A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Managing Library Millennials

by Angela Bronson on December 5, 2017

ANGELA BRONSON is Children’s Librarian at the Toledo Lucas County (OH) Public Library. Contact Angela at angela.bronson@toledolibrary.org. Angela is currently reading Starflight by Melissa Landers.

When I think of my grandmother, I remember the food she always had in her pantry: Honey Nut Cheerios, Ritz Crackers, Folgers coffee, Joy ice cream cones, and Tang. When I think of my own cupboards, I rarely have one consistent item. Sometimes I will purchase brand names and other times I will get the dollar store version. I like to try out different items, different brands, or buy whatever is on sale. This is not what companies like to hear. Millennials’ fickle trends, popular diets, and adventurous exploring do not provide a dependable customer base.

Programming for Millennials

What does this mean for libraries? One day, 3-D printing is the latest fad, and the next day “no-tech” coloring books are the craze. With every advice column instructing managers to stay on top of what millennials want, directing programming can be like a wild guess. Education consultant Steve Matthews notes that “a recent assessment of millennials’ purchasing habits claims that their changing interests and behaviors are having detrimental effects on retailers. Libraries must understand their younger users or face the consequences of irrelevance to their community, just like clothing retailers are facing commercial irrelevance.”1 Interests of millennials are so unpredictable that it is difficult to know what types of programs and services to provide. That said, researchers have identified certain trends among millennials that you can use as focal points in your planning.

Adventure-driven experiences are becoming more important than physical possessions.2 Millennials are more likely to save up in order to visit every U.S. state, go bungee jumping, or ride in a hot air balloon, than to get a designer purse or have a brand-new car. To help millennials achieve these goals, library managers can plan programs that feature apps that help to monitor finances or keep track of adventurous goals. Libraries could host a weekly “adventure” series with presenters that have backpacked in Alaska, traveled through the rainforest, or climbed mountains in Africa.

Arlington (VA) Public Library has been staying a step ahead of millennials’ changing habits and views of how libraries are useful to them. The librarians there develop fun, educational programs, like “trivia nights in local bars, book clubs in restaurants, and adult recess and game nights at the Central Library.”3 Various New Jersey libraries are also adjusting to the increased millennial population. New Jersey branches have expanded the resources they believe interest young adults the most: 3-D printing, video studios, and text message reference help.4

Millennials want to make the world a better place. Library managers should plan programs for millennials that benefit the community, programs that involve creativity, or programs in which patrons can better themselves. A “sense of progress, the opportunity to be creative, and a sense that what they are doing matters” are big motivators for millennials.5 Park systems around the country have taken notice of these concepts when attracting people to their programs. Program participants beautify the community by planting trees, picking up litter by the river, or volunteering in other areas. Park systems also have programs that encourage creativity and progression, like photography, moccasin making, archery, or nature identification. Attendees at these programs grow their skills and challenge their abilities. Because parks are already creating adult programming that appeals to millennial mind frames, they attract many participants. Library managers could model programming after these examples, or collaborate with their local park system to engage millennial patrons who are looking for new experiences.

Millennial Employees and Patrons

Millennials make up a third of the adult population in the U.S., around 74 million people.6 They constitute a significant portion of not only potential library patrons, but also the workforce. Managers must understand the motivations and needs of millennials to attract the best employees and to keep patrons coming through the doors. We have all heard the stereotypes: millennials are entitled and praise-hungry, they’re technology addicts, they’re job-hopping trend followers with short attention spans. While some of these negative stereotypes can be true, they also can be positive attributes.

The millennials joining the labor pool now (workers born after 1982)7 are used to hearing stereotypes and generalizations about their generation. Not all of them will fit in the millennial “box,” as Susan Heath eld, a human resources expert, forewarns: “As always, when I characterize a group of employees based on age, or any other characteristic, some employees will t this description; some employees will t part of this description; some employees will not t this description.”8 Nonetheless, it’s useful to know the trends that millennials are immersed in, and to know the reasoning behind them.

The U.S. economic recession of 2008 intimidated many college students, deterring them from venturing into the career world.9 Students delayed graduating, taking on more classes and more debt, ultimately producing the most educated generation. Well-educated millennials are now inundating the workforce because the economy is on the rise. This is beneficial for library managers because their prospective employees are very knowledgeable.

However, this trend has an adverse effect on the patron side. Millennial patrons are so well-educated and tech-savvy that they may not use libraries in the same ways as older generations do. Millennials’ searching skills work toward the goal of “satisficing,” explain Laureen Cantwell, a reference librarian at Colorado Mesa University. Cantwell noted in a Library Journal article that millennials “feel satisfied in their research when a sufficient answer is reached, often at the expense of looking deeper into information resources.”10 In addition, many millennials do not have landline telephones, so they rely on smartphones, with which in addition to making calls, they can browse the Internet and use various helpful apps. This makes coming to the library for computer use largely unnecessary. However, there are still two reasons smartphone users come in to the library: for printing and Wi-Fi.

