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Coaching and Mentoring:  Are the Generations Expectations Different?
Matt M. Starcevich, Ph.D.

(For individual usage only, not to be used in team building, organizational publications or training programs)

With people living longer and staying in the workplace longer, four generations are likely to find themselves working together. Popular literature suggests that ones generation makes a difference in work ethic, values and career expectations with a resulting potential for collision, conflict and confusion between the generations. One of the keys to effective coaching is recognizing that people are all different and not to ascribe my motives, values, and goals but to understand and adjust to these differences.

Our question: Are the coaching and mentoring expectations different, unique or similar across generations?
During the third quarter of 2007, one hundred and twenty-three people responded from the following accepted generation groups:


# of respondents Generation group Born between Estimated population size[i]
10 Traditionalists or Seniors 1920-1945 75 million (25% still in workforce)

Baby Boomers 1946-1964 80 million

Generation Xers 1965-1977 46 million

GenY, Millenials, GeNext 1977-2002 76 million

Forty nine percent were male and fifty-one percent female. Our hope is that these results will give some insight to the notions that the generations are different and not to suggest an impossible prototype for how to coach these millions of individuals.

Generalizations Made About Changing Expectations:

Work is not the most important thing.

The Now Generation (Xers and GenY) are often depicted as detached and uninvolved in work.  Our data does not support this generalization.

When asked: I would describe myself as working to live versus living to work. On a 1-5 scale,with 1=Strongly Disagree and 5= Strongly Agree, average responses were:

Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
4.10 3.69 3.84 3.64

Clearly the Seniors, as expected feel work is important. What is surprising is that the other three generations on average are approaching an agree score. One would have suspected much lower scores particularly from the GenY respondents, granted they are the lowest but still in the 3+ range. 

Long term careers with one organization are a thing of the past.

Our respondents were not as emphatic.

 How long do you plan on staying with your current organization?

  Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
- Less than one year 25% 19% 15.8% 18.2%
- At least the next 5 years 25% 47.6% 68.4% 57.6%
- Plan on staying my entire working life 50% 33.4% 15.8% 24.2%

With retirement approaching the Seniors responses are understandable. However, focusing on the other generations what is surprising is about half chose to respond at least the next 5 years. Economic and geo-political conditions might be contributing to a greater commitment to one organization than thought especially from our youngest generation. Granted roughly less than twenty percent didnt see spending more than one year with the current organization but half or more of the respondents, Now Generations (Xers and GenY) are willing to commit for at least the next 5 years, slightly more than the Boomers, and, almost a fourth of the GenY plan on staying my entire working life. This makes one wonder about the validity of this generalization especially for the GenY respondents to this survey. On a more positive note maybe organizations have changed to make staying for the long haul more attractive.

One career path is a thing of the past.

The Now Generation has been stereotyped as having temporary careers while keeping all options openeverything is transient.  Our data does not support that there is a difference between generations when thinking about career paths.

Question: I would say that I am trying to build a portfolio of careers with many options versus developing in one career or career path.  On a 1-5 scale with 1=Strongly Disagree and 5= Strongly Agree, responses were:

Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
3.50 3.10 3.29 3.52

Keeping ones options open, developing career choices, and being willing to change careers is not the sole trait of any one generation.  Interesting is that Seniors and GenY have a similar average score on this question. Downsizing, mergers, moving jobs off shore, global marketing has not fallen on deaf ears for all our respondents they get the message be flexible and adaptable in an ever changing world.

Job security has been replaced as the primary Performance Reward

Literature suggests that for Boomers the reward for hard work is money while the motivators for Xers are time with family and outside interests and GenY wants work that has meaning.  Responses to two of our questions dont fully support these generalizations.

Which of the following is your strongest reward preference?






My income package: cash rewards, employee stock options plans, aggressive salary treatment, etc. 20% 23.8% 21.1% 24.2%
My career development: acquiring new skills, work in a job/project with better long-term career prospects, opportunity to attend professional training, etc. 30% 47.6% 55.3% 51.5%
My job satisfaction: more autonomy in work, opportunity to move to more preferred jobs/projects, etc. 50% 28.6% 23.7% 24.2%

A fairly constant percentage of the respondents still value My Income Package regardless of their generation.  If we add the two categories, My Career Development and My Job Satisfaction the results indicate only a slight difference across all four generations.  Boomers are supposed to be driven by money, title and recognition, Xers prefer time with family and outside interestnot according to these results. GenY wants work that has meaning, yes but they are no different than Boomers or Xers.

Which of these two choices best describes your Career Drivers or Career Aspirations?

  Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
Good pay: security of having a job for your entire working life; good retirement benefits; a job entailing a good social status; working for a stable or growing organization, being well rewarded for continuous service; and working regular hours 30% 47.6% 44.7% 27.3%
Rewards that are clearly linked to performance: an opportunity to learn new things and upgrade your skills; the opportunity to work abroad/travel; cooperative a supportive co-workers; progressive working conditions e.g., flex-time, job sharing; and the opportunity to use cutting edge technology and facilities 70% 52.4% 55.3% 72.7%

Although the Boomers and Xers want more pay and retirement stability, the majority of all the generations want performance based rewards and the opportunity to learn new things in a progressive work environment. Interesting that the Seniors and GenY are about equal in their preferences in this area.

