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Mentoring Gen-X Librarians

by Catherine Bloomquist on July 8, 2014

Recent library literature abounds on the subject of recruiting and retaining the profession’s most recent arrivals, the Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000.1 On the other end of the spectrum, the Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, have also attracted attention as libraries prepare for Boomers to retire over the next ten to fifteen years.2 Sandwiched in the middle and often overlooked is Generation X, the generation born between 1965 and 1979.3 At just more than half the size of the Baby Boomer generation, Generation X presents a challenge for all organizations simply because of its smaller size.4 Who will replace all the retiring Boomers? Libraries will feel this challenge even more keenly because of the typically older age profile of librarians,5 many of whom entered the profession as a second career or later in life.6 Indeed, as many as 60 percent of current librarians are predicted to retire by 2025.7 This situation may be further aggravated by indications of poor retention of Generation X librarians.8 Poor retention of this generation will clearly exacerbate an already impending library staffing shortage. However, poor retention may also lead to a leadership gap in libraries because Generation X is poised to be libraries’ next generation of leaders9 and many of the retiring Baby Boomer librarians will vacate leadership and supervisory roles.10 Thus it is essential that libraries consider retention strategies targeted to Generation X.

Mentoring has a long history of practice in libraries but has primarily been used as an orientation tool or as a means of achieving tenure, rather than as a retention tool.11 Yet mentoring can serve as a retention strategy particularly suited to the needs of Generation X. Generation X possesses distinctive characteristics and workplace needs, and organizations face challenges in retaining this generation. Mentoring can also meet Generation X’s specific workplace needs, and alternative mentoring models exist that may particularly appeal to Generation X.

Gen X in the Workplace

Generation X (or Gen Xers) grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, an economically depressed era in which the Baby Boomer belief in a lifelong job and employer loyalty eroded in the wake of widespread layoffs, diminished pensions, and corporate misconduct.12 Gen Xers witnessed the abuse that their parents suffered at the hands of employers and became distrustful of organizations and authority.13 Gen Xers were also more likely than previous generations to live in households with divorced or single parents, or in households with two working parents. As a result, this “latchkey” generation learned to be confident, independent, and self-reliant, later carrying those traits into the workplace.14 As Gen Xers entered the workplace, increased competition for fewer jobs required ever-higher levels of education and more years of experience for even the most entry-level positions, and Gen Xers came to rely on continual learning and skill-building opportunities as a means of maintaining marketability and job security in this competitive climate.15

Generation X also differs from the Baby Boomer generation in its rejection of the notion of “paying dues” at work, instead expecting the values of equality and diversity that they grew up with to be reflected in the workplace. Thus Gen Xers reject seniority-based systems, inefficient work processes, and doing things “the way we’ve always done them,” and will leave an organization rather than accept such practices.16 Gen Xers also insist on worklife balance, to the degree that the leadership positions that were so attractive to the Baby Boomer generation are less appealing to Gen Xers, who view leadership as a “sacrifice” that brings more responsibility and less personal and family time.17

Taken together, Generation X’s organizational distrust, independence, and rejection of outdated work practices has shaped a workplace generation that does not value long-term employment, and instead seizes “better” work opportunities as they present themselves, even if that means leaving an organization.18 While Gen Xers have frequently been described as self-centered, disloyal, and non-committed in the workplace, these attitudes simply represent Gen Xers’ belief that they, not their employers, will drive their careers.19 Further, Gen Xers’ value of career progression over institutional progression (i.e., seniority or promotions) means that they do not view job changes as disloyalty but as a way to explore and acquire skills.20

Poor Retention of Gen-X Librarians

In 2005, a survey of new librarians found that 69 percent had voluntarily switched jobs or roles within their first five years in the profession. Termed the “five-year itch,” the trend was not restricted to internal moves and promotions but was also frequently associated with external moves to new organizations. The majority of the surveyed librarians, most of whom were self-defined Gen Xers, said that the job changes were necessary in order for them to advance career-wise.21 The study’s authors concluded that most new librarians did not consider their jobs to be long-term prospects, and that many were even “actively dissatisfied” with their jobs. The study’s most significant finding, however, was that half of the nearly 500 survey respondents reported that they were considering leaving the library profession altogether.22

