THE FORGOTTEN GENERATION? (1996)
Nowadays, you can not read a newspaper or magazine without finding some reference to the so called "baby boom" generation. It is fashionable to reminisce about their activities in the sixties and to psychoanalyze their mentality then and today. Several articles featured stories about individuals of that generation.
In our profession, there is serious concern, rightfully I should add, about the young chemist generation who chose chemistry as their profession in this decade. Do we graduate too many chemists and chemical engineers? Do the employment difficulties scare away bright students to other disciplines? What can we do about the unfavorable ( for the young job seekers that is) balance of supply and demand? I have written ACS Comments about the problems and, in increasing numbers, others voiced their concern too. No question, it is a very important point which will decide the status of chemistry.in the 21st century.
However, in this well justified concern, we are forgetting about another group which may be called the SASS (i.e., "Science After Sputnik") generation. Launching that satellite was more than than just a start of the Space Age. It also launched a feverish campaign (rightfully, I should add again) to bring up our research in physical sciences to an adequate level. Institutions of higher learnings could not turn out scientists fast enough, the employers were standing in line at the recruiting offices. It was not uncommon for a graduate to receive 3-5 offers for employment without writing a flood of letters inquiring about job openings.
The collapse of the aerospace industry after we reached the Moon changed everything. Downsizing (capsizing?) became, and to some extent, still is the way of corporate life. This is one of the main reasons why the young graduates find it quite difficult to find a job. They hear stories about the "lucky" generation which had it so easy in the sixties. Is that generation really lucky?
No one argues that their situation was an enviable one. At the National Employment Clearing House (NECH) the number of positions offered outnumbered those seeking employment by a ratio of 4:1. Since 1970 we barely reached a 1:1 ratio once or twice. Nowadays, a 1:2 ratio is considered an economic boom. But what happened to the Classes of the 60s? Were they really lucky? Did they live happily ever after? Obviously, some of them did become well-known VIP-s in stable positions. I am certain that each of us could cite anecdotal examples, but the statistics is less pleasant. For many of them the euphoria was followed by rude awakening. They learned the hard way about the fickleness of Lady Luck. They learned a new term, unknown until then: unemployed chemist. They learned that chemistry is fun only when you have a job and you do not have to worry about how to pay your mortgage or your childrens education. The generation preceding them could work in safe jobs until they retired. They only changed jobs, when another organization lured them away with better overall benefits. The SAS generations move after 1970 was rarely voluntary and it mostly resulted on lower earning. A question mark was added to the proverbial sayings of "life starts after 40" for those who were unlucky enough to be caught in a downsizing after they passed that age limit. They frequently had to start a new life with little or no chemistry in it. They learned quickly about the invisible sign posted by employer at NCEH: "Over 40 need not apply".
In my talks on the plight of the downsized ones, the question frequently comes up: should we be concerned with this problem? I have heard fatalistic or even cynic statements that life is not fair, no one is guaranteed a rose garden. The hardship of those who went through the Big Depression is brought up as an example of the previous generation. I am convinced that we must help them! To a large extent, we are responsible for their plight. Who are the "we"? I do not want to pick out any segment of the society. In my previous comments I was urging cooperation while looking forward without dwelling on who did what. Arguing about responsibility for any problem is useless. It will not ease their predicament.
However, this is not just their problem. Even if we were to disavow coldly any compassion for them, we must solve this problem, because it affects the future generation. I can not blame those downsized 40+ year old chemists who advise their or someone elses children not to become a chemist. Similarly, I can not blame the young would-be-chemists who look at the plight of this "forgotten" generation and wonder whether it is worthwhile to pour years of hard study in chemistry if the value of a chemist rapidly degenerates after the age of 40.
What can we do about this "forgotten" generation? I can suggest various actions from retraining to lobbying for more jobs. However, I would like to recommend a different approach. In our society, in order to help those in the bind we propose, with the best intentions, solutions which WE think should help them. Is it unscientific to ask them what realistic solutions THEY see for their problem? We are dealing with rational scientists who spent their career in problem solving. I would like to invite them to come forward with their ideas. Send letters, E-mail (email@example.com) with your thoughts. No idea will be declared impossible. Perhaps we can not accomplish some of them, but by making the first step we can work out something.
Last year, new ACS activities to help he unemployed were unanimously approved and funded by the Board of Directors, but this is only the start. We must build on this and do more. There is no universal answer and, probably, for some of them any solution is too little too late. But even if some of the proposed actions will only help a fraction of them, we should initiate them and not wait for a Utopian, universal solution The important point is to show that the Society cares!
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