I began in the field of diversity and inclusion when it was yet to be identified as a research/scholarly discipline, and I have had the great fortune to work in higher education for the bulk of my professional career with some brief forays into the corporate and nonprofit worlds. Through my work at Tufts University, Harvard University and now at New York University, I have been able to grow and innovate as the diversity and inclusion field has emerged and developed.
Recently, I provided a keynote address at the Her Future Summit with some influential leaders from across the globe. One of the major questions addressed was “How do we understand digital inclusion across generations and leverage multiple generations in a COVID-19 era?” After working, advising and consulting on issues of accessibility, technology and innovation across university, corporate and nonprofit settings, I am convinced that intergenerational engagement in the workforce is what is needed at this historical moment to solve many of the issues that we are confronting today. Whether it be COVID-19 or other disruptors, we need diverse multigenerational expertise to actively prepare ourselves for our interconnected futures.
While some people argue that, as a result of COVID-19, the issues we are facing are our “new normal,” I would like to suggest that what is occurring is not normal. Many groups and people are grappling with unparalleled challenges, and it is a time of acute crisis. Some of that will abate, but I predict that what will be normal is the continuation of global challenges that are novel and sometimes surprising. Normal might mean a renewed sense of readiness for ourselves and our institutions for inevitable disruptions. And efficient preparation for current and future disruptions will absolutely entail engaging the entire workforce.
The fact is, if we are to solve the big problems and issues like COVID-19, we will need to work together across the continuum and the spectrum of specialized expertise. This pandemic has brought global communities together in new ways, and we will have to collaborate across generations to address all of the disruptions we will continue to face.
Today, almost 80 percent of people entering their 50s are still working, decreasing to 50 percent among 60-year-olds and approximately 30 percent for workers in their late 60s. And similar to other historical moments in 2001, 2008 and 2011, in the 2020 COVID-19 era, we will face severe global fiscal suppression and recession. The impact of this most recent fiscal rupture will mean that many people in their 60s and 70s will not be able to retire and will be working in multigenerational and highly digitized collaborative work environments.
In fact, we already work across generations in higher education, and today, six generations are learning and working together. In the current economy, while many people in the baby boomer generation, and some even in the maturist generation, are working beyond retirement age, we also have more recent generations like millennials and Gen Z in the workforce. And in another 10 years or so, if not sooner, the Alphas will be joining them, as well.
The last three generations are often touted as “digital natives.” When looking at digital nativism, however, we need to note the differences across the generations. Millennials were born into a burgeoning digital culture, while Gen Z was born into a fully developed one. Those in Gen Z have more digital awareness and technological savviness than prior populations in the workforce. And the emerging Alphas will surpass them, as they have never known a world that is not hyperconnected and digitized.
Addressing Structural Inequities
But we also recognize that because of the digital divide, access for all groups within these generations is not equitable. All of these factors have significant implications for how we achieve digital inclusion across higher education in the future.
Research cited in the World Economic Forum report “Our Shared Digital Future” illustrates the global disparities in internet access and the digital divide. Thirty years after the invention of the world-wide web, internet connectivity has finally reached 59 percent of the world’s population. But recent data show an alarming slowdown in the rate of growth of internet access.
We are all aware that the benefits accruing from technology are exponential, and therefore closing the digital divide is crucial. But this closure remains difficult. There are many ways in which structural inequality is embedded into our social and economic systems, and that systemic disenfranchisement condemns many people to a lack of access to rapidly changing and growing technologies.
To address those structural inequalities, as well as to engage and to leverage the advantages offered by a transgenerational workforce, we should employ an intersectional methodology that examines race, geography, gender, ability and age as key to digital inclusion initiatives. This methodology requires a three-part strategy: 1) digital mapping, collaboration and literacy development; 2) the creation of learning modules and case studies; and 3) technical and digital universal design processes. And here what must be foregrounded is literacy, which is integrated with what I have identified as digital generational literacy: the ability to digitally engage, work, communicate and innovate across generations.