One of the reasons Gen Xers may choose to leave the library field is their unwillingness to tolerate libraries’ organizational structure, which is traditionally bureaucratic and seniority-based.23 Judith Nixon, professor of library science at Purdue University, commenting on the results of the five-year itch study, noted that there seemed to be a “serious communication gap” between Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, with Boomers looking for qualified staff to fill the wave of retiring librarians while Gen Xers look elsewhere due to the lack of advancement opportunities within libraries.24 In spite of this, not everyone in the library field views poor retention in a negative light. Some librarians in the five-year itch study, for example, felt that mobility encouraged libraries to stay competitive in order to attract good library talent, while others felt that turnover helped prevent compromised service to library patrons by removing burned-out employees.25 In addition, the arrival of new librarians can benefit libraries by bringing in new perspectives and ideas, particularly important in today’s era of rapid technological change.26 Finally, Gen Xers’ willingness to leave when a job does not meet their expectations can benefit an organization by eliminating the need to manage what may become long-term “problem” employees.27

Others contend that high turnover and retention will always be challenges with Generation X, since this generation focuses on career stability over job stability.28 Some of the librarians in the five-year itch study supported this argument, citing “restlessness” and the desire to explore other options as reasons for their job changes.29 Further, retention is not a problem unique to the library profession, as young workers everywhere are enticed by the many opportunities that are available to them.30 However, even if employees are unlikely to stay with an organization for their entire careers, employers should still work to build and maintain employee commitment.31 The need for a good retention strategy seems to be especially urgent in today’s environment as libraries face a predicted staffing shortage and potential leadership gap.32

Is It Really a Generational Issue?

The findings of the five-year itch study suggested that Gen Xers may be prone to higher turnover, but is this due to generational differences, or is it due to factors such as age, career phase, or life stage such that “the process of maturation may ultimately lead to a convergence of views?”33 No library studies have yet examined this question, but two recent non-library studies offer evidence that there are indeed intergenerational differences in work attitudes. The first study, conducted at a large Australian governmental research services agency, compared Generation X and Baby Boomer attitudes towards job satisfaction, willingness to quit, and organizational commitment, and found that Gen Xers reported less job satisfaction and a higher willingness to quit than their Baby Boomer counterparts, although the two generations did not differ significantly in organizational commitment.34 In addition, the study identified some differences as to which specific work and organizational factors most influenced the workplace attitudes of each generation.35 The second study, conducted in the U.S. nursing faculty field, compared generations across six measures of organizational commitment, and found that generational membership was a significant predictor of how employees scored across these measures.36 Like the Australian study, this study also did not find a significant difference in the level of organizational commitment between the generations, casting doubt upon the “non-committed” characterization of Generation X in the workplace.37 However, because both studies suggest that each generation has a “unique profile” of work and organizational factors that influence workplace attitudes, identifying and appealing to the factors that influence work attitudes might help to improve not only the work attitudes, but ultimately retention.38

Mentoring as a Gen-X Retention Strategy

The costs of replacing an employee are estimated to be as much as the employee’s annual salary, which includes not only the visible costs of recruitment and training but also less tangible costs such as reduced productivity and poor morale among the remaining employees.39 Most organizations cannot sustain such costs indefinitely and should have an effective retention strategy in place to help counteract turnover.40 The literature does not identify retention strategies that specifically target Generation X, but the literature does offer general management practices designed to address the particular workplace needs of Generation X. One of the most common suggestions is to accommodate Generation X’s independent and self-sufficient nature by offering them work situations that entail minimal supervision and also engage their problem-solving abilities.41

Other suggestions emphasize the need to offer Gen Xers educational and professional development opportunities that fulfill their desire for ongoing learning and skill-building opportunities.42 It is in this context that mentoring opportunities are frequently mentioned.43

