Reading Through the Ages | Generational Reading Survey

When it comes to reading for pleasure, there are plenty of similarities across all age groups. But there are also enough variations in who is reading, how they read, and where they get books, to provide useful information about generational reading habits. LJ conducted a survey of 2,232 readers with at least 400 in each age group—Generation Z (16–22), Millennials (23–38), Generation X (39–54), Baby Boomers (55–73), and the Silent Generation (74–91)—to explore those differences.

When it comes to reading for pleasure, there are plenty of similarities across all age groups. But there are also enough variations in who is reading, how they read, and where they get books, to provide useful information about generational reading habits. LJ conducted a survey of 2,232 readers with at least 400 in each age group—Generation Z (16–22), Millennials (23–38), Generation X (39–54), Baby Boomers (55–73), and the Silent Generation (74–91)—to explore those differences. LJ examined Gen-Z and Millennial readers in depth earlier this year, but the responses across the board are worth looking at.

 

Q Which statements below describe your relationship to reading?

  GEN Z MILLENNIALS GEN X BABY
BOOMERS
SILENT
GEN*

I am always on the lookout for good books to read

50.8% 59.9% 60.0% 63.4%

67.4%

I like to talk about books

49.4% 45.2% 38.1% 27.8%

23.1%

I keep a list of book for future reading

44.6% 39.5% 36.0% 32.8%

33.3%

I am an avid reader

36.3% 47.9% 50.7% 55.7%

58.0%

I read a lot for work or school, but rarely read for pleasure

28.1% 7.9% 6.5% 1.7%

0.5%

I don’t have time to read for pleasure

25.2% 14.3% 6.3% 5.1%

4.4%

*SILENT GENERATION
SOURCE: LJ GENERATIONAL READING SURVEY 2019

READING FOR PLEASURE

When asked if they read for pleasure more, less, or the same amount as three years before, Millennials were much more likely to say they read more now than three years ago (48 percent). This could represent aging out of parenting infants and toddlers into a time of life with more time to read. In contrast, nearly half of Generation Z respondents said they read less for pleasure now. This group encompasses student in high school and college, and their time is likely committed to required reading rather than recreational. They were also by far the most likely to agree with the phrases “I don’t have time to read for pleasure” and “I read a lot for work or school, but rarely read for pleasure.”

But even if Generation Z feels they have little time for recreational reading, that doesn’t mean they’re not interested. That generation—and every other age group included in this survey—chose “I’m always on the lookout for good books to read” as the phrase they identified with most.

However, when it comes to considering themselves avid readers, at least half of respondents in Generation X and older agreed, with Generation Z coming in at 36 percent. It’s not really a surprise to find that the Silent Generation—composed of many retirees with time to read—read the most books for pleasure in the last year (an average of 25), while Generation Z read the fewest, an average of eight.

 

Library use across the ages

  GEN Z MILLENNIALS GEN X BABY
BOOMERS
SILENT
GEN*

% with a library card for their local public library

62.0% 69.0% 79.4% 74.9%

73.4%

% borrowed one or more books from the public library in the last year

47.0% 46.2% 48.6% 43.0%

40.2%

Average # of books borrowed from the public library in the last year

2.7 4.8 5.6 8.2 10.7

*SILENT GENERATION
SOURCE: LJ GENERATIONAL READING SURVEY 2019

BUYING AND BORROWING

The Silent Generation also led the pack in number of books purchased, averaging nine annually, 11 borrowed from the library, and seven acquired another way. Yet they had the lowest percentage of readers who had borrowed a book from the library in the past year (40 percent). Between 40 and 50 percent of all respondents borrowed at least one book from the library; Generations X and Z were most likely to have done so.

As to acquiring books that were not purchased, borrowing from friends and relatives was the top source for all generations. Millennials and Generation X were most likely to borrow books from the public library and use online subscription services such as Kindle Unlimited. Generation Z was far and away the largest user of school libraries (24 percent). All generations use free book exchanges, including “little free libraries,” eight to ten percent of the time.

 

LIBRARY USE

Generation X (79 percent) and Baby Boomers (75 percent) are most likely to have library cards. Only 62 percent of Generation Z are cardholders, but 47 percent borrowed at least one book from the public library in the past year—indicating that Gen-Z members with cards are highly likely to use them.

