Intergenerational tandems for a better academic culture

Older employees are usually well versed in the workings of academia and have important networks. Yet these assets are often lost when they retire. Younger scientists, on the other hand, may be ahead in the latest methodological and communication skills. So how can we ensure the transfer of knowledge between generations, in a way that is beneficial to both sides? Scientists at CDE have tested a system in which young researchers and experienced scientists learn from each other in tandem. They have now been awarded the “Prix Lux”, the Equal Opportunities Prize of the University of Bern.

Awarded the “Prix Lux”, the Equal Opportunities Prize of the University of Bern: Urs Balsiger, Heino Meessen, Lilian Trechsel, CDE. Photo: Luisa Jakob

By Gaby Allheilig

“Retirement is often experienced as a bit of a guillotine: you spend years working hard to build up your knowledge – and then, from one day to the next, it’s as if this knowledge is no longer needed. That can be very frustrating,” says Urs Balsiger, Head of Finance and Personnel at CDE. Besides, the loss of know-how usually generates high costs for the employer. Meanwhile, young researchers face the challenge of acquiring numerous non-scientific skills and building up a functioning network of relationships.

An intergenerational tandem for knowledge transfer

So why not create a win-win situation? As part of a concept for equal opportunities, diversity, and career advancement of young scientists, CDE developed the idea of an intergenerational tandem. “We started in 2015,” recalls Lilian Trechsel, now 36, who works as a research associate at CDE. She finds the exchange with her older colleague very helpful: “I gained valuable experience in preparing a grant application for an EU project and obtained insight into projects in a region that was previously unknown to me. In addition, through Skype meetings organized by my tandem partner, I made initial contacts with important cooperation partners in Central Asia.”

“The chemistry has to be right”

And it works both ways. Lilian Trechsel’s tandem partner, 63-year-old Eastern Europe specialist Heino Meessen, says he has expanded his knowledge in the use of tools for modern teaching. “I also learned a lot from Lilian about visual communication – such as presentation design,” he adds with a chuckle. Both of them agree that the tandem system is enriching, not least because “two people with different career backgrounds and professional experience, and of different ages, can learn from each other outside of a specific project and ‘hierarchy’”, as Lilian Trechsel puts it. “What’s important is that the chemistry is right.” This was not a problem in their case: “Both Lilian and I are enthusiastic about mountains, and we’re on the same wavelength in other respects too,” says Heino Meessen. Plus, they both work part-time and share the same attitude to life of “making work and family compatible.”

Lilian Trechsel, Urs Balsiger, and Heino Meessen. Photo: Cornelia Hett

Prerequisites for the tandem system were the conditions created by CDE’s internal working group on equal opportunities and career development as well as employer support – by both CDE and the University of Bern’s Office for Gender Equality. “The Prix Lux is likely to give the model a further boost,” hopes Heino Meessen.

Honing the model and anchoring it institutionally

How can this knowledge exchange between older and younger employees be institutionally anchored? The researchers have plenty of ideas. In addition to the tried-and-tested tandem of mutual learning, they are considering the option of part-time work for older employees. “This would enable older employees to reduce their workload for the last few years before their retirement. In return, they would work a small percentage of their time for two to three years after the official retirement age, specifically on the transfer of know-how,” says Urs Balsiger. This would solve several problems in one go: “It would create a smooth transition to retirement, preserve knowledge within the institution, contribute to the promotion of young talent – and show older employees that they are appreciated.” To be feasible, the model would have to depend on voluntary action, as it is not about raising the retirement age.

Lilian Trechsel believes this would allow experienced colleagues to spend more time on such tandems: “Day-to-day, it’s just as important to consciously create more space to share and pass on knowledge and experience as it is to develop new ideas.”

Having the idea catch on

Whichever model it is, “it won’t work without employer support”, the three of them agree. That is why Urs Balsiger suggests that “human resources departments and staff representatives jointly consider how best to design such an initiative.”

Those involved would be happy to see the idea catch on – not only at CDE and the University of Bern. “This could be interesting for our partners, too, having different generations of scientists with their different skills benefit from each other,” says Heino Meessen. The message is therefore: please copy widely!

Prix Lux

The Prix Lux is the Equal Opportunities Prize of the University of Bern. First awarded in 2017, it honours persons and units of the University of Bern who are committed to equal opportunities and equality. The CDE project was commended in particular for its “originality and transfer potential”. The award ceremony took place on 30 November at the University of Bern.

Equality at CDE

An internal CDE staff committee works to promote equal opportunities and career development for employees. Various measures have been implemented with their support in recent years, such as the funding of further education, scientific career support, or coaching of young scientists in scientific writing and publishing. More workshops on various diversity topics will be offered in future.