Mentoring can take many forms, but at its core involves a relationship between a senior employee (the mentor) and a junior employee (the protégé), in which the mentor provides the protégé with some type of career guidance.44 The protégé benefits from the mentoring relationship by receiving advice and guidance, while the mentor benefits through recognition, respect and a sense of satisfaction.45 Besides the benefits to the mentor and the protégé, mentoring also benefits organizations by improving retention rates and accelerating new employees’ adjustment to an organization’s culture and standards.46 In libraries, the literature emphasizes the capacity of mentoring to fill in the gaps in library education with day-to-day practical knowledge47 as well as its role in bridging generational gaps.48

Given Gen Xers’ reputation as “fiercely independent,” it may seem counterintuitive that they would value the closeness of a mentoring relationship, yet there is evidence that they do.49 For example, a 1999 study of Generation X’s views on mentoring found that all of the study participants “felt that mentoring was a relationship that they value in the workplace.”50 The librarians in the 2005 five-year itch study specifically named mentoring as one of the ways in which they derived job satisfaction.51 Most recently, the previously mentioned study of intergenerational work attitude differences at an Australian governmental research services agency found that Gen Xers value supportive relationships with knowledgeable and experienced supervisors and coworkers.52

Generation X values mentoring, but there is also evidence of some of mentoring’s outcomes suggesting that mentoring may be especially suited to improve retention among Gen Xers. A 2009 study of mentoring relationships among U.S. substance abuse counselors found that mentoring positively influences perceived organizational support (POS), or the degree to which employees feel supported by their employer.53 In other words, mentoring helps foster a sense that an organization cares about its employees and their success, which is significant to Generation X because of this generation’s general suspicion and distrust of employers and organizations.54 The study also identified a positive correlation between POS and the employee’s job satisfaction and organizational commitment and a negative correlation between POS and turnover intention.55 The study of employees at an Australian governmental research services agency found job satisfaction to be lower and willingness to quit higher among Gen Xers.56 Therefore, it follows that applying mentoring, a practice demonstrated to improve POS, might improve these attitudes. A 2010 study of employees at three different U.S. organizations supports this possibility, finding that mentoring helped to strengthen POS and improve retention among the employees, although it is important to note that these findings were in the context of existing “generally supportive relationships within the organization.”57

Mentoring has been used as a retention tool in the business world, but it has historically not been used for this purpose in libraries.58 Instead, libraries have tended to use mentoring as part of orientation programs or as a means of helping employees achieve tenure or promotion.59 Gail Munde, assistant professor of library science at Eastern Carolina University, calls such aims laudable, but suggests that libraries use mentoring as a targeted tool “to achieve the organization’s leadership goals and meet its existing and future personnel needs.”60 In light of the evidence that mentoring helps to improve work attitudes shown to be predictors of turnover, Munde’s suggestion of mentoring as an applied retention strategy seems to offer especial value to Generation X librarians.

While mentoring may be of special benefit to Generation X, the traditional hierarchical “junior-senior” mentoring model may not be the most effective model for this generation.61 Traditional models involved guiding the protégé through what were thought to be typical challenges in the workplace, but today’s workplace demands are very different than the demands Baby Boomers faced as they came up through the ranks. Therefore, a senior-level mentor may not have the appropriate frame of reference to provide effective guidance to the Generation X protégé.62 In addition, Gen Xers’ independence and self-sufficiency may cause them to chafe at the closeness of a traditional mentoring relationship, and they may be more responsive to hands-off mentoring approaches.63 Finally, traditional mentoring models can be difficult to sustain due to the significant time investment they require and thus alternative mentoring models may be more feasible to implement on a long-term basis.64

There are several alternative models that specifically address the workplace needs of Generation X. Reverse mentoring, in which the protégé teaches a more senior employee, often in skills related to technology, would appeal to Gen Xers’ desire for equality in the workplace by recognizing them as equals with valuable knowledge and skills.65 The reverse mentoring model may be taken even a step further by making it a bi-directional mentoring relationship in which the older employee receives technology instruction while the younger employee receives administrative and managerial training.66 Progressive mentoring models (also known as serial or rotational mentoring) allow employees to progress through a series of mentorships as they acquire skills and competencies, and fulfill Gen Xers’ desire for continual learning and skills acquisition.67 Finally, peer or group mentorships may appeal to the flatter organizational style and equality that Generation X expects.68 This type of mentorship, also known as a “community of practice,” partners employees at the same or equal level within an organization, allowing them to exchange knowledge and emotional support while under the loose direction of a senior employee.69