In contrast, 73 percent of the Silent Generation have a library card, yet only 40 percent borrowed a book in the past year. This is also the generation that’s least likely to have used the library in the same time period, and 41 percent of this generation say they never borrow books from the library. That said, this generation has the highest average of books borrowed from the public library (11 books), so those Silent Generation members who do use the library are frequent users.

Generation X and Millennials are most inclined to have visited the library in person or used the library for any reason in the last 12 months (both at 71 percent). Given that these are the generations most likely to have young children at home, it appears they’re working on raising future generations of readers and library users.

Baby Boomers are the most likely to have visited the library’s website (33 percent), followed closely by Millennials and Generation X (each 31 percent).

 

Q For books that you’ve read that you did not purchase, where did you get them?

  GEN Z MILLENNIALS GEN X BABY
BOOMERS
SILENT
GEN*
Borrowed from friends/relatives 51.3% 51.7% 46.0% 43.5% 40.4%
Received as gifts 42.4% 41.5% 36.2% 29.6% 29.8%
Public library 36.1% 39.5% 40.4% 36.6% 34.6%
I am an avid reader 27.1% 12.8% 7.9% 7.1% 5.5%
Other library (e.g., school, college/university, etc.) 23.7% 6.3% 5.1% 3.6% 3.5%
Online subscription service (e.g., Kindle Unlimited) 14.5% 20.4% 16.6% 12.6% 12.5%
Fan fiction sites 11.9% 3.5% 1.2% 0.9% 1.2%
Free book exchange/Little free library 9.0% 9.6% 8.2% 8.6% 7.6%

*SILENT GENERATION
SOURCE: LJ GENERATIONAL READING SURVEY 2019

BUYING VS. BORROWING

All generations are more likely to borrow from the library at least monthly than to purchase books. However, more than twice as many people say they never borrow books from the library than say they never buy books. Millennials lead the way in both buying (31 percent) and borrowing books from the library (34 percent). This group is likely to have children of reading age, which could account for them having the highest book acquisition rates.

Amazon is the top source for book purchases for all generations. Chain bookstores come in second for all except the Silent Generation, whose number two buying spot is used bookstores. They’re also more likely to buy from library book sales as well as community, church, or garage sales, making this generation the top purchaser of used books.

Younger readers are more likely to buy new books from multiple retailers. More than twice as many Generation Z members (55 percent) buy from chain bookstores as Silent Generation members do (24 percent). Generation Z and Millennials are the most likely to buy from local independent shops, though both are still much more likely to use Amazon and chain bookstores. Four percent of Millennials are members of a book purchasing club (such as Book of the Month). The same percentage use online book subscription services (such as Radish Fiction), outpacing other generations.

When asked their reasons for buying rather than borrowing a book, all except the Silent Generation said they wanted to keep it. The Silent Generation’s top reason was to be able to read at their own pace. Setting their own reading pace is the second most cited reason for all other generations.

Collection development librarians take note: Not having the books they want is an issue for more than a quarter of library users across every generation (except the Silent Generation, at 20 percent), but especially younger generations.

Price is the most important factor in the choice to borrow rather than buy for all generations except the Silent Generation, for whom having a library conveniently located is top priority. More than 50 percent of Generation X and Gen Z borrow because books are too expensive.

When readers are unsure about a book, they are more likely to borrow than purchase. The library serves as a showroom space, particularly for Generation Z and Millennials, for midlist books or books that haven’t received a lot of buzz. Sixty percent of Millennials have later purchased a book they first borrowed from the library, nearly twice the percentage of Baby Boomers (31 percent) and three times the Silent Generation (18 percent). Millennials also lead in buying another book by the same author at 77 percent, with Generation Z (76 percent) and Generation X (75 percent) right behind them. That speaks to younger readers using the library as a testing ground for new-to-them authors and genres.

 

Q Which of the following statements describe your motivation to go to the public library or to use library resources?

  GEN Z MILLENNIALS GEN X BABY
BOOMERS
SILENT
GEN*
To read or study 51.6% 28.6% 24.0% 12.5% 12.2%
To find a specific book 42.5% 31.8% 37.2% 51.8% 44.5%
Comfortable/Relaxing place 40.4% 34.4% 41.4% 43.9% 50.2%
To browse for a book 38.2% 38.4% 36.2% 43.9% 46.8%
To spend some ‘me-time’ 35.8% 30.3% 37.2% 35.4% 35.4%
For tech resources (e.g., computers, Wi-Fi) 29.5% 25.4% 25.0% 21.6% 12.2%
For research/help from librarians 26.0% 15.3% 19.7% 13.8% 12.5%
Children’s programming 15.1% 32.1% 17.8% 6.6% 2.3%
Good place to bring children 6.3% 32.9% 27.0% 6.6% 2.7%

*SILENT GENERATION
SOURCE: LJ GENERATIONAL READING SURVEY 2019

WHY THE LIBRARY?

