Talking About Your Generation

Published on: 

The Column

Column, The Column-12-17-2018, Volume 14, Issue 12
Pages: 20–24

Columns | <b>Column: Incognito</b>

Incognito scrutinizes the behaviour of baby boomers and Generation X, Y, and Z in the laboratory. What do they want from the workplace?

Incognito scrutinizes the behaviour of baby boomers and Generation X, Y, and Z in the laboratory. What do they want from the workplace?

In the last Incognito instalment (1), I discussed the issue of job satisfaction for analytical chemistry laboratory workers and the factors that contribute to how happy we are with our scientific lot.

In researching and writing the article, I became aware of some clearly defined differences in laboratory culture and practice, which seem to very closely correspond to the generational classifications of the past 60 years or so. It also struck me that this period of time matches the rise and development of instrumental chromatographic analysis. I therefore thought it would be fun to draw some comparisons between the evolution of analytical equipment and the evolution of those who are using the equipment-baby boomers, Gen X and Y, and now Gen Z-to draw some conclusions on what history might advise us we can do better in our current and future practices within the laboratory.

Baby Boomers (born 1945–1960, approximately 29% of US workforce in 2017 [2], although I suspect not many are working in the laboratory these days!): They are motivated by job security and are “organizational”; their career paths are largely dictated by their employers. They are the generation of the swinging sixties, the Apollo moon landings, youth culture, and the post‑war boom. They saw the birth and rise of television and see the telephone as a useful means of communication. The prefer face‑to-face communication, with telephone and e-mail second and third, respectively. Their decision‑making is most strongly influenced by face-to-face interactions, but they are increasingly reverting to online sources for “backup” information.

These are the pioneers of chromatography, leading the way as both the science and instrumentation were in their infancy. They are in touch with the theory of separation science because they needed to design and adapt equipment to keep pace with evolving theories, communicated to them using a nascent academic literature and increasingly through the huge numbers of conferences and discussions groups-all required to keep pace and maintain order as new technology, methods, and modes were born. Equipment was “modular”, often with a different manufacturer for each part of the system (pump, detector), and “autosamplers” had not yet been invented.


As new manufacturers emerged, they needed to figure out novel ways of connecting equipment (hydraulically and electronically) and measuring output, predominantly via calibrated chart paper (of a known and reproducible weight) from which the “peaks” were cut out and weighed for quantitative analysis. They used 25-cm long high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) columns packed with 10- or 40-µm irregular silica particles and glass gas chromatography (GC) columns (4 mm inner diameter [i.d.]) hand packed with a variety of media, from sieve-sized brick dust to small fossilized diatoms (diatomaceous earth). There were very few “coated” stationary phases for HPLC, and those which did exist were made mostly using GC support materials (GC was by far the dominant chromatographic technique in those early days) coated with a variety of not very stationary, stationary phase liquids (that is, they didn’t stay coated onto the support materials for very long at all). Both HPLC and GC columns were frequently packed in-house. Preparing equipment for analysis might have taken multiple days, analyses may have been an hour or longer, and method development time was measured in weeks or months. Troubleshooting or technical support was provided by academicians or the few instrument or column companies that existed.

Generation X (born 1961–1980, approximately 34% of US workforce in 2017 [2]): They are much more interested in a work–life balance and were the pioneers of portfolio careers, loyal to a profession but not necessarily an employer. The early lives of the “latch-key kids” were influenced by the end of the Cold War, Regan and Gorbachev, Live Aid, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. They are the generation of the personal computer, e-mail, and text messaging, colloquially known as digital immigrants, many of whom started their career just as typewriters were rapidly being replaced with rudimentary computers for writing laboratory reports. They have a preference for e-mail rather than face-to-face communications, and whilst their decision‑making is often underpinned by on‑line information, their secret preference is still for face-to-face knowledge gathering.

In the laboratory, Gen X had a mixture of modular systems and fully integrated systems (a single system from a single manufacturer), which were beginning to make an appearance. This is the generation of the computing integrator, an instrument that produced chromatograms on chart paper rolls with peak area measurements-a great leap forwards for quantitative analysis. During their working lifetime, Gen X workers have seen mass spectrometric (MS) detection techniques in GC become fully established and the meteoric rise in the development of LC–MS. Bonded phases for HPLC-C18 in the vast majority of cases-were commercialized, with 10- or 5-μm particles now becoming the norm. Whilst the majority of GC columns were still packed particles in glass columns, the revolution of the wall-coated open tubular (WCOT) silica capillary megabore (0.53 mm i.d.) had begun the inexorable march towards capillary column domination. There was a proliferation of academic literature, and whilst the number of conferences had consolidated, their attendance had not, and meetings, such as Pittcon, boomed in terms of both the scientific programme and vendor exposition. There were now more well-established instrument companies producing more reliable equipment, and even independent column manufacturers were becoming mainstream, all providing solid and fairly readily available technical support. Whilst columns were still packed or prepared in-house, purchasing columns from vendors had become commercially favourable. Instrument preparation was in the order of a day or less and chromatographic run times of 30 min or so had become established.



Generation Y (Millennials) (born 1981–1996, approximately 34% of US workforce in 2017 [2]): This is the generation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, PlayStation, social media, and reality TV. The “digital native” generation are more interested in freedom and flexibility and work “with” employers not for them. Their main communication tools are smartphones and tablets and they communicate via Instagram, Snapchat, and occasionally the ageing medium of text message. They are the generation who, for the first time, communicate on-line rather than by telephone or face-to-face, preferring the speed and brevity of written communication as well as the ability to have multiple streams of communication in play simultaneously. They trust on-line information, sometimes to their detriment!