With Generation X just half the size of the retiring Baby Boomer generation, it is clear that staffing shortages in libraries are imminent.70 The arrival of the larger Millennial generation will help to mediate the effect of this staffing shortage but will not address the greater problem of a potential leadership gap, since Millennials will not have the necessary experience to take on leadership roles.71 Thus it will fall to Generation X to take over leadership in libraries as the Baby Boomers retire.72 However, if Generation X is inclined to higher turnover and does not envision long-term employment in libraries, both library staffing and leadership may be under threat. Mentoring, by helping to improve workplace attitudes and create “buy-in” among Generation X, offers the potential to serve as an effective retention strategy in the face of this challenge.

Thanks to Professor Sook Lim of St. Catherine University and JoEllen Haugo of Minneapolis Central Library for the valuable mentoring they have provided to me in my young career.

References And Notes

  1. See, for example Sara D. Smith and Quinn Galbraith, “Motivating Millennials: Improving Practices in Recruiting, Retaining and  Motivating,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 38, no. 3 (May 2012): 135-144; Emma Popowich, “A Forecast for Librarians Facing Retirement,” Feliciter 57, no. 6 (Dec. 2011): 220-21; Shannon Gordon, “Once You Get Them, How Do You Keep Them? Millennial Librarians at Work,” New Library World 111, no 9/10 (Nov.2010): 391-98; Ginny Barnes, “Guess Who’s Coming to Work: Generation Y.—Are Your Ready for Them?” Public Library Quarterly 28, no. 1 (Mar. 2009): 58-63.
  2. See, for example Melanie Chu, “Ageism in Academic Librarianship,” Electronic Journal of Academic & Special Librarianship 10, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 1-4; John Edge and Ravonne Green, “The Graying of Academic Librarians: Crisis or Revolution?” Journal of Access Services 8, no. 3 (July 2011), 97-106.
  3. Gordon, “Once You Get Them,” 391-392. As Gordon describes in regards to the Millennial generation, there is disagreement on the precise time span represented by different generations, with variances of two to three years on the end of each range. For the purposes of this article, I have used the same generational time spans Gordon defines: Baby Boomers, 1946-64; Generation X, 1965-79; Millennials, 1980-2000.
  4. Breda Bova and Michael Kroth, “Closing the Gap: The Mentoring of Generation X,” Journal Of Adult Education 27, no. 1 (Summer 1999): 9.
  5. Edge and Green, “The Graying of Academic Librarians,” 99.
  6. Stephen J. Tordella and Thomas E. Godfrey, “The Recent History and Future Supply of Librarians: Implications for Retirement by 2015,” June 12, 2009, accessed May 19, 2014. This 2005 study, prepared for the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Research & Statistics, highlights the “unique” age distribution of the librarian field, noting the survey’s findings that 41 percent of credentialed librarians (as of 2005) were between fifty and sixty years old.
  7. Mary Jo Lynch, “Reaching 65: A Lot of Librarians Will Be There Soon,” American Libraries 33, no. 3 (Mar. 2002): 56.
  8. Susanne Markgren et al., “The Five-Year Itch: Are Libraries Losing Their Most Valuable Resources?” Library Administration & Management 21, no. 2 (Spring 2007): 71-73.
  9. Ibid., 71; Gail Munde, “Considerations for Managing an Increasingly Intergenerational Workforce in Libraries,” Library Trends 59, no. 1/2 (Summer 2010): 89.