Each organization should assess its digital literacy, which will require an outline or mapping out the specifics of the employee base as it pertains to digital fluencies and where the gaps may be. The varying abilities across generations to access technology are part and parcel of the digital divide, and assessment can help organizations determine where these divides might exist and identify areas to intentionally focus transgenerational digital inclusion efforts.
Once that occurs, learning modules and case studies that engage design thinking protocols and innovative methods and tools can be leveraged to maximize transgenerational skills collaborations. One example of a learning module might include bringing teens and college students into nursing homes and tutoring residents on the assets of wearable technologies that assess health conditions, or going into community centers and developing modules focused on social media and how to use these new forms of communication to engage friends and family.
Case studies can also be particularly useful. For example, those focused on phone technologies can help to explain the vast array of tools available, and older and newer generations can come together to explore navigational tools that are the most helpful and accessible.
Last, as we explore new areas of science related to health, pandemics, the future of work, technology and other areas, issues of accessibility will remain paramount. Digital universal design is key to this accessibility and will allow for maximum access of all people, as well as maximum efficiencies.
An example would be designing technologies that are easily accessible across generations, like the health data-recording tools that I mentioned earlier. And higher education institutions, like New York University and others, can take the lead in developing these types of initiatives and innovative interventions through transdisciplinary research -- including collaborations across schools of public health, engineering and computer science, for instance. This type of design is part of what we need to develop new literacy tools for multifaceted groups and to employ universal design protocols that are crucial for access across generations.
Enhancing Access, Inclusion and Diversity
Literacy, design, collaboration and intersectionality are vital for the development of an effective digital strategy and will help to address questions such as: How are we using digital technology to enhance access, inclusion and diversity so as to engage all generations and identities? How can technology eliminate ongoing digital, economic, health and other divides and gaps? How do we advance collaboration and mitigate generational divides? How do we address concerns about the future of work and also ensure that we are leveraging the wealth of talent represented across our diverse generations?
Drawing upon New York University professor Dolly Chugh and Scott E. Page’s work, we can ultimately obtain digital growth and the related “diversity bonuses” through intergenerational engagement. Two examples that illustrate the possibilities are Teeniors and the Grandmother Project.
Teeniors is a program in New Mexico that matches teens with elders. "Teeniors are tech-savvy teens helping senior citizens learn technology through one-on-one personalized coaching," according to founder and CEO Trish Lopez. "As a teacher, I taught kids for over 30 years, and now it's like a reverse role," said Charles Brandt, a retired teacher in Arizona. "They're going to teach us some things, too, so we have to switch places a little bit."
The Grandmother Project, centered in Senegal, West Africa, engages a model of community education to stop teen pregnancy and female genital mutilation. Grandmothers are the catalyst for change in villages, and because of their knowledge and status in communities, they can help to shift the culture and practice for young girls. While this program does not focus on digital engagement, it advances transgenerational learning, and with these types of initiatives around the world, technologies could be introduced to build upon sociocultural best practices that are already effective as well as accelerate the success of such initiatives for scale and greatest impact.
These types of initiatives exemplify how various generations can work together to help solve big issues like COVID-19. For example, given COVID-19’s differential impact on the elderly, wearable technologies like I cited previously could be helpful with digitizing health-related information, as well as linking to telehealth centers for crisis interventions, diagnoses, medication dispersal and the like.
At New York University, we strive to close digital divides through innovation, design, collaboration and intergenerational engagement. We have learned that engaging universal design and global diversity -- with an emphasis on accessibility, collaboration and intersectional methodologies -- can change the trajectory of a college or university. We’ve created an Aging Incubator to engage retired populations, established an AI Institute to experiment with new platforms, fortified our ADS NEST program focused on neurodiversity to engage learners across all ability spectrums and strengthened our Innovation Labs and Office of Work Life -- in particular, our work with women and people of color innovators, entrepreneurs and founders across all generations. And this is just the beginning.
By working with multifaceted generations, and with an emphasis on increased collaboration and digital literacy -- while innovating and designing for the most vulnerable among us -- we can reap and leverage the benefits of our globally diverse populations.