they learned about "leading" Baby Boomers, which may be one reason this (barely) Baby Boomer took such offense. Naw, it was offensive period.

Oh, wait, you mean the authors of the generational definitions. Looking "in the book" at amazon, Lynne Lancaster is a Baby Boomer and David Stillman is a Gen Xer. They also seem to think that "intergenerational friendships are a lot less common than you might think." Personally, I think these two can be easily dismissed also. People like that must still be living in the '50s.

I, weirdo that I am, will continue to cherish and pursue intergenerational friendships, often 2 or more generations removed. I have several friends who are younger than my youngest child. But then I always forget, I'm such a freak.

But you are right, Jenne. I noticed that negativity about Gen Xers but somehow didn't fully consciously register it. Sorry I missed it; would've given me more to make fun of.

Please, the both of you, keep questioning, be loyal only to those individual and institutions that deserve it, and don't let some silly stereotype get you down.

While we all judge people every day in myriad ways [and, yes, I did it above], none of them are even close to accurate until we really get to know them as a person. We are all simply too complex for anything else.


Angel, librarian and educator said...

Mark: Freakish why? Library school is a good example of places where intergenerational friendships can occur, as long as both sides have a sense of consideration. One bone of contention in my library school was that for socials, most of the students on the younger side of the fence (read single and childless) tended to choose places that were not family friendly for the gatherings. Needless to say those on the other side of the fence were not terribly pleased. But that aside, what other place can you meet so many different people? I met lawyers, retired people going into a new career, "kids" who went straight from the bachelors degree to the MLS, so on. You can't help but make friends all over, if you are willing to walk at least part of the way. Maybe, just maybe, we are all freaks, hehe. Best, and keep on blogging.