“Library professionals have never been older,” begins a report on the aging demographics of academic librarians.
The paper, “Delayed Retirements and Youth Movement among ARL Library Professions,” by Stanley Wilder, Dean of Libraries at Louisiana State University, provides key statistics on the greying profession.
The average age of library professionals in the latest Association of Research Libraries (ARL) demographic data (2015) was 49, older than at any time in the past 29 years, since the association began collecting data. Nearly one-quarter of librarians (24%) were 60 years of age or older, compared to just 9% in 1986.
Baby-boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — have not been retiring as expected, Wilder reports, resulting in a large cohort of older library employees. He speculates that the 2008 economic recession in the United States was responsible, in part, for librarians delaying retirement, a trend that is found in hundreds of other professions, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics workforce data. According to the National Science Foundation, less than 20% of US scientists and engineers were over 50 years old in 1993. By 2013, that percentage grew to over 34% of the workforce (S&E Indicators, Figure 3-23).
Professionals often move into more administrative roles later into their careers and librarians are no exception, except that library directors are now disproportionately older than the rest of their profession. In 1986, just 3% of library directors were 65 years of age or older, matching the age distribution of ARL librarians as a whole. By 2015, 39% of ARL directors were 65+.
The advanced age of ARL directors appears to be largely an American phenomenon, Wilder reports. In 2015, some 45% of US library directors were 65 years or older, with 14% aged 70+. In stark contrast, just 14% of library directors at Canadian institutions were 65+. Due to their small numbers, the ARL does not report the percentage of Canadian directors over 70.
While older employees bring a wealth of experience and stability to an organization undergoing transformation, they cost an institution a lot more money in salaries and overhead. More importantly, their presence prevents a new cohort of librarians from entering the profession. He writes:
The delayed retirements of 2015 have almost certainly played a role in the muted hiring levels among ARL libraries in recent years.
A massive wave of retirements in the coming years may create systemic instability to library organizations if younger librarians have not been prepared to step into administrative roles. Wilder avoids discussing succession planning in his report, painting a golden future that is ripe with new job opportunities instead.
It is hard to see, however, how hiring could remain low. More likely, the peak vacancies we expected between 2010 and 2015 are actually happening right now, resulting in the best market for research library job seekers in memory.
This rosy outlook for the future fundamentally assumes that retiring library professionals will be replaced by similarly credentialed new hires at their current numbers. It also assumes that the employment structure of libraries doesn’t change. I’m not sure that either of these assumptions ring true. Many institutions have dropped the required MLS degree for new applicants, while others have been replacing retiring directors with “coordinators.” Outsourcing of key library functions could also reduce hiring demands at ARL institutions. If you have thoughts about how staffing at research libraries are changing in the United States and Canada, please leave a comment below.
Like other greying professions, demographic data for ARL libraries warn us of a breaking wave of retirements. When the surf has settled, the beach may look completely different.