Newswise — When it comes to diversity in the workplace, "a lot has changed – not only with technologies, but also with world events," says Dr. Pavica Sheldon, professor and chair of the Department of Communication Arts at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). "Younger workers grew up witnessing a lot of social movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, and events post-9/11."

Dr. Sheldon says diversity has become more situational. She notes workplace diversity as a prime example.

"There are currently four generations working together: baby boomers (1946-1964), Gen Xers (1965-1980), Gen Yers or millennials (1980-1996), and Gen Zers or zappers (1996-current)," says Dr. Sheldon. "All these generations have different work preferences and skills, especially when it comes to technology. Gen Yers make up the largest percentage at 35 percent of the workforce today, and Gen Xers follow."

In addition to the four generations in today’s workforce, she says, there are also "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" to consider.

"Digital natives are younger millennials and zappers who are shaped by technology from birth," she explains. "Technology influences how they communicate. They value speed over accuracy and they multitask, spending more time on online social networks compared to digital immigrants. Although criticized for shorter attention spans and lack of focus, digital natives are very creative. For instance, they can build apps and games without coding."

Dr. Sheldon says competition for jobs between older and younger workers is a real issue.

"Many factors are keeping older Americans working today, including jobs and retirement funds lost during the financial crisis of 2007-2009," she says. "Plus, many baby boomers are now being forced to raise grandchildren because of the opioid addiction crisis. All these reasons and more are causing many older workers to delay retirement."

There are many pros and cons for employers to seriously consider when it comes to hiring the best person for the job. "Mature workers can be good mentors, as younger workers – especially millennials – expect a lot of feedback," she says. "They were raised by helicopter parents and therefore need contact, praise, and reassurance, which older workers can help by providing supervision and mentoring."

Whereas baby boomers are more experienced, disciplined, and loyal, Sheldon says that employers do have other issues to consider when hiring older workers such as whether they keep up in a tech-savvy world; there are also healthcare and wellness concerns.

Some young adult workers are more technically inclined than others. "Millennials are true techies. In fact, Gen Xers are not as tech-savvy as millennials or even zappers. Zappers are what we call 'tech innate'," says Dr. Sheldon. "Unlike millennials who communicate by texting, zappers communicate better with images."

According to Dr. Sheldon, research from 2008 shows that younger generations perceive social pressure from superiors more acutely than do older generations. "Younger workers have greater respect for hierarchy and authority in the workplace than older workers. Because they grew up with social media, they are used to some kind of approval, for instance, ‘likes’ on social media," she says. "Recent research shows that younger workers expect to get more feedback, which is a good thing as they strive to perform better. The communication style of younger workers is more direct; they expect honest and open discussion. I see this in the classroom as well."

When it comes to hiring young people employers have cause for concern as well. Particularly challenging in the employment world now is "ghosting." 

"Millennials and younger workers are literally walking off the job without giving notice," says Dr. Sheldon. "Some job applicants go as far as ghosting prospective employers by not showing up for interviews."

Two other traits documented in generational research – impatience and short attention spans – cause problems for young adults on the job too, according to Dr. Sheldon.

"Young people are used to instant gratification because of technology, and they expect the same in the workplace," she says. "Millennials and other young workers are more likely to quit their job if they feel dissatisfied or emotionally exhausted. Their communication style is different, but I do not think we necessarily have to look at it as negative behavior."

She adds that soon generational differences in the workplace will be obsolete. The larger job threat will be advances in robots and automation.

According to a recent McKinsey & Company report, by 2030 as many as 800 million workers worldwide could be replaced at work by robots and artificial intelligence. And last fall, according to an Interesting article, Giant Food Stores introduced "Marty" robotic assistants to customers in 17 Pennsylvania stores. Tall and gray with big googly eyes that could pass for Gumby’s cousin, Marty uses technology to check expiration dates and report spills, debris, and other hazards to store employees to improve the customer shopping experience. The grocery chain has announced plans to place Martys in all 172 stores. The article noted that Wal-Mart, too, is introducing robots to its stores.

Dr. Sheldon says that, for now, a multigenerational team could be an asset to a company as each generation brings their own strengths and skills. "Research shows there are more similarities than differences among generational cohorts; the key is to value generational differences."