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Companies work to bridge the 'digital divide' between millennials, Gen-Zers and baby boomers and Gen-Xers


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, the 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, who were born between 1981 and 1996, are projected to overtake boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, as the largest living adult generation — 73 million vs. 72 million. By 2028, Gen Z, those 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, the 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 successfully transition into the professional environment and to 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’s 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,” Goetz 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,” she said.

Difference in attitude

Joy Martin, a nursing unit director at Moses 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 ones that many of her millennial employees don’t want to hear.

“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 is 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, the 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,” Swetoha 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 Swarm, one of the NBA G League teams.

“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

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  • 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 that 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,” he 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 that started in 2007 affected 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 Great 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.”

Defining moments

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, the 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,” Wiersma 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, he 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,” Wiersma 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 midsentence and not knowing what to say to somebody and just like awkwardly ending (the conversation),” Wynn 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 doughnuts to the class and one of the students asked, “Why didn’t you bring in drinks?”

“I was like, what!” she said.

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, the 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).”

An interesting article in today's newspaper

Toppled: Duke Energy apologizes to Asheville YMCA after subcontractor cuts down treasured trees. Page A15

Hurricane Florence, a year later: Where has the money gone?

RALEIGH — Tanika Outlaw was working as the food and beverage manager at the Doubletree Hotel in New Bern last September when Hurricane Florence began shoving water into the city’s downtown area.

Ultimately, the storm flooded at least 4,325 homes and 300 businesses in New Bern, causing about $100 million in damages.

Initially, Outlaw received unemployment while hoping for the Doubletree to reopen by the end of the year. That reopening date kept creeping back, though, forcing Outlaw to seek other options and, at one point, go without health insurance for months because it would have cost an additional $300 for her to go on her husband’s policy.

The Doubletree never reopened.

“It’s been rough, it has truly been rough,” Outlaw said Sept. 12 from her Pamlico County home. “I’m just grateful right now.”

Part of the reason Outlaw, who now has a job working as a teacher’s assistant in Pamlico County, is grateful is the $4,000 in aid she received from local nonprofit Genesis 457 to help her family keep up with mortgage payments, bills and car insurance while she searched for a full-time position.

Tens of thousands of North Carolinians’ lives were permanently changed a year ago when Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach in the early-morning hours of Sept. 14. The storm had already started to cause flooding farther north along the coast in New Bern and Jacksonville. Additional flooding would come later in places like Lumberton and Pender County. Impacts would continue to resonate in the form of damaged homes, destabilized communities and questions about how leaders could keep residents safe.

Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper’s office announced state and federal spending in response to Hurricane Florence has reached $1.9 billion, with an additional $921 million spent on recovery from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.

A small but significant part of that spending is the state’s Disaster Relief Fund, a $5.9 million pot of money formed by donations after Florence. According to Cooper’s office, the Golden LEAF Foundation has administered $5.4 million in grants from the fund, helping community organizations with immediate and short-term recovery needs. The N.C. Community Foundation has used the state fund and its own disaster relief fund to distribute an additional $1 million in recovery grants, typically focused on long-term resiliency projects.

Speaking days after Hurricane Dorian caused devastation in Ocracoke, Cooper said, “North Carolina right now is struggling with recovery from ... three hurricanes in less than three years and a number of people who got hit in multiple hurricanes in a very short period of time. This has been a real challenge for our state, and in fact, I’ve had a number of federal officials tell me they’ve never seen anything like the Matthew-Florence punch a number of people in Southeastern North Carolina have seen.”

Florence was one of the wettest storms on record in Eastern North Carolina, a sprawling hurricane that stalled over Wilmington and the surrounding area for days, dropping more than 30 inches of rain in some areas, according to the National Weather Service.

Golden LEAF started making grants shortly after the storm, focusing on elements such as rental assistance, security deposits, tools for home repair and temporary staffing for organizations working on disaster relief case management.

“A lot of the people that were most dramatically affected by the hurricane had the fewest resources to respond,” said Ted Lord, the acting president of Golden LEAF. (The organization named a new president, Scott T. Hamilton, last week.)

Often, Golden LEAF helps support state-designated long-term recovery groups, county-level organizations that organize different service providers to determine the most efficient way to address unmet needs.

For instance, Golden LEAF gave $225,000 to the Kinston Area Rebuilding Effort, an established long-term recovery group in Lenoir County, to launch Jones County RISE to serve a similar purpose in Jones County. In Goldsboro, the Wayne County Long-Term Disaster Recovery Group received $20,000 to help with replacing HVAC systems, furniture and appliances.

