"If you truly are an old librarian, then you need to retire so that a young person can have a shot at fixing all the mistakes you have made. Have a nice day."
That was a comment from one of last week’s posts. This seems one of the most unrealistic comments ever made on the blog, and since I’m in a gloomy mood I wanted to examine it.
First, it assumes that old librarians somehow need to retire. Even before the recession hit, there were a bunch of grumpy younger librarians who had been duped into paying for library school because they believed the propaganda about jobs aplenty in the field because of the alleged librarian shortage that somehow never manifested itself. All the older librarians were going to retire. That was the story. (And apparently some idiots still believe the lies.) Somehow this belief turned into a resentment against older librarians for not retiring. Supposedly they have a duty to move aside for the youngsters. Unfortunately for the youngsters, that’s not the way the world works. Nobody has a duty to retire from a job just because a younger librarian needs one. A lot of older librarians like their jobs and still do them pretty well.
That was then. This is now. There was no librarian shortage in good times, and there’s even less of one in bad times. Those of you who still believe the propaganda about retiring librarians need to shake yourself out of your reverie, because a lot of librarians who were thinking of retiring are definitely going to postpone that retirement. They certainly had no duty to retire so some youngsters can move into their jobs, but now even a lot of librarians who wanted to retire are stuck. I predict the wave of predicted retirements isn’t going to happen on schedule. One of the great things about librarianship is that we can work until we drop dead, and even then it might be a few days before anyone notices. It’s not like we’re coal miners or something. We show up. We sit down. We look at computer screens. We meet with people. It’s not exactly the sort of challenging activity that can’t be done by sexagenarians or even septuagenarians. I’m now thinking I should work until at least 70, and maybe longer. And why not? The job’s not physically demanding. The benefits are good. There’s plenty of vacation. As long as librarians can keep themselves from expanding so much they can’t sit down in their ergonomic chairs anymore, there’s nothing keeping them from working forever.
Even if they don’t work until they drop dead, it still doesn’t bode well for the youngsters, because a lot of library jobs are going to disappear when the current person retires. The assumption that retirements lead to job openings has been a bad assumption for a long time, and is an even worse assumption now. Libraries will be downsized through attrition, not rejuvenated with fresh blood. This was already happening during the boom years. Libraries never benefited significantly during boom times, but they sure do get penalized during bust times. Retirements are a good way to save money and condense services without having to harm anyone, or at least anyone you know. In the abstract, the people who might have gotten those jobs had they been advertised are harmed, but no librarians – including the people without jobs – can claim that they are the specific ones harmed.
There may even be young librarians out there who look around and think a lot of librarians should just be fired. The Darren Stalemates said something about getting rid of librarians who didn’t work like the twopointopians wanted them to, or something like that. One of the things I like about librarianship is the relatively humane treatment librarians get, especially with tenured or unionized jobs. Sure, librarians are never going to get rich, but neither are they treated like dispensable widgets that can be tossed out during the next reorganization. For the most part, their jobs can’t even be outsourced to India. A lot of librarians might be treated like garbage, but they’re not dumped out like garbage, and this in general is a good thing. I don’t particularly want to see anyone fired. However, even if libraries started firing their less than stellar employees willynilly, newer librarians still won’t get those jobs. That will just be a harsher kind of attrition and downsizing. Firing people might make for a leaner, meaner organization, but librarians are nice and plump and think anyone who uses phrases like "leaner and meaner" should be shushed until they learn to play well with others.
Then there’s the final assumption that seems the silliest of all, the idea that younger librarians are going to fix anyone’s mistakes. What a whiggish view of library history. This assumes that older librarians and librarians of the past have made huge mistakes, and I don’t think that assumption is warranted at all. The history of the field seems to be one of ordinary people creating some pretty good things against tough odds. Librarians are plodders, true, but they’re the tortoise that makes it to the end of the race while the hare is too busy playing video games to get anything done. And does anyone really think younger librarians are somehow so great that they’ll fix whatever problems that exist? Younger doesn’t mean more intelligent and competent. It just means fewer wrinkles and less insurance.
Oh, and let’s not forget that generations exist alongside each other, or at least they do as long as anyone is actually hiring young librarians. Arrogant young librarians, even on the off chance you’re hired, you won’t have any power to change things until you’re old, and by that time, you’ll be the old librarians all the youngsters are complaining about.
Oh, and have a nice day.