Reasons for going to the library are similar across all but the youngest generation surveyed, but the proportions shift somewhat:

• Generation Z goes to read or study (52 percent), or look for a specific book (43 percent).

• Millennials are browsing for their next book (38 percent) or looking for a specific book (32 percent).

• Generation X is looking for a specific book (37 percent) or browsing (36 percent).

• Baby Boomers are also looking for a specific book (52 percent) or browsing (44 percent).

• The Silent Generation is seeking a specific book (45 percent) or browsing (47 percent).

All generations said being a comfortable place that they’re familiar with is among their top three reasons for visiting the library; 50 percent of the Silent Generation gave it top priority.

Millennials and Generations X and Z are more likely to be motivated by children’s programming. With their children past the toddler stage, Millennials and Generation X are most likely to enroll their children in summer reading programs. Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation were most apt to attend events such as concerts or lectures.

Given a long list of words to characterize the library (ranging from “Welcoming” and “Community” to “Outdated” and “Boring”), all generations chose the same top five answers: “Quiet,” “Free,” “Welcoming,” “Community,” and “Helpful.” Older generations (Gen-X, Baby Boomers, and Silent Generation) listed “Free” as their first choice, while younger generations chose “Quiet.”

 

HOW READERS FIND BOOKS

Websites and apps devoted to letting people rate and review books still haven’t overcome an old favorite: Recommendations from friends and family are the top method all generations use to find out about books they might want to read. More than 55 percent in each generation choose that approach.

There are generational differences for the second-place method. Generation Z (43 percent) looks to social media; Millennials (40 percent) and Generation X (38 percent) browse on Amazon, and Baby Boomers and Silent Generation (both 32 percent) rely on bestseller lists.

About one-third of all generations use the library for book discovery, whether through browsing library shelves, library displays, librarian recommendations, or the catalog/website.

Generation Z, most likely to use social media for book recommendations, indicated that Instagram is their first choice, followed by Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Goodreads. For the remaining generations, Facebook was far and away the winner, used by 75 percent of Millennials and 93 percent of the Silent Generation.

When asked “What public figures, groups, or brands most influence your reading choices?”, responses showed that social media is much more important to Generations X/Z and Millennials. The older the reader, the more news and current events figured into their reading habits.

 

BROWSING AND REVIEWING

Content samples and pricing had the strongest effects on book selection across all generations. For Generation Z and Millennials, cover art was nearly as important, while for the Silent Generation, it was the least important factor. Author blurbs and jacket copy are less influential overall.

When it comes to sharing opinions about books, Millennials take the lead, with 45 percent likely to rate or review online and 41 percent likely to post on social media. Generation Z is next most likely to review online, while the Silent Generation barely registers: Just eight percent of the this age group is likely to rate or review a book online, and only four percent would post on social media.

At least 66 percent of all respondents say they’d offer recommendations to family and friends. Millennials took the lead, with 85 percent willing to recommend books. They were also the most willing to loan books (64 percent).

 

Format Use and Preference by Age Group

  GEN Z MILLENNIALS GEN X BABY BOOMERS SILENT GEN**
  FORMATS
READ
PREFERRED
FORMAT*
FORMATS
READ
PREFERRED
FORMAT*
FORMATS
READ
PREFERRED
FORMAT*
FORMATS
READ
PREFERRED
FORMAT*
FORMATS
READ
PREFERRED
FORMAT*
Hardcover 79.4% 38.9% 72.9% 38.7% 73.4% 42.8% 75.2% 37.1% 70.9% 32.5%
Paperback 73.8% 27.4% 74.1% 27.4% 73.8% 26.3% 74.7% 20.2% 68.8% 21.3%
Ebook 31.7% 8.4% 40.9% 12.4% 35.0% 8.8% 31.9% 11.8% 29.1% 12.7%
Audiobook 19.4% 7.4% 24.0% 7.6% 18.5% 3.7% 11.3% 2.8% 7.2% 4.1%
No preference   17.9%   13.8%   18.5%   28.0%   29.5%

*IF YOU READ MORE THAN ONE FORMAT
**SILENT GENERATION
SOURCE: LJ GENERATIONAL READING SURVEY 2019

 

FORMAT PREFERENCES

Print books comprise the majority of formats used across all generations. However, at least 62 percent of all respondents noted that they read in more than one format. Older generations are less likely to read multiple formats, while more than 70 percent of Generation Z and Millennials do.

