On the Great Myth of the Librarian Grays
Lately, there's been a lot of discussion (and bitching) about the promised graying/retirement within the library profession that was supposed to open up endless job opportunities for new librarians. The LITA-L email list, a recent American Libraries article, and a post by Peter Brantley calling for an overthrow by the young'uns have all been pretty popular topics of late.
January 15, 2004, Rachel Singer Gordon published a piece in Library Journal titled "NextGen: Get Over the "Graying" Profession Hype". I say again: this was 2004.
It would appear no one took the advice, given that today - despite very obvious evidence to the contrary, American Libraries just printed an ill-advised article on recruiting undergrads to the profession, citing the graying of the profession as a reason for folks to sign up for library work. Jessamyn West, in her recent post "show us the numbers re: new librarian jobs", calls for more than the ever-present empty anecdata touted by library schools, ALA, and professional publications alike. And all of the librarians who have been pounding the pavement (or internet) jobhunting for multiple years agree.
The economy is in the toilet. Any librarian looking for a job is up against hundreds of his or her peers. Those recently out of school are competing against folks with decades of experience under their belt and probably wider networks (though social media is closing this gap quickly). A few things:
For goodness' sake, how myopic are we? Librarianship isn't the only profession where the number of qualified grads outnumbers the available positions. Speak to any English PhD who received their degree in the past 30 years. Political Science PhDs have seen the same trend since I was working in polisci back in 2001.
In fact, while librarianship writ-large isn't "academia" per se, the job market for the profession certainly works a whole lot like that for would-be-professor PhDs. Jobs are very limited, check. There are more qualified degree holders than there are full time well paying positions, check. If you want to be a particular type of librarian (particularly academic, but it applies to other types too), you'll more than likely have to do a regional or national job hunt and not be terribly geographically limited, check. It's funny, but my becoming a librarian did not at all save me from the dangers of jobhunting as a PoliSci PhD.
We're not the only ones who suffer from this. We just act like we are. For all of the social networking we do with each other, we seem to have less a grasp on other professions. Talk to someone who got their master's in social work sometime. Navel-gazing: as a profession, we haz it, as the kitties say.
LEAVE THE LIBRARY
No, really. A lot of the folks who are burned that the grays won't retire so they can have their jobs (entitlement much?) are only applying for positions within libraries (per their anecdatal stories). Libraries, if no one has noticed, have been receiving giant financial wedgies for some time now, and the recent economic upheaval added some fund-draining noogies on top of that. No, libraries aren't hiring. No, library work often doesn't pay well. But you're perfectly qualified (if you took your courses with an eye more toward being useful than with an eye toward getting out quickly and via the easy route) to deal with knowledge and information management in the corporate setting. Also, the pay is better. Also, you'll be using your library science skills in a completely different environment, which may actually be just what you need in your next job hunt to give you a leg up.
Also, public email list posts with comments like "...my current job is the second one that I have had where I’ve been working for someone who has been ELIGIBLE to retire for multiple years, and who for whatever reason will not give up their position..." - not going to help you much. You come across looking entitled at best, nor is this sort of attitude something those in the position to hire want to hear. Yes, we have old folk in libraries. Actually, we have five generations in the workplace now. FIVE. Diversity - getcha some. No one owes you a job just because you want one, and while I'm pals with a number of "young'uns" in the profession, some of the most effective librarians I know are in their 40s, 50s and older.
I'm quite tired of hearing that only those in their 20s and 30s can change the shape of the profession. From Brantley's post, there is "wide acknowledgment that the greatest sea change of vision and perspective among librarians, museum and archive staff, rests primarily among those (more or less) in their 20s, into their early to mid 30s. This generation has completely different expectations for information management, privacy, direct access to data and people, interaction with services, and organizational behavior." What folks seem to fail to realize is that it's midlevel librarians in their late 30s, 40s and 50s who will be managing those librarians in their 20s and early 30s for the next three decades. Another quote from the Brantley piece: "There should be no directors present, no associate directors present. This is not about them. It is about those who will truly redefine the future of libraries." How silly. The AULs? Are prepped to become ULs. Some of them are *GASP* even in their early 30s. And until this profession realizes that its managers and leaders are essential because they are the ones who fight for and acquire resources that we need to actually get things done, the Young Uprising will remain not much more than pie-in-the-sky talk.
You might also note that those in agreement with Brantley (and I agree with the sentiment, if not the entire post and mechanisms presented) span age boundaries. To be fair, perhaps the vitriol is directed more at ARL ULs than at older generations in general - but it's not phrased that way. This is a "get the old people out of the way" call. And "old people" are not the problem. Sometimes gray is sexy, particularly when it's The Grays who are accomplishing excellent things.
There seems to be a general belief that a school has a moral imperative to let you know the degree they offer you has an oversaturated market and that the job prospects are poor. In fact, library schools are trying to stay open. In further fact, you look like delectable, juicy, tuition dollars.
At the point you are going to graduate school - and much is made the SLIS students tend to be older students, moving into librarianship as a career later in life - you are responsible for knowing what the job market is. Don't you think that rather than listening to the proselytizing of schools and associations that want your money, you should perhaps be scouring the job boards and talking to folks in the field? I have little patience for the "I was told there would be lots of jobs!" complaint. Every field is the same. No art department tells their students they won't be able to get a job as an artist. MFA programs are not lining up to announce that their terminal MFAs are being usurped by the development of creative writing PhD programs. And few graduate advisors tell their entering PhD students that they'll likely be ABD, crushed to death by a dissertation that bears little resemblance to why they entered their program. Law schools are not exactly running to shut themselves down despite a law market that has been oversaturated for years.
There is a serious abdication of personal responsibility when we blame the schools for continuing to graduate MLS folks, and I'm growing weary of hearing it.
I do think, however, we need to hold our associations and professional publications (I'm looking at YOU, American Libraries and ALA) to account for perpetuating false claims. If you find a good way to do that, do let me know.
And so, in closing, yes, the cake is a lie. The profession may be graying, but gray doesn't mean dead or retiring. There has been published work decrying this myth out for the better part of a decade or two, and older librarians remember being fed the same hogwash in the 70s. This does not mean you should be pushing your leaders down stairs in the hopes you'll get their jobs. It does mean that you need to drink a great big glass of suck-it-up-atine, work extra hard at the job hunt (you know who I'm talking about - I am STILL seeing Comic Sans, clip art, and crappy cover letters, people), and developing skills needed in places other than libraries.
Good luck. Go forth. Be useful. And gods forbid you should ever get older than 35, because your so-called colleagues will be plotting your demise.