Navigating the Rapids: Myths and Realities of Intergenerational Workplaces

By Jodi Shepherd

At the President’s Program, Navigating the Rapids: Myths and Realities of Intergenerational Workplaces, librarians gathered to hear Pat Wagner, a trainer, author, and consultant from Pattern Research based in Denver. Wagner’s easy-going manner, sense of humor, and tell-it-like-it-is personality made for an open and laidback presentation, and encouraged a variety of comments, questions, and involvement from the audience.

Wagner began her presentation by pointing out that generations are used to being grouped together, in what she referred to as “Age Ghettos.” As early as preschool, people are placed into groups according to their ages, and very few individuals typically have experience outside of their own generation. In fact, the workplace may be the first authentic experience that an individual has in working with other generations. According to Wagner, this is an experience that changes a person’s view of the world.

Moving around the room, Wagner addressed audience members’ intergenerational workplace concerns. In doing so, she came across several talking points of her presentation. One notable concern regarded repercussions for people who do not do their jobs, such as the ‘F’ word—in this case, “fire.” Wagner also remarked that respect between individuals plays a part in workplace interactions. Respect is attained when an individual views another individual as a social equal, or a peer, which refers to a certain level of status and social standing, rather than the resolution of a personality conflict.

The audience participated in a questionnaire titled, “Improving Our Libraries,” which assessed how well a person created a consistent, fair, transparent and reasonable infrastructure in their own library. Results of the questionnaire motivated the audience to think about how to more effectively approach intergenerational issues in their own workplaces. Some ideas included finding out if there is related training in place and if that training has proven effective, understanding different learning abilities across generations, and trying to share the unspoken “rules” of the library workplace with each other.

To better understand unspoken “rules,” Wagner polled audience members for examples of unspoken “rules” in their personal lives. One example given was, “Only barbarians put mayonnaise on pastrami.” Translated into the library world, unspoken “rules” can cause a disjointed organization because they are expected but not directly or openly communicated.

Another audience member commented that she had worked at a library for years before she was told that it was customary to show up five minutes before her shift or be considered late. Wagner referred to such expectations as “Sacred Cows,” which are beliefs that have been ingrained into an organization for one reason or another and endured. To overcome “Sacred Cows,” Wagner suggested sharing the unspoken “rules” with newcomers. She also advised the audience not to perpetuate past mistakes simply because it is the workplace culture to do so, and to test “Sacred Cows” against current information.

Overall, Wagner’s presentation seemed to motivate audience members to return to their respective libraries and work with individuals there while maintaining an open mind and a professional manner, as well as reexamine current procedures and expectations that may be preventing progress.