Hardcovers are most often used by Generation Z (79 percent); Millennials read more paperbacks by a slight margin (74 percent to 73 percent). Generation X is nearly tied between hardcover and paperback, with Baby Boomers and Silent Generation slightly more likely to read hardcovers.

Ebook use ranges from 29 to 41 percent across the generations, with Millennials reading the most electronically. Audiobooks are used less often, with responses ranging from seven to 24 percent. Millennials again take the lead.

The formats in which respondents actually read, compared to those which they’d ideally prefer, varies somewhat. More than 70 percent of all who took the survey said they read hardcovers, but only 33 to 43 percent of all generations prefer them. If price were not a factor, at least 50 percent of every generation would prefer hardcovers. Generation Z’s preference for hardcovers rose 20 percent when price was removed as a factor. When asked why they’d choose hardcovers, the smell and feel was the top consideration for Generations X/Z and Millennials. Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation gave top preference to larger print size.

The primary reason for a paperback preference across all generations is that they’re lightweight; a common write-in answer was, “They’re easier to hold/handle.” Affordability is a close second factor.

All generations except the Silent Generation pointed to 24/7 access to ebooks as the number one reason they prefer them; the Silent Generation pointed to adjustable font size. E-readers being lighter in weight was a popular second explanation. Frequent write-in reasons included the fact that ebooks don’t need a light to read at night.

There are stark generational differences in which devices are used to read ebooks. Seventy-seven percent of Generation Z read on their smartphones, while just 20 percent of the Silent Generation does. Older generations are more likely to read ebooks on e-readers. At least 32 percent of every generation uses more than one device to read ebooks.

 

LISTENING IN

For respondents who prefer audiobooks, far and away the primary reason is the ability to listen to a book while doing other things. Thirty-one percent of the Silent Generation also noted that they have difficulty reading print.

Audible/Amazon is the top source of audiobooks for Generation X and younger, while Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation are more likely to check out CDs from the library. That said, more than a third of the oldest generations also use Audible/Amazon.

Forty-seven percent of Generation X and more than half of the other generations listen to audiobooks when relaxing and not multitasking. Millennials are most likely (48 percent) to listen to them on commutes, while Baby Boomers (49 percent) and the Silent Generation (58 percent) also listen on long car rides, possibly vacations.

Respondents who chose “no preference” for format ranged from 14 percent of Millennials to 28 percent of Baby Boomers, and 30 percent of the Silent Generation, showing that overall, many readers may not care which container their content comes in.

 

GENRE PREFERENCES

When asked to estimate how many fiction and nonfiction books they read in the past year, fiction ranked higher across all generations. Overall, the estimate is 61 percent fiction and 39 percent nonfiction. Fiction is especially prevalent in the youngest (Generation Z, 65 percent) and oldest (Silent Generation, 66 percent) generations.

Respondents were asked which fiction genres they typically read for pleasure. For the entire sample, the top five fiction genres are mystery/suspense, general adult fiction, thrillers, romance, and fantasy. Looking more closely:

• Generation Z is most likely to read fantasy (53 percent), young adult fiction (49 percent), romance (49 percent), horror (36 percent), science fiction (32 percent), short stories (27 percent), and graphic novels (19 percent).

• Millennials are most likely to read general adult fiction (46 percent), classic literature (25 percent), erotica (15 percent), and urban/street lit (10 percent).

• Baby Boomers are most likely to read thrillers (43 percent).

• The Silent Generation is most likely to read mystery/suspense (71 percent), historical fiction (52 percent), and Christian fiction (18 percent).

Generation X reads across all genres, but does not show a preference for any particular category.

Biography/memoir, history, cooking, health/fitness/wellness, and true crime top the list of the most commonly read nonfiction subjects. Looking more closely:

• Generation Z is most likely to read humor (27 percent), self-help/psychology (25 percent), true crime (25 percent), poetry (23 percent), fine arts (22 percent), science (21 percent), pets/animals (19 percent), style/fashion (17 percent), essays (16 percent), and gaming (14 percent).