  10. Nicolle Steffen and Zeth Lietzau, “Retirement, Retention, and Recruitment in Colorado Libraries: The 3Rs Study Revisited,” Library Trends 58, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 179-191. This 2003 study of Colorado librarians that found 75 percent of those librarians at or near retirement held supervisory positions and many had some leadership capacity, either in the library directly or the wider library professional community.
  11. Gail Munde, “Beyond Mentoring: Toward the Rejuvenation of Academic Libraries,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 26, no. 3 (May 2000): 173.
  12. Bruce Tulgan, “Generation X: Slackers? Or the Workforce of the Future?” Employment Relations Today 24, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 57.
  13. Ibid., 55-56; Pixey Anne Mosley, “Mentoring Gen X Managers: Tomorrow’s Library Leadership is Already Here,” Library Administration & Management 19, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 186; Della W. Stewart, “Generational Mentoring,” Journal of Continuing Education In Nursing 37, no. 3 (May 2006): 115.
  14. Tulgan, “Generation X,” 56.
  15. Julie F. Cooper and Eric A. Cooper, “Generational Dynamics and Librarianship: Managing Generation X,” Illinois Libraries 80, no. 1 (Winter 1998): 20; Bova and Kroth, “Closing the Gap,” 8.
  16. Tulgan, “Generation X,” 55-56; Lynne C. Lancaster, “The Click and Clash of Generations,” Library Journal 128, no. 17 (Oct. 2003): 37; Jason Martin, “I Have Shoes Older Than You: Generational Diversity in the Library,” Southeastern Librarian 54, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 8.
  17. Breda Bova and Michael Kroth, “Closing the Gap: The Mentoring of Generation X,” Journal of Adult Education 27, no. 1 (Summer 1999): 17; Mosley, “Mentoring Gen X Managers,” 187; Cooper and Cooper, “Generational Dynamics and Librarianship,” 20-21.
  18. John Benson and Michelle Brown, “Generations at Work: Are There Differences and Do They Matter?” International Journal Of Human Resource Management 22, no. 9 (May 2011): 1,845; Martin, “I Have Shoes Older than You,” 8; Mosley, “Mentoring Gen X Managers,” 189.
  19. Lancaster, “The Click and Clash of Generations,” 37; Martin, “I Have Shoes Older than You,” 8.
  20. Della W. Stewart, “Generational Mentoring,” 115.
  21. Markgren et al., “The Five-Year Itch,” 71-73.
  22. Ibid., 73.
  23. Cooper and Cooper, “Generational Dynamics and Librarianship,” 20-21.
  24. Judith M. Nixon, “Growing Your Own Leaders: Succession Planning in Libraries,” Journal of Business and Finance Librarianship 13, no. 3 (July 2008): 253.
  25. Markgren et al., “The Five-Year Itch,” 73.
  26. John Edge and Ravonne Greene, “The Graying of Academic Librarians: Crisis or Revolution?”Journal of Access Services 8, no. 3 (2011), 97-106.
  27. Mosley, “Mentoring Gen X Managers,” 191.
  28. Lara Carver, Lori Candela, and Antonio P. Gutierrez, “Survey of Generational Aspects of Nurse Faculty Organizational Commitment,” Nursing Outlook 59, no. 3 (May/June 2011): 146
  29. Markgren et al., “The Five-Year Itch,” 72.
  30. Paula Kaufman, “Where Do the Next ‘We’ Come From? Recruiting, Retaining, and Developing Our Successors,” ARL: A Bimonthly Report On Research Library Issues & Actions no. 221 (Apr.2002): 1.
  31. Mary Stanley, “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm—The Problem of Retention,” Indiana Libraries 27, no. 1 (Jan. 2008): 84.
  32. Paula Singer and Jeanne Goodrich, “Retaining and Motivating High-Performing Employees,” Public Libraries 45, no. 1 (Jan./Feb. 2006): 58.
  33. Benson and Brown, “Generations at Work,” 1,846.
  34. Ibid., 1,858.
  35. Ibid., 1,858-59.
  36. Carver, Candela, and Gutierrez, “Survey of Generational Aspects,” 144.
  37. Ibid., 145.
  38. Ibid., 144.
