GREENSBORO — How do you tell your boss you're out sick?
If you send a text, you’re likely a millennial. If you call, you’re more likely a baby boomer, a Generation Xer or older. If it’s a video chat, well, you’re probably among the youngest employees — Generation Z (and work for a progressive company).
“There are still folks who, if they’re going to call in sick, they … want to talk to you directly,” said Tracy Myers, executive vice president of member engagement for the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. “There’s that work ethic in that 'I need to prove to you that I’m out and this is why,’ versus getting a text that says ‘Hey, I’m going to be out sick today.’”
Calling in sick is just one of many areas where employers are noticing communication differences among their workers, Myers said. It pops up in daily conversations, sometimes leading to misunderstandings and frustration between co-workers.
“You hear a lot more about ‘What’s wrong with millennials?’” said Roy Schwartzman, who heads UNCG’s Department of Communications Studies. “Which, of course, is what every generation says about the next one or two.”
This year, millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, are projected to overtake boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, as the largest living adult generation — 73 million versus 72 million. By 2028, Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2012, also will overtake boomers in this category, according to the Pew Research Center.
And this latest generation gap is distinctive because there’s often a big digital divide when it comes to the use of technology and habits associated with it.
“It's sort of like the semi- to fully digitally immersed versus still analog,” Schwartzman said. “The last time we really saw that kind of huge, you know, disruptive and transformative force probably was with the advent of television.”
Millennials, and to some extent Gen Zers, are jolting the workplace with their own ideas of how businesses should operate — vexing many older workers who are used to doing things their way.
“We're hitting five generations in the workforce” said Lizzy Tahsuda, director of Campus Greensboro for Action Greensboro. “And that's not happened before. So we’ve got to figure out ways to work together.”
Tahsuda works with companies and the area’s seven colleges to help students to successfully transition into the professional environment and encourage them to stay in Greensboro.
“What I found is a lot of employers are really struggling with the younger generations,” Tahsuda said. “They just don't know how to incorporate them into the workplace, and they don't know how to best motivate and engage them so that they'll stay there.”
Catherine Goetz, UNCG associate director for employer relations, agreed.
“It feels like there's this ocean of divide in the way that we talk and the language we use and what we think is most important,” she said.
“Employers are always trying to balance how do we attract and retain new employees with the integration of the expectations that the rest of their workforce has,” Goetz said.
Difference in attitude
Joy Martin, a nursing unit director at Cone Hospital, is among those supervisors trying to strike this balance.
“With baby boomers it was just an automatic, if they were older than you, you just respected them,” said Martin, 52. “Millennials, they just have a little bit of a pause.”
And the differences between how older and younger go about doing their work can create tension.
“Baby boomers will definitely be in my office, (asking) ‘Why do they act like that' and 'Why do they do that,’” said Martin, who has 76 employees who report directly to her.
In general, she sums up the difference in the attitudes this way: Her older employees live to work and her younger employees work to live.
And how does that play out? When it comes to staffing situations, “I can really rely on the baby boomers to come in and fill that hole,” Martin said.
The words “mandatory overtime” are unwelcome for many of her millennials.
“You can see it in their body language,” she said. “Flexibility in their schedule is important.”
But when it comes to technology, an essential aspect in the medical field, her younger employees step up, showing her older workers how to use it efficiently.
For example, the team now uses GroupMe, a messaging app that allows the whole team to communicate in real time.
If someone needs time off and is looking for someone to fill that shift, the whole group sees it and anyone who’s available can volunteer.
Before the app came along, “you had to call 15 people and it took a lot of time and energy,” Martin said.
While baby boomers often are fearful of new technology and need the younger generation to help them along, Martin said her older workers have more structured thinking and are great role models.
Baby boomers understand the critical thinking behind such things as physician's orders, and relay that to their younger counterparts, she said. “The old schooler will say, ‘Here is the thinking behind it.’”
"To be honest, it’s a nice blend,” Martin said.
Steve Swetoha, president of the Greensboro Swarm basketball team, said companies have to embrace younger workers — and practice patience along the way.
“I think we’re always adjusting,” he said. “One of the things that I have found is everyone wants to be engaged.”
But even that can be too much under some circumstances.
“I have sensed that some of this group, they want to be aware of every single thing that’s happening,” said Swetoha, who is in his early 50s. “We’re all for keeping our staff engaged and involved, but sometimes you may not be invited to a meeting.”
Nonetheless, he said younger workers are vital for the growth of the NBA G League team.
“We’re in a service business. If we have a certain group represented that we don’t know anything about, that would be very difficult to communicate with them,” he said. “We’ve got to be flexible and able to adapt to that, because otherwise, we may turn them off.”
What makes a generation?
Educators and employment specialists said the background of each generation is key to understanding their differences.
