From baby boomers to gen Z, how are differences in attitudes and training affecting science?

At the University of Liverpool, UK, chemist Anna Slater has brought her group together to discuss whether different generations have different approaches to work. They laugh at the often repeated stereotypes – millennials are lazy and entitled, with no work ethic, and their younger gen Z colleagues are over-sensitive snowflakes, inseparable from their smartphones and in constant need of praise. Not the most positive spin on the changes in attitudes and behaviour that many acknowledge. ‘As a millennial, I have noticed [differences with] gen Z, in terms of their need for affirmation and being sensitive, but I would disagree that millennials are lazy!’ says postgraduate student Patrycja Roszkowska.

The crude generational stereotypes don’t reflect the full picture, but occupational psychologists are finding differences in how the generations approach work. On top of this, the field of chemistry itself has changed. So how does that impact the way different generations of chemists work together and what does it mean for the future chemistry lab?

A 2017 study from the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland attempted to explain some of the generational differences by exploring what motivates a cohort of over 23,000 leaders from different generations. ‘Some of [our results] do fly in the face of what we may think stereotypically,’ says study co-author David Ringwood, an expert in psychometric assessment, from Touchstone Executive Assessment in Dublin, Ireland. The study measured 17 underlying and intrinsic motivational characteristics in baby boomers (born in the mid-1940s to mid-1960s), gen X (mid-1960s to late 1970s), millennials (early 1980s to mid-1990s) and gen Z (mid-1990s onwards). The characteristics measured are not outwardly observable but they influence a lot of the behaviour we see.

‘The research did indicate that there are significant differences, and the differences only really occur when we get to gen Y (millennials),’ says Ringwood, ‘which is surprising when you consider everything that has changed in the world from the mid ‘40s to the late ‘70s.’ The shift continues into gen Z, with some trends accelerating.

People find it difficult to think deeply

Tom Brown, baby boomer

Counter to perceptions, younger generations are highly motivated, but what motivates them has changed. ‘Newer generations have very high expectations, they want to achieve … but the expectation is that they do that in an environment which supports them,’ explains Ringwood. ‘This is possibly where that sense of entitlement, as other people interpret it, may come from.’ He adds that their sensitivity comes with a desire to connect with others and work collaboratively.

One concern that Ringwood points to is a diminished interest in innovative or novel ideas. ‘It often surprises people that there is a lot less originality in younger generations. They’re not motivated to be experimental or have a highly exploratory mindset … they’re actually less comfortable with ambiguity than previous generations,’ he says.

Shifting focus

Although his research does not explain why these shifts are occurring, Ringwood says the effects of technology and the internet are likely to be a big factor. Baby boomer and University of Oxford chemist Tom Brown thinks this explains the trends he sees in some younger chemists. ‘People find it difficult to think deeply … it means that they don’t achieve as much [and] they’re less independent.’

Another big shift Brown has noticed is the merging of social and professional lives that technology has allowed. ‘The old fashioned attitude would be you come to work and you do the work, but everybody now has so many external influences … people log on to the computer and it’s a tool for work, but it’s also a tool for social media and all these other distractions.’ He thinks it has compromised people’s attention span and focus.

Ideas around work-life balance have also shifted away from the workaholic attitudes of baby boomers. Recognition of caring responsibilities outside work is part of this, but Pfizer chemist Emily Rose suggests there are other generational changes. With less generous pensions on the horizon she thinks her gen Z cohort are keen to enjoy their lives now. ‘A lot of the people my age save up our holiday and then take a month to go travelling … you’re not revolving everything around work.’

Work colleagues

Source: © Getty Images

Pleasant intergenerational collaboration, or cultural conflict?

This also means the younger generations are focused on making sure they enjoy their jobs. Roszkowska was struck by a recent collaboration with millennial and gen Z colleagues in the engineering department. She describes it as more like being in a playground where they ‘mess around’ with different tools. ‘Someone said, ”I know I can work harder, but I don’t want to – this is what I like about my job”,’ she reports.

Younger generations … know their worth a lot more

R&D manager, millenial

A senior R&D manager in a materials start-up company who wishes to stay anonymous has seen changes in attitudes. As an older millennial she says she was expected to do plenty of repetitive tests of materials properties earlier in her career – something that she thinks the younger generation of scientists don’t see as part of their job. However, she learnt a lot from seeing the differences first hand.

She also senses younger recruits feel they are owed promotion rather than working towards it. ‘They’re definitely a lot more demanding,’ but, she adds, ‘it’s actually a thing that I like about the younger generations because they know their worth a lot more.’ The change in attitude to work is infuriating to some gen Xers who were expected to pay their dues before they were taken seriously, but Ringwood says with the younger generation a ‘top down’ leadership style just doesn’t work: millenials and gen Z ‘often don’t even understand the concept of authority, they don’t see rank’.

