Building Generational Inclusion in Microbiology

Oct. 27, 2023

Understanding how to collaborate, partner and foster a sense of belonging and inclusion for all age groups in the field of microbiology increases productivity, inspires creativity and pulls together the unique experiences of multiple generations.  

Understanding Generational Inclusion and Diversity 

Generational diversity occurs when many different age groups exist in a workforce, department, classroom or lab at 1 time. Generational inclusion thrives when all generations feel welcomed, respected and included in an environment. Cultivating generational inclusion requires ensuring that all voices in the workforce, lab, classroom and/or department are fully recognized, honored, considered, understood and appreciated. 

To begin working toward this level of inclusion, it is important to first determine what diversity of age groups coexist within a workforce or classroom. Understanding the generations one works with every day will not only inform strategies to foster inclusion across a variety of diverse generational groups, but also how to harness and leverage the qualities of generational diversity to drive the kind of success that stems from a diverse set of minds working well together.  

Understanding one another's identities is important to working successfully together in a diverse and inclusive environment.
Understanding one another's identities is important to working successfully together in a diverse and inclusive environment.
Source: iStock
Notably, people belonging to the same generation may share specific traits or exhibited characteristics—such as motivation, work style and/or communication preferences. This is typically because the groups were exposed to and engaged in similar trends around the same life stage (e.g., entertainment, fashion, books, political changes and more). These similarities in engagement and exposure to information and trends created strong commonalities around values. When considering multigenerational trends, similar values may exist between 2 or more generations, but how they define their values, and the behaviors and preferences attached to them, tend to differ. Understanding and tapping into the differences and similarities of each and all generations can help build more inclusive and welcoming environments, because understanding one another is important to working successfully together.       

However, it is important to remember to only use generational norms as a guide, and not as a rule. There will always be people who do not fit these descriptions and may be put off by being placed in a box, so it is important not to force them into one.  

Exploring Each Generation and Their Commonalities 

Each generation has unique and distinct experiences, which, in turn, influence their perspectives and values. Currently, there are approximately 5 different generations navigating the workforce, and thus coexisting throughout academia. 

Traditionalists (Born 1925-1942)  

The Traditionalist generation appreciates tradition and order. People born during this time period entered into a society that prioritized hierarchy and organizational structure, especially at work and in school. They are known for their hard work and immense willpower. Reliability and work ethic are valued by this generation, and it is common for this generation to favor a top-down line of command.  

Traditionalists also prefer in-person communication, so when possible, instead of sending an email, text or chat message try calling them directly, or even scheduling a time to talk in-person. For example, when working with them to prepare for a department meeting, try scheduling time to stop by their office or classroom for an in-person planning meeting.  

Additionally, including alternatives to virtual work/materials as much as possible is recommended. For example, in a classroom setting, instead of only having a syllabus online, normalize also having a printed copy on hand. Another example is, when a work project is due, if possible, provide the option to submit a hard copy, rather than only offering online submission. When giving a presentation or talk, instead of only showing an online presentation (e.g., PowerPoint), provide hard copies of handouts for listeners to reference during the presentation.  

Lastly, because of the mindset of hierarchy and having a chain of command, Traditionalists may feel more comfortable when roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, such as identifying a group leader during group assignments or identifying a primary point of contact for a large project.  

Baby Boomers (Born 1946-1964)  

The Baby Boomer generation has ruled the workforce for decades, and they typically hold high positions, like deans, provost, presidents and more. Characteristics common to Baby Boomers include competitiveness when striving for career advancement, thriving in opportunities to work independently, focusing on career development and valuing hierarchy (though they are less committed to it compared to Traditionalists). 

To foster a sense of inclusion among Baby Boomers, ensure that they have opportunities to work independently and strive toward specific goals, such as achieving awards and recognition in the field. For example, try encouraging the Boomers at your institution to consider the American Academy of Microbiology (Academy)—the honorific leadership group and scientific think tank within ASM. The mission of the Academy is to recognize microbiologists for outstanding contributions to the microbial sciences and to provide expertise in the service of science and the public. This kind of recognition and leadership opportunity is typically quite attractive to Boomers and gives them a strong goal to work toward. 

 Baby Boomers also gravitate toward professional advancement, so if there are opportunities to learn and develop, work to ensure they have many opportunities to engage in them. This might include options for annual bonuses, opportunities to present research at an upcoming conference or to help develop and publish an article in a journal.   

Providing environments for individuals to work in an office or common space might be helpful for Baby Boomers, as some professionals in this generation may not enjoy a fully remote environment. Hybrid environments or in-office environments are helpful, as this generation developed in a professional environment that revolved around visibility in the workplace (i.e., the more physically present a person is in the office, the more they are perceived as hardworking and dedicated).  

Baby Boomers also appreciate decision-making, leadership roles/positions and teaching roles. Because of this, mentorship is a great way to ensure Baby Boomers have the opportunity to teach and train others while still assuming a leadership role. 

ASM's Microbiology Leaders Evolving and Accountable to Progress (MicroBio-LEAP) project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), aims to train leaders to embody inclusive diversity with equity, access and accountability (IDEAA), and is another example of an opportunity that would typically be attractive to Boomers.

Gen X (Born 1965-1980)  

Gen Xers hold similar values to the Baby Boomer generation. The key difference between these 2 generations is that Gen X prioritizes work-life balance. While it is common for Baby Boomers to structure life around work, Gen X was the first generation to strive to structure work around life. They seek out autonomy and independence in their work and academic development and appreciate clear expectations and goals. Gen X also prioritizes education, as a college education was a key tool to success for many Gen Xers—it was a necessity instead of a luxury.  

