Who Are Today’s Young Adults? And How Do We Serve Them?

Two of my classes this semester started by considering who today’s young adults are. In conversations relating to library services for young adults and contemporary and realistic young adult literature, what has become clear is that it’s difficult to define who young adults are and accurately representing them is becoming increasingly complex.

In my course on library programs and services for young adults, we’ve started by reading research-based approaches on defining young adulthood, then considering that application to teen services in libraries. I appreciate this background, but I’ve also struggled with the fact that even readings from 2017, the most current sources on the syllabus, feel slightly out of date in terms of the way the world has changed since these articles were published both technologically, politically, and socially.

In my course on contemporary and realistic young adult fiction, my professor asked the class if we though that the YA fiction being released in 2020 and 2021 can really be considered to be accurate representations of young adults given the way the COVID-19 pandemic has altered all aspects of life. Given that publishing a novel takes a significant period of time, the young adult novels released in 2022 and 2023 may already be written. Will these books accurately represent young adulthood when they finally reach the hands of readers given that the trajectory of “normalcy” is still unknown? Even as vaccinations start to increase for COVID-19 and people look towards a return to normal, at the time of this post, there still isn’t a COVID vaccine that has been approved for use in people younger than 16 which will affect what is “normal” for young people.

I’m not saying teens are unknowable or that it’s impossible to represent contemporary young adulthood in literature. But, as LIS students and future professionals, how do we serve young people in a rapidly changing world? This feels like a question that likely has always plagued youth services, but it feels particularly relevant to me right now.

This is also a question that feels relevant to me as we consider generational divides, with one example being that between Gen Z and Millennials. I had the weird realization that, technically, I’m on the upper end of being Gen Z depending on when you chose to divide the two generations, but in no way do I actually feel like I’m Gen Z. Yet, when I’m a youth services librarian, I’ll be serving teens who are solidly members of this generation. How am I supposed to serve as an authoritative professional for young people who are technically my generational peers particularly when their formative years are occurring in a global pandemic?

By no means do I have the answer to any of this (after all, I’m only three weeks into my semester), but I do have a few thoughts from readings and class discussions that have stuck with me.

Adaptability and Flexibility

Regardless of who you’re providing services for, adaptability and flexibility are important aspects of library work. However, in turbulent times and when working with young people I feel like these are particularly important. I was lucky to start a public library job as a library assistant in youth services in late 2020, and I’ve spent the first few months of my new job watching the librarians I work with provide quality services and to hear a little bit about the struggles they experienced in providing programs in the early months of COVID-19 and how they’ve adapted in order to reach more patrons. Regardless of how we define young adults or see them represented in media, we can adapt our understandings of young people and how we provide services to them.

Build Relationships

One of my favorite readings from class so far was written by Linda Braun, past president of YALSA, for Voice of Youth Advocates where she wrote about moving from simply having conversations with young people to actively building relationships with young people in our libraries. If we want to serve teens and determine accurate representations of teens in our collections, then we need to get to know the teens we serve. One of my favorite parts about working at a summer camp was getting to really know the kids that I got to work with, and I look forward to building relationships with my future teen patrons. 

Look toward teen-driven services

In 2020, American Libraries Magazine has published a few articles about letting teens lead whether that be in social justice projects, or by reshaping the role that a teen advisory board has. Moving from teen-centered services to teen-driven services gives young-people an active role in what programs and services are available to them at a library. Reading these articles has helped me understand how teen-driven services can shape the way that librarians define young adulthood. I’d recommend them, and I hope that someday soon I have a chance to explore the teen-driven service model

When it comes to learning about services and programs for young adults I have a lot to learn over the course of this semester. I’m thankful to be in courses that are challenging me to think critically and explore my conceptions and understandings of young adulthood. I hope to work on developing the skills I’ve mentioned above and to continue adding to my skillset during this semester and beyond.

Is there anything you think I’ve missed? Please share in the comments!

Macy Davis is a second-year student at Simmons University in the MA in Children’s Literature/MS in Library and Information Sciences dual degree program. She’s currently reading a lot of contemporary YA fiction and watching her way through Game of Thrones. You can find her on Twitter @bookishlybright or through her personal blog.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

3 replies

  1. I think you’re spot on. As a high school teacher (and former YA librarian), I’ve found that the best way to help and serve this generation is through relationships and just listening and being flexible based on that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What you say is true! Even when I’m doing Readers’ Advisory for teens, I end up recommending either YA or middle grade books, depending on what they’ve read before. I mostly read YA, so I sometimes recommend stuff that I’ve personally read, but I realize that reading tastes are different. What I consider YA may be “too old” or out of date for who’s reading now.

    Liked by 1 person

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