Younger generations also depart from their older colleagues by bringing their values and belief systems to work, be it sustainability, wellness, mental health, or equality, diversity and inclusion. ‘It’s actually great to see that newer generations are far more likely to be champions of these things,’ says Ringwood. ‘They feel that the workplace is a place for it, whereas previous generations, would just think, “read the job description and do it”.’ Rose agrees: ‘Diversity training and stuff like that is all voluntary [at Pfizer] and it does seem to be all the younger people who go … we value bringing our selves to work and being able to express that.’

What’s new?

One criticism often thrown at gen Xers is they are cynical. Rose, an expert in lab robotics, says she does find such attitudes in her older colleagues who are more resistant to the introduction of lab automation and the use of artificial intelligence. University of Birmingham materials chemist Peter Slater says although cynicism isn’t the preserve of his generation he isn’t surprised that other gen Xers are more sceptical of some of the wilder promises of new technology. ‘A lot of that is due to the fact that you’ve had a lot more experience in life, you’ve seen the ups and downs and you’ve seen situations [before],’ he says.

For chemists, generational changes have not only impacted working culture. There have also been significant changes in chemistry as a field and the skills needed to be a chemist. ‘Chemistry is a much broader subject than it was even 20 years ago, and certainly 40 years ago, it’s completely different,’ says Brown. The subject has expanded to include chemical biology, nanotechnology, materials and chemistry related to energy and the environment.

In my generation, you did everything

Peter Slater, gen X

This inevitably means gen Z chemists are not likely to have covered the fundamentals in as much depth. ‘What has fallen away a bit is the general knowledge about the periodic table,’ says Peter Slater. ‘[Courses] tend to focus on things like transition metals, [which is] understandable because there’s only so much time to teach.’ However, younger chemists do come well trained in some of the newer applications: ‘they have units related to bioplastics now, whereas if you [studied] chemistry 10 years ago, you probably wouldn’t have had,’ says the materials R&D manager.

The expansion of the field has also led to greater specialisation and a growth in the number and type of characterisation techniques. ‘In my generation, you did everything: you made the samples, you did all your analysis … now there’s a lot of chemists who are technique specialists who may not be involved in the synthesis,’ says Peter Slater.

Technology has even changed younger chemists’ attitudes to the core fundamental knowledge of the subject.

Anna Slater thinks many millennial and gen Z chemists would struggle to remember the number of named reactions an older organic chemist would have at their fingertips. ‘But I’m super good at getting what I want out of Reaxys [Elsevier’s AI-enabled retrosynthesis tool]. And this might be slightly controversial, [but] one could argue it’s not necessarily as important to know all of the many different transformations out there, as long as you can use good searching to find what you need.’

Some lab skills are already obsolete. At the beginning of her career Anna Slater perfected the art of manual column chromatography but automated equipment quickly took over, athough, she says, ‘to get the best out of the instruments, you still need to know the underlying principles’.

Up to code

One skill that younger chemists are starting to see as indispensable is coding. ‘It’s something that I would put up alongside learning to drive,’ says Evanthe Arnold-Lockwood, an undergraduate project student in Anna Slater’s lab. PhD student Aran Smith agrees:It has quickly become one of the most sought after key skills for chemists, for data analysis, operating machinery and automation.’

Younger chemists are now looking to the AI revolution and the changes it will bring in the next 10–20 years. ‘Eventually, people are going to be automating workflows and feeding spectra into an AI that can just read it for you. I think that younger people are probably more ready to accept that,’ says Smith. Indeed, gen Xer Peter Slater is concerned that we may lose the serendipity that occurs when chemists play around in the lab: ‘I do worry that we will lose the random inspirational idea or random accident that somebody has.’

For now, the generational differences between chemists are not so large. Even the names of chemicals are more uniform than they once were, although Rose says older chemists in her lab still use ‘Hünig’s base’ for the tertiary amine reagent N,N-diisopropylethylamine: ‘It’s DIPEA to me,’ she says.

While there are changes in work behaviour and motivations across the generations, Ringwood points out ‘they’re not better or worse, people are just different’. The good news is that the next generation of chemists are up for solving the big societal issues of our day. ‘These people will be much more comfortable co-creating, or working together in a collaborative type of dynamic as opposed to the ivory tower type of individual,’ says Ringwood. ‘[Give them] that engaged, integrated way of working and they will come into their own.’