In the laboratory, equipment is now fully modular and the industrialization of equipment into black box format is well underway. The equipment is much more reliable, and it is the era of operators rather than experts in the technology. Separation science is now much better understood by organizations and the service has become an information or data provider rather than an expert provision whose experts are required to interpret the wider context of the data within the business. The age of the computing data system is fully upon us with automated quantitative and qualitative results reporting. A proliferation of HPLC-bonded phases is available and the quality of HPLC packing materials has improved significantly; some might say there is too much stationary phase choice. This is the era of the rise of hydrophilic interaction liquid chromatography (HILIC) separations, of UHPLC, sub-2-µm, and
core–shell particles. HPLC technology might be said to be fully mature.

High efficiency GC capillary columns are fully established with standardized ranges of phases producing plate counts that could only have been dreamed of by the early pioneers. There are fewer scientific meetings with less novel scientific programmes and we see the rise (and some might say the beginning of the decline) of the SuperExpo as the behemoth instrument companies vie for the spend of the multinational corporations. On-line support and instrument telemetry are now well established, but as competition increases, instrument companies often see training and support as an added cost of business and begin to rationalize these services and optimize profit margins, justified by the quality and reliability of instrumentation. Applications laboratories concentrate on the niche and emerging opportunities in what is now a rapidly maturing market. This is the age of the sub-5-min HPLC analysis, whilst GC analyses are in the 10–30 min range, and instruments, when well maintained, can last months between services with analytical preparation times of under 1 h.

Generation Z (born after 1995, approximately 3% of US workforce in 2017 [2]): This is the generation of the economic downturn, global warming, cloud computing, and wikileaks. Given the economic instability of their early years, they will for the first time since the baby boomers seek security and stability in employment, however they remain career multitaskers, moving seamlessly between employers, always confident that their 21st century education and technology skills will make them employable. They will be the generation of Google Glass, nanocomputing, 3D printing, and driverless cars. They are technoholics and know little else of alternative effective means of communication, effortlessly using cloud and on-line methodologies for information exchange, including FaceTime and Instagram. Their devices are handheld or integrated into clothing or wearable devices. They will have no problem making decisions based on crowd-sourced opinions or real-time polling.


So, what of the future for Gen Z in the laboratory?

Instruments will continue to become increasingly “inaccessible”, and without good training on operating principles, use and preventative maintenance may truly be black box, with expertise falling upon the instrument vendor or the multi-vendor service organization. Chip-based separations will become the norm, with fully integrated chromatography systems being miniaturized onto chip size devices with no connective tubing. Perhaps this generation will see the first disposable chromatographic system-one chip “system” simply being replaced for another. MS detectors will continue their dominant position, perhaps with every chromatographic system having an MS detector as standard. Certainly, the science behind this fully industrialized discipline will become less well understood with automatically developed, generic methods taking the place of individually crafted separations.

Data will be fully automatically generated using advanced data systems, alongside all of the quality and statistical data required for a completed report. The days of the “load autosampler, select method, automatically report data to the cloud” paradigm will be upon us and sample preparation will also become increasingly automated, with perhaps only a rudimentary sample weighing being necessary. Perhaps this generation will see the first 1 million plate columns in regular use and I predict that the number of stationary phases will begin to decline in line with the increase in generic methods-efficiency taking the place of selectivity. Major vendors will have their own expos and scientific conferences will be confined to specific application areas as end users vie for advances in small margins rather than major breakthroughs. Support will be virtual, perhaps with parts and consumables being sent as digitally encrypted plans for a new instrument part or indeed a chip-based column printed on the laboratory 3D printer.

What can we learn from these reflections? There are three (and soon to be four) generations coexisting in the laboratory, all with very different life and workplace philosophies, and we need to recognize this in the way laboratory work is organized, executed, and managed. Theory and knowledge should be passed from the few remaining baby boomers down through Gen X and Y, always bearing in mind that these generations may be more favourably placed to learn digitally. Develop more apps and mobile device software and play to the generational strengths; Gen Y and Z certainly won’t want to be tied to a computer next to an instrument for example.


We need to recognize that we are in the age of the chromatography operator and exploit the digital and IT skills of Gen Y and Z to ensure that throughput is optimized, always recognizing that we need to guard against the production of data for data’s sake, rather than valid information useful for the wider business. Younger generations, and especially Gen Z, need to be aware of the science and engineering that underpins separation science, otherwise they will not be able to differentiate good information from bad and certainly won’t be emotionally engaged with the profession. They need to be aware of the data “in context” and taught how their information is used to inform business and scientific decisions. They need “stretch” and we need to develop new ways to challenge them to collect, organize, and present information, as well as encouraging them to investigate new technologies and implement them in the laboratory.

In a wider context, Gen Y and Z will value experiences more highly than possessions and therefore will place increasing emphasis on the quality of the workplace, additional benefits, and the work–life balance, rather than salary alone. These are the days of the “total compensation package”.

In these recovering economic times, we need to realize that younger people have a choice of career and employer. Without challenge, a deep understanding of the science, and the ability to adopt new digital ways of working and communicating, we can be sure that they will revert to type and seek to work with (not for) an employer who is better able to understand their needs and allow them to become more emotionally attached to separation science.


  1. Incognito, The Column14(10), 12–15 (2018).
  2. Multi-Generational Impacts on the Workplace, Bentley University, Center for Women and Business, 2017.

Contact Author: Incognito