Examining the generation gap in academia

Do generation gaps make it hard for colleagues of different ages to work together? Sensationalised stories across social media and traditional news outlets can give the impression that young and old can’t help but exasperate each other. But Rachel Brazil’s article suggests that while chemists of different ages do take different approaches to their work, these differences are not large, acting more as a source of diversity than of conflict.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that people in a given industry have similar attitudes towards work, regardless of age or background. After all, most of us want to keep our job or find a better one, which means adhering to what is acceptable and rewarded in our field.

This is particularly acute in academia, where researchers must spend many years competing for a series of short-term positions before going through the even more competitive process of obtaining a permanent position. To remain in an academic career, personal values have to come second to the requirements of funders and hiring committees (unless by good fortune they align).

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Can we move away from a reliance on publication metrics to assess researchers?

For a long time, those requirements have been fairly consistent: the number one priority is to have a solid track record of impactful research, for which the proxy measure is a variety of publication metrics – number of papers, citation numbers, the reputation or impact factor of your chosen journals. Researchers have campaigned for years against relying on such metrics for hiring and promotion but academic culture does not change quickly. It can take a generation for new measures of excellence to become mainstream.

This slow progress adds an extra dimension of generational conflict to academia (exacerbated by an academic pipeline that means that many researchers at the same career stage are roughly the same age as each other). Long-tenured group leaders may not realise when changes have occurred to hiring practices, leading to tension as their well-meaning career advice is ignored or rejected by their postdocs. Significant changes to promotion criteria can leave experienced researchers who have spent years tailoring their career to meet previous requirements to feel like their generation has been overlooked. But when no change occurs, newer researchers may question why their seniors seem so invested in preserving a system that belongs to a bygone age.

The way to mitigate these tensions is a stereotypical gen Z approach: communication and collaboration. As Golfam Hoda says, interactions between generations enrich our research and help us to understand how to support, motivate and appreciate each other. And openly stating what we value in our fellow researchers can guide institutions to revise their hiring policies, enabling us to build an academic system that will benefit researchers for generations to come.