The Library Journal article cites a 2014 Pew Research Center report that notes that millennials use libraries as much as older adults, with half using a library in the prior year. There is plenty of untapped potential to create new regular library users: 43 percent of millennials reported that they read a book in print, eBook, or audiobook every day, but do not regularly use library services. More troubling news is that only 19 percent of millennials surveyed said they were informed of the services provided at their library and only 36 percent had visited a library’s website that year. However, though millennials may not use libraries as often as previous generations, they still understand libraries’ intrinsic value: “71 percent [agree] that public library services are important because they promote literacy.”11

One Generation Forming the Next

With all the complaining older generations do about the kids these days, they have to concede that young people are shaped by the environment they are born into: an environment of older generations’ own making. Millennials “developed work characteristics and tendencies from doting parents, structured lives, and contact with diverse people.”12 When baby boomer and generation X parents praised them in excess, overscheduled their children with afterschool activities, stressed education for a successful future, and required team activities, they did not know they would be shaping a new type of work ethic. This parenting style laid a foundation for the next generation’s working style: working well in teams, craving extra training, and wanting feedback often. The website Business Know-How underscores the need to let millennials work in teams (since they learned teamwork skills from a young age in class- room and afterschool activities), provide trainings (since millennials were taught that education would lead to success), and give them multiple projects (because they are great multitaskers).13 But, what should managers do about millennials yearning for feedback? The once-a-year evaluation can no longer be the status quo. They want their manager’s approval, constructive critiques, and frequent leadership. Tammy Erickson, an author that writes about managing millennials, points out the generational differences: “I was brought up in an environment of ‘no news is good news’ … Feedback meant I was going to be judged in some way, usually negatively. [However, for millennials,] feedback is getting a tip. It’s coaching, and they want it multiple times a day.”14

Feedback and attention is extremely important. Millennials were “raised by ‘helicopter parents,’ who doted on them, giving them an ample supply of attention and validation. Because they were heralded with high expectations, [m]illennials tend to display an abundance of self-confidence and believe they are highly valuable to any organization from day one.”15 Because they grew up treated this way, it is what millennials have come to expect. Managers should help millennials to feel appreciated and essential at their company. The best managers are those who express their appreciation and are actively supportive. This management style works well for many millennials, who “grew up with the Internet and social media, and are more familiar with instant gratification and instant feedback than previous generations.”16

Many parents of millennials raised their children with lots of structure and plenty of rules introduced to keep them safe. Now that they’re adults, millennials can get lost when given too much freedom. Digital marketing CEO Gini Dietrich writes that “If you set the rules [for millennials], tell them what they are and what you expect, they will succeed. If you leave it loosey-goosey and let them decide how to work, they will falter.”17

Progression of Do-Gooders

Millennials are used to achieving discrete, sequential goals, such as earning karate belts, reaching higher levels in video games, and progressing in difficulty levels of college classes. “They are extremely focused on developing themselves and thrive on learning new job skills, always setting new challenges to achieve. They are also the ‘can do’ generation, never worrying about failure, for they see themselves as running the world and work environments.”18 Dan Epstein, CEO of ReSource Pro, describes how he changed his company’s structure to provide a good motivation framework for millennials. Millennials “want forward progression,” he says. “Rather than infrequent promotions with large increases, we do more frequent with less increase. It lets people feel they’re moving forward.”19

The feeling of progression can also be established by working for a company that yields meaningful work. Library managers are at an advantage when hiring and retaining millennial staff because librarians are affecting patrons in a positive way every day. Millennials are “primed to do well by doing good,” says Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania. Management consultant George Bradt writes, “Millennials won’t commit to you or your organization. They will commit to a meaningful, good-for-others cause.”20 Epstein, meanwhile, “attempts to satisfy the newer generation’s desire to be creative, to have important, interesting roles and to have a say in their company’s activities.”21 Emphasizing libraries’ social commitment can help inspire millennial workers to succeed. Despite all the hand-wringing about how difficult it is to manage millennials, they may be perfectly suited to library work after all.


  1. Steve Matthews, “Millennial Library Users Need. . . What?,” 21st Century Library Blog.
  2. Sasha Zhivago, “Millennials have Figured out That Adventurous Experiences Trump Material Goods,” Bit of News, Jan. 19, 2016, accessed June 19, 2017.
  3. Stephanie Cohen, “Will Millennials Kill off Libraries?,” Acculturated, Sept. 15, 2015, accessed Apr. 22, 2016.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Chad Halvorson, “6 Key Principles for Managing Millennials,” When I Work, Apr. 20, 2015, accessed Apr. 22, 2016.
  6. So How Many Millennials Are There in the US, Anyway?,” Marketing Charts, Apr. 28, 2015, accessed June 28, 2017.
  7. Philip Bump, “Here Is When Each Generation Begins and Ends, According to Facts,” The Atlantic, Mar. 25, 2014, accessed Feb. 13, 2017.
  8. Susan M. Heath eld, “11 Tips to Help You Manage Millennials,” The Balance, Sept. 23, 2016, accessed June 28, 2017.
  9. Victoria Stilwell, “Millennials Most-Educated U.S. Age Group after Downturn: Economy,” Bloomberg Markets, Oct. 8, 2014, accessed June 28, 2017.
  10. Lisa Peet, “Pew Report Finds Millennials Are Readers, Library Users,” Library Journal, Sept. 16, 2014, accessed Apr. 22, 2016.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Heath Field, “11 Tips to Help You Manage Millennials.”
  13. Terri Klass and Judy Lindenberger, “Characteristics of Millennials in the Workplace,” Business Know-How, accessed Apr. 22, 2016.
  14. Rob Reuteman, “This Is How Millennials Want to Be Managed.Entrepreneur, Mar. 1, 2015, accessed Apr. 22, 2016.
  15. Klass and Lindenberger, “Characteristics of Millennials in the Workplace.”
  16. Halvorson, “6 Key Principles for Managing Millennials.”
  17. Gini Dietrich, “How to Manage Millennials: Treat Them Like Adults,” Spin Sucks, Apr. 29, 2015, accessed Apr. 22, 2016.
  18. Klass and Lindenberger, “Characteristics of Millennials in the Workplace.”
  19. Reuteman, “This Is How Millennials Want to Be Managed.”
  20. George Bradt, “Trying To Manage Millennials? Give Up and Lead Them Instead,” Forbes, May 27, 2014, accessed Apr. 22, 2016.
  21. Reuteman, “This Is How Millennials Want to Be Managed.”

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