And in Pender, Golden LEAF awarded $154,800 to the county government to provide rental assistance through the Pender County Housing Department, as well as to support debris removal efforts.

“The needs immediately following Florence were dramatic and acute, and there were a lot of resources that were marshaled to address those, but the needs continue to persist,” Lord said.

He later added, “We’re concerned about the availability of housing for people in these communities, we’re concerned about public infrastructure that was damaged by the storm, we’re concerned about the social fabric as families have moved from one place to another and have left their hometowns, and we’re concerned about business disruptions.”

The N.C. Community Foundation began administering grants for long-term recovery projects in January. Leslie Ann Jackson, the Community Foundation’s vice president of community investment and engagement, said many applications so far have been focused on health concerns, community planning and emergency preparedness.

“They know that they are vulnerable to these disasters,” Jackson said, “and seeing the frequency of them increase, they also know that the importance of being prepared is increasing, as well.”

Jackson stressed that long-term recovery is a lengthy process that should involve significant engagement with a community, as it can often mean physically reshaping or re-purposing an area.

For instance, the Community Foundation provided $90,000 to the N.C. State University Coastal Dynamics Design Lab to create an accurate “floodprint” of Lumberton that could be used to help the Robeson County city better prepare for future storms. The funding comes two years after the Community Foundation awarded the lab a $25,000 grant for the project’s first phase as well as $15,000 for a similar project in Princeville.

“While you’re doing community resiliency work in terms of physically rebuilding spaces to be stronger, engaging the community members in that planning is absolutely critical and becomes part of that social definition of resiliency,” Jackson said.

In Southeastern North Carolina, the Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry — formed in the aftermath of Hurricanes Bertha and Fran — is working to fix homes that were damaged during Florence.

The organization received a $250,000 grant through Golden LEAF and has used that money along with other funds to complete 78 post-Florence rebuilds with another 16 projects underway, according to JC Lyle, WARM’s executive director.

Prior to Florence, the Wilmington area had been grappling with a longstanding affordable housing shortage. According to a report from the Cape Fear Realtors, more than 56,000 families across Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties are cost-burdened by housing, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs.

“If you’re a homeowner and you have a mortgage and you can’t live in your house, you’re still paying your mortgage, and a lot of the emergency money has run out,” Lyle said.

By repairing homes, WARM is hoping to keep residents from having to enter an already tight housing market. Typically, Lyle said, WARM can keep repairs under $10,000 using volunteer labor to repair a roof and fix interior water damage, but costs can run above $40,000 to repair a flooded home.

Still, WARM’s waiting list for Florence repairs across the three-county region is at 107. In an effort to prevent further damage, WARM used the days before Dorian to put tarps on damaged roofs on houses on their waiting list.

“That helped a lot,” Lyle said, “because those homes didn’t get much damage from Dorian.”

In the New Bern area, the Genesis 457 Community Development Corporation is also working with a list of about 100 remaining Florence clients even as its disaster relief funding streams are winding down.

Since Florence, the organization has helped 400 families while providing some form of assistance such as food or gift cards to about 6,000 people, according to executive director Dawn Baldwin-Gibson. Part of the funding that allowed it to do that work was a $450,000 grant from Golden LEAF via the state Disaster Relief Fund.

“Whatever is in a community at the time of the storm is really amplified by the storm,” Baldwin-Gibson said. “That’s one of the reasons we do so much work around dealing with the issue of poverty, looking at how do we have affordable housing, looking at what food sources look like in a community.”

Those issues remain exacerbated since Florence, Baldwin-Gibson said.

Within the last month, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina sent a truck to Genesis 457. Within two hours, the truck was empty, its food gone to about 600 people.

Last week, Baldwin-Gibson said, Genesis 457 had been mucking out houses. And, like WARM, the organization had a conference call before Dorian arrived to discuss tarps.

“The work continues,” Baldwin-Gibson said. “A year later, we’re still doing very foundational work of recovery.”

Baldwin-Gibson recalled one of Genesis 457’s funders telling her its goal was to stabilize communities. Initially, Baldwin-Gibson said, she did not grasp the true meaning behind that.

Since Florence, Baldwin-Gibson said, she has come to understand what he meant, learning through the long process of getting resources into people’s hands, paying security deposits and listening to so many stories of suffering.

“Eastern North Carolina is home for a lot of people, and if everybody just leaves, there won’t be an Eastern North Carolina,” she said. “There are farmers here, there are commercial fishermen here, there are people like my family, who have been here all of their lives.

“We’ve got to come up with something that revitalizes us in a way where we are not only trying to be stable during disasters, but that we are thriving.”