• Millennials are most likely to read about health/fitness/wellness (27 percent), business/careers (17 percent), sociology (15 percent), technology (11 percent), sports/recreation (12 percent), and parenting (22 percent).

• Generation X is most likely to read about crafts/hobbies (26 percent).

• Baby Boomers are most likely to read cooking (36 percent) and home decorating/gardening books (17 percent).

• The Silent Generation is most likely to read biography/memoir (59 percent), history (54 percent), travel (20 percent), religion/spirituality/philosophy (27 percent), and politics/current events (22 percent).

 

After borrowing from the public library, percentage who have…

  GEN Z MILLENNIALS GEN X BABY
BOOMERS
SILENT
GEN*
Later purchased that same book 49.1% 60.1% 45.6% 31.3% 18.0%
Purchased other books by the same author 76.1% 77.2% 75.4% 64.2% 54.5%

*SILENT GENERATION
SOURCE: LJ GENERATIONAL READING SURVEY 2019

BOOK EVENT PARTICIPATION

Book clubs, both in-person and online, are mostly popular with younger generations. At least 72 percent of respondents said they did not participate in book clubs.

Of those that do, Generations X/Z and Millennials are about equally likely to have book clubs meet in a private home or a library. Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation are much more likely to meet in a private home, while Millennials are most likely to meet in a library.

Ten percent of the general population has partipated in a One Book/One Community read. That rises to 17 percent among Millennials and 13 percent for Generation Z. Yet Gen-Z is also the generation most likely to be unaware of their community’s One Book program. Fewer than five percent of Baby Boomers and Silent Generation members have read a One Book/One Community book.

Author readings at bookstores, libraries, or other community events are more likely to be attended by Millennials (21 percent) and Generation Z (20 percent), compared to six percent for Baby Boomers and seven percent for the Silent Generation. Of those who did attend an author reading, bookstores were the primary location for Millennials (64 percent), Generation X (67 percent), and Baby Boomers (57 percent). The library is the second most common spot, tying for first place among the youngest and oldest respondents; Generation Z is equally likely to have attended a reading at a bookstore or library. About 40 percent of Millennials and Generations X/Z have attended readings in multiple locations.

 

CULTURAL REPRESENTATION

Respondents were asked how important it is to them to read books that reflect their own cultural background, values, or personal identity (for example, religion, sexuality/gender, ability status, etc.). Nearly 40 percent of Generation Z and Millennials, the most racially diverse generations, feel that it is important or very important, compared to about 22 percent for Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation. Millennials (22 percent) are most inclined to think it is very important. Baby Boomers (41 percent) and the Silent Generation (42 percent) are most likely to say it is not at all important.

Those who said it is at least somewhat important to read books that reflect their background, values, or identity were also asked if they have a hard time finding such books. Generation Z was most likely to answer yes (7.5 percent), with 18 percent unsure how to answer. Generation X was the most likely to say no (94 percent), with only 5 percent unsure how to answer. Interestingly, while only two percent of Baby Boomers answer yes, almost four percent of the Silent Generation said yes, perhaps indicating a dearth of books reflecting the experiences of older readers.

Respondents were asked if they are interested in reading about books with characters and/or narratives that reflect cultural backgrounds, values, and personal identities different from their own. Millennials (62 percent) and Generation Z (60 percent) most often answered that they are “very interested” or “interested” in reading such books. Baby Boomers and Silent Generation readers are less interested, at 45-49 percent.

Generational responses to LJ’s survey reveal variations reflecting day-to-day experience, comfort with technology, and a wide range of interests—data that may prove useful for libraries looking to bring in new patrons. Importantly, there is reason to celebrate that all generations still make reading, and libraries, a priority.


METHODOLOGY

This study was made possible by the support of sponsors Penguin Random House, Baker & Taylor, bibliotheca, Macmillan, and NoveList. The survey instrument was developed by LJ with input from sponsors.

The survey was hosted by, and respondents were recruited by, an independent market research firm in May 2019. The data was tabulated by Library Journal research.

This report is based on 2,232 responses with at least 400 responses from each of five generation groups (Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers, and Silent Generation). The data is unweighted.


Amy Rea is a freelance journalist living in Minnesota

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