  39. Singer and Goodrich, “Retaining and Motivating High-Performing Employees,” 58-59; Stanley, “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm,” 84.
  40. Markgren et al., “The Five-Year Itch,” 76.
  41. Bova and Kroth, “Closing the Gap,” 8; Cooper and Cooper, “Generational Dynamics and Librarianship,” 21; Mosley, “Mentoring Gen X Managers,” 187.
  42. Carver, Candela, and Gutierrez, “Survey of Generational Aspects,” 146; Cooper and Cooper, “Generational Dynamics and Librarianship,” 21; Lancaster, “The Click and Clash of Generations,” 38; Markgren et al., “The Five-Year Itch,” 74.
  43. See, for example Bova and Kroth, “Closing the Gap,” 7-17; Anne Houlihan, “When Gen-X is in Charge: How to Harness the Younger Leadership Style,” Security: Solutions for Enterprise Security Leaders 45, no. 4 (Apr. 2008): 42; Mosley, “Mentoring Gen X Managers,” 189; Munde, “Beyond Mentoring,” 171-75.
  44. David D. Dawley, Martha C. Andrews, and Neil S. Bucklew, “Enhancing the Ties that Bind: Mentoring as a Moderator,” Career Development International 15, no. 3 (Jan. 1, 2010): 261.
  45. Ibid.; Deborah Hicks, “The Practice of Mentoring: Reflecting on the Critical Aspects for Leadership Development,” Australian Library Journal 60, no. 1 (Feb. 2011): 67.
  46. Munde, “Beyond Mentoring,” 172.
  47. Hicks, “The Practice of Mentoring,” 66; Marta Lee, “Growing Librarians: Mentorship in an Academic Library,” Library Leadership & Management 23, no. 1 (Jan. 2009): 31.
  48. Linda Neyer and Kathryn Yelinek, “Beyond Boomer Meets NextGen: Examining Mentoring Practices Among Pennsylvania Academic Librarians,” Journal Of Academic Librarianship 37, no. 3 (May 2011): 216.
  49. Tulgan, “Generation X,” 62.
  50. Bova and Kroth, “Closing the Gap,” 16.
  51. Markgren et al., “The Five-Year Itch,” 75.
  52. Benson and Brown, “Generations at Work,” 1,858.
  53. Lisa E. Baranik, Elizabeth A. Roling, and Lillian T. Eby, “Why Does Mentoring Work? The Role of Perceived Organizational Support,” Journal of Vocational Behavior 76, no. 3 (June 2010): 366-73.
  54. Marta Lee, “Growing Librarians,” 36.
  55. Baranik, Roling, and Eby, “Why Does Mentoring Work?,” 370.
  56. Benson and Brown, “Generations at Work,” 1,858.
  57. Dawley, Andrews, and Bucklew, “Enhancing the Ties that Bind,” 274.
  58. Bova and Kroth, “Closing the Gap,” 10.
  59. Munde, “Beyond Mentoring,” 173; Sarah Anne Murphy, “Developmental Relationships in the Dynamic Library Environment: Re-conceptualizing Mentoring for the Future,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 34, no. 5 (Sept. 2008): 435.
  60. Ibid.
  61. Mosley, “Mentoring Gen X Managers,” 189; Murphy, “Developmental Relationships in the Dynamic Library Environment,” 435.
  62. Mosley, “Mentoring Gen X Managers,” 189.
  63. Munde, “Considerations for Managing an Increasingly Intergenerational Workforce in Libraries,” 101.
  64. Kristen J. Henrich and Ramirose Attebury, “Communities of Practice at an Academic Library: A New Approach to Mentoring at the University of Idaho,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 36, no. 2 (Mar. 2010): 159.
  65. Munde, “Considerations for Managing an Increasingly Intergenerational Workforce in Libraries,” 101.
  66. Edge and Green, “The Graying of Academic Librarians,” 104.
  67. Munde, “Considerations for Managing an Increasingly Intergenerational Workforce in Libraries,” 102.
  68. Ibid.
  69. Henrich and Attebury, “Communities of Practice at an Academic Library,” 158-65.
  70. Edge and Greene, “The Graying of Academic Librarians,” 97-98.
  71. Munde, “Considerations for Managing an Increasingly Intergenerational Workforce in Libraries,” 89.
  72. Ibid., Markgren et al., “The Five-Year Itch,” 71-73.