“The biggest thing in understanding their interaction is what shaped them and knowing where they’re coming from,” Myers said.
She summed up her observations as follows:
• Baby boomers grew up when the American Dream was if you worked really hard for something, you could achieve it.
• Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) grew up taking care of themselves because their parents were busy working so that their kids could benefit from it. “We’re used to doing everything and getting it done,” said Myers, 39.
• Gen Z and millennials are much more about wanting to do greater good for the community. “It’s much more about finding a job that matches their core values,” Myers said.
UNCG's Schwartzman said research shows millennials and Gen Zers have a high preference for high structure and a low tolerance for risk.
“There’s much more preference for ‘Here is what you should do,’ rather than a preference for more open-ended experimentation,” he said.
Some of this he attributes to a shift in the late 1980s — the front end of the millennial era — when public schools began using standardized tests to measure students’ progress.
“It does condition students, because of the nature of that kind of testing, to focus on getting the right answer, learning very specific tasks and operations,” Schwartzman said. “There’s certainly a call for that, but it only gets you so far.
“Critical thinking skills and what now goes under the name of entrepreneurial thinking, … that involves thinking beyond the information given and activating the imagination,” Schwartzman said.
That type of thinking isn’t “well-measured or very much emphasized in traditional educational testing situations,” Schwartzman said.
UNCG sophomore Joshua Hodge agreed.
“It was systematic learning,” said Hodge, a 19-year-old economics major. “We were taught using A, B, C, D. There isn’t a gray area,” he said. That, he believes, hurt his generation’s critical thinking skills.
Some of the people Hodge went to high school with had “brilliant minds, but they didn’t have a good GPA because they couldn’t take a test,” he said.
As for risk aversion, Schwartzman said the economic insecurity brought on by the housing crisis in the late 2000s impacted the younger generation, especially Gen Z.
“This is the first generation in a long, long time who, early in their lives, had this deep social and familial experience of financial uncertainty,” he said. “A significant number of college-age students … have direct experiences of very scary situations of financial and social insecurity, where the social status perhaps of their entire family … just fell apart.”
The recession was defining for his generation, said Hodge, whose mother and stepfather were real estate agents when the crisis hit.
“A lot of my peers, we’re terrified of another recession,” he said.
Schwartzman said that economic insecurity isn't entirely unfounded, especially when you factor in student debt.
“Yes, there are jobs available, but the issue there is can they actually support someone,” he said. “The job market, in many, many areas, is unclear. Even people who get jobs … yeah, they're employed, but they still can't support themselves.”
While millennials, some of whom are as old as 38, share a strong technological inclination with Gen Zers, there is a definite difference between them.
“(Gen Z) is really the first generation who can be called true digital natives, where you have this ubiquitous presence and expected reliance on digital communication tools — all the way through childhood, adolescence and adulthood,” Schwartzman said.
And Tyler Wiersma, assistant director of undergraduate professional development at UNCG, said the Sept. 11 terror attacks also play a part.
"Usually when they cut off a generation, it's because there was some big, universal event that occurred. Gen Z would not have had a working memory of 9/11, and millennials still would have had remembered it,” he said. “Between technology and 9/11, there's the two big differentiators between how we approach the world and kind of operate in it.”
One divergence, Wiersma said, is millennials are creators, whereas Gen Z are innovators.
“Millennials wanted to create something brand new that no one had ever seen before. And Gen Z is coming in with the mindset that they want to tweak an antiquated system to make it better,” he said.
For example, taxi services and hotels were well-established, but this latest generation found a way to make that access better via Uber and Airbnb.
Since being hired at UNCG two years ago to help its students polish their soft skills, much of Wiersma’s focus has been on improving their communication — both verbal and written.
“They are technology nativists, everything that they've done has been at their fingertips,” he said. “Stepping out into the world, it's a little bit outside of their comfort zone and actually speaking face-to-face with people.”
Damari Wynn, a 19-year-old junior at UNCG, said she was surprised at how scared she was to approach people when she entered college.
"I'd find myself mid-sentence and not knowing what to say to somebody and just like awkwardly ending (the conversation)," she said.
Two years later and helping teach a class on personal development at the university, Wynn said she's even more aware of the communication problems her generation faces. Sometimes her students don't realize they need to filter their thoughts before speaking them. Like when she brought donuts to the class and one of the students asked, "'Why didn't you bring in drinks?' I was like, what!"
And her students find conversing one-on-one difficult.
"A lot of them didn't know how to talk," Wynn said. "They just want those quick answers and that interaction to be over with."
Cynthia Downing, executive director of Career Services and Experiential Learning at N.C. A&T, agreed it's hard to get students comfortable interacting with others. However, she said the university’s youngest students appear more interested in having those face-to-face conversations.
“Just this semester, I saw a difference in how that has increased,” Downing said. “They are all about communities, whether that’s online communities or (in person).”