Gen Xers value flexibility in how they complete their work and assignments, so it is helpful if they have more options and room for creativity in their work. For example, in an academic setting, Gen Xers may enjoy having the option to choose between a written assignment, recorded video or a presentation. Outside of the classroom, try to provide Gen Xers with an objective and empower them to work toward it in a creative way. For example, encouraging Gen X microbiologists to participate in the ASM Agar Art Contest is an exciting and creative way to channel their creativity in a project designed for microbiologists.  

Additionally, because they respect direct expectations and goals, providing thorough rubrics in a syllabus will provide Gen Xers with the direction they crave. But balance is key. Rigid expectations and structure may be difficult for a Gen Xer, while the right amount of direction balanced with flexibility and autonomy will help them feel empowered and motivated.  

Millennials (Born 1981-1996)  

Millennials are the generation that currently hold many mid-career to early-career jobs within academia. In the classroom, millennials are frequently the generation enrolled in graduate programs and in continuing education workshops.  

Preceding generations might have stigmas toward Millennials, however, it is important to debunk many of the stereotypes, as they are fueled by bias, which hinders inclusion. Millennials have many commonalities with Gen X and Baby Boomers. Similar to their Gen X colleagues, Millennials crave work-life balance. Many Millennials opt to work flexible hours and prefer to pursue professional and academic development in flexible environments—educational activities that permit creativity as well as work and/or lab hours that are not the standard 9 a.m.-5 p.m. schedule.  

Additionally, similar to Gen Xers, Millennials value education and development. Learning for Millennial microbiologists does not stop once they receive their degree(s), so it is often important for this generation to continue to pursue learning opportunities and mentorship. Millennials, like Baby Boomers, have respect for those that came before them, and they often look for opportunities to learn from previous generations, which is why mentorship is treasured amongst this generation. 

While Millennials appreciate autonomy, they do not seek wholly independent conditions. They prefer collaboration and being part of a team. Like their Gen X counterparts, Millennials also prioritize flexibility in their environments, so rather than having rigid expectations, providing a clear path, transparent communication and direct feedback along the way is what many Millennials need to be successful.  

Millennials desire and seek inclusion in all pursuits. Having a respected, embraced and valued voice at the table is not only a priority for many Millennials but also a requirement. For example, in the classroom or lab, giving Millennials opportunities to contribute to lab protocols and procedures and including them in decision-making opportunities (e.g., helping to choose the next research topic) will keep this generation highly engaged.  

Gen Z (Born 1997-2013)  

Gen Zers are typically students in undergraduate or very early graduate programs. The oldest Gen Zers might also be within the workforce holding entry-level positions.  

Gen Zers share many commonalities with Millennials, especially around the focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Both Millennials and Gen Z see technology as a helpful tool for success in educational development, as well as professional success. Including technology in the classroom/lab and/or work environment will help to keep Gen Zers feeling engaged and connected. The Gen Z generation is different from others, as this generation is not as grounded in a single career track or academic discipline but typically prefers to pursue a variety of opportunities. A report from Deloitte referred to Gen Z as the return of Renaissance type individuals—people that maintain a myriad of interests, talents, skills, areas of knowledge and hobbies.  

Inclusion for Gen Zers typically involves emphasizing engagement in challenging pursuits, as well as providing ample opportunities fr Gen Zers to develop and drive impact. For example, they not only want to turn in assignments, but also to contribute in a way that is meaningful. This could look like submitting a paper on their field experience assisting researchers who are studying the disparities related to COVID-19 vaccine access. Gen Z enjoys meaningful work, so ensuring that they feel a sense of purpose in different projects and assignments is important for this generation.  

Bringing It All Together for Generational Inclusion  

Generational inclusion will help to drive productivity and success in the classroom, work place and beyond.
Generational inclusion will help to drive productivity and success in the classroom, work place and beyond.
Source: iStock
Balance and options are essential for generational inclusion. Gone are the days where one approach to education/learning, work, development and/or advancement works for everyone, so it is critical to offer different paths and approaches to achievement and success. By doing this, all generations within a classroom, department or lab will have the tools they need and desire to accomplish goals and objectives.  

In addition to providing balance, communication is a key factor in fostering generational inclusion. Communication style is the most common challenge faced when working in an inter-generational environment. Stating clear expectations and sustaining transparent communication is the best approach for all generations. For example, while Baby Boomers and Gen Xers may prefer a more reserved communication style, they still want direction and clarity. Millennials and Gen Zers prefer a coaching style approach to management and leadership, so clear and transparent guidelines and inclusive direction are highly respected among this generation.  

Navigating and engaging in the academic field filled with a diversity of generations takes intentional effort. While 1 approach might work for a certain generation, it might not resonate with another. Flexibility and adaptability are key when fostering generational inclusion. Keep in mind, the information and insight mentioned throughout this article are merely guidance. To truly foster and cultivate inclusion, one must ask the specific groups and individuals what they want and or need to succeed. Then work to incorporate this information throughout your own work and educational environment.   

Do you have ideas about an article for diversity, equity and inclusion in microbiology? We want to hear from you!   


Author: Shaundra Branova

Shaundra Branova
Shaundra Branova is a program officer at ASM who develops and leads strategic projects, programs and initatives dedicated to elevating and embodying inclusive diversity.