This set of data does not support the gaps and differences that the popular literature would suggest for these two generalizations about differences in Performance Rewards between the generations. 

Coaching and Mentoring Expectations and Relationships

Do the generations have different expectations for coaching and mentoring discussions?

During coaching discussions with your immediate manager would you prefer:

  Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
The focus be on improving your weaknesses 10% 54.8% 50% 66.7%
The focus be on improving your strengths 90% 45.2% 50% 33.3%

During mentoring discussions with your immediate manager would you prefer:

  Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
The focus be on improving your weaknesses 40% 53.7% 57.9% 54.5%
The focus be on improving your strengths 60% 46.3% 42.1% 45.5%

All generations except the Seniors slightly favor that both coaching and mentoring discussions focus on improving weaknesses. Seniors favor that both discussions focus on improving strengths. One explanation is that the Seniors have worked through out their entire career on training, growing and developmental plans:

Are the Strengths and Weaknesses different in job performance and personal development discussions? An earlier study ( ) suggests that the coach is job-focused while a mentor person is person focused. If this is true, the strengths and weaknesses discussed would be different in the coaching versus the mentoring interactions.

Is there a difference in the style of feedback preferred between the generations?

We are lead to believe that the Now Generation doesnt want one-on-one meetings but prefers instant messaging formats; our data does not support this generalization.

I would prefer that my coaching and mentoring discussions utilize the technology of text messaging, email or telephone conversations versus one-on-one meetings.  The scale used for all the following questions: 1-5 with 1=Strongly Disagree and 5= Strongly Agree, all scores are averages for each generation group.

Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
3.30 3.57 3.68 3.48

During a coaching or mentoring discussion I prefer bite sized pieces of information in a short and concise form versus long drawn out conversations.

Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
2.20 2.50 2.45 2.76

High tech, low touch does not appear to be valued during coaching and mentoring discussions.  There is slight to little difference between the generations, coaches and mentors need to continue with the high touch face time all generations require.

Is there a difference in the amount of feedback preferred between the generations?

The literature suggest that Seniors believe "No news is good news" Baby Boomers "Once a year, formal and documented is needed" Xers "Give me feedback all the time" and GenY "Electronic connection is fine by me."  Our data does not provide that clear of a distinction.

I would describe myself as requiring a lot of feedback, reinforcement, support and attention.

Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
1.90 2.26 2.55 3.03

GenY is supposed to require the least support but they have the highest average score:  a 3 is an uncertain score, whereas Seniors disagree.  More interesting than the generational differences is the similarity in the low levels of all the scores, maybe they are saying, treat us as adults, let us do our thing, help when needed but dont micro manage, or do all generation desire to be their own boss.

Is there a difference in type of training solutions preferred between the generations?

In our internet, distant learning world one would believe that there is a shift from formal training courses to quick learning events; our data does not support this generalization.

If with my coach or mentor we develop a training solution I would prefer this to be quick learning events versus a training course that occurs over a number of days.

Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
2.09 3.07 3.45 3.09

A 3 was an uncertain choice, which could be interpreted as it depends."  Even with this qualification we expected more agreement especially from the GenY generation, which have been called the Digital Generation."  An alternative interpretation is that training remains a personal event where face-to-face interaction with others is valued.  Your choice, but the data does not give a resounding vote for distant or internet based learning as a preference.

Is there a difference in type of coaching or mentoring information discussed between the generations?

We are lead to believe that the Now Generation has less identification with their organization - a more me generation so appealing to loyalty and institutional goals and values are irrelevant;  our data does not support this generalization.

During our coaching or mentoring discussion I need to know whats fair and makes sense: e.g., why should I do something, why does it matter and why should I care, etc.

Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
3.80 3.67 4.03 3.33

During our coaching or mentoring discussion I need to know whats relevant: e.g., whats meaningful and critical, the reason behind the direction or policy, the big picture, etc.

Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
4.60 4.29 4.37 4.0

During our coaching or mentoring discussion I need to know that the objectives and goals are clear and appropriate.

Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
4.60 4.38 4.45 4.09

During our coaching or mentoring discussion I need to see how the feedback I receive from my manager, mentor, peers, or customers is tied to direct benefits for me.

Seniors Boomers Xers GenY
3.70 3.69 3.58 3.55

Big picture: there are only slight differences between what the generations want during a coaching or mentoring discussion, in one voice they are saying:

  • Why, whats fair and makes sense
  • Whats relevant, the big picture
  • Clear objectives and goals
  • Whats in it for me

How the context these are related to may be different, but the need is the same, knowing the uniqueness of each individual will help the coach or mentor best determine how to operationalize these wants during their discussions.  The important conclusion here is that there appears to be little differences between the generations; organizational goals, loyalty and values are important to all.


The responses clearly call into question the current stereotypes of generational differences being propagated by the popular press. For the questions asked here there is more agreement than disagreement in their view towards work, careers, coaching and mentoring discussions. This represents a first step at defining what each generations preferences are but does not shed light on how these are different in actual practice.  E.g., Verbalizing that I desire a lot of feedback, reinforcement, support and attention does not describe how each generation interprets what this specifically means.

As any good coach or mentor will say, it depends on the individual.  For us, the bottom line is that stereotypes about millions of people in a given generation are misleading. What counts is do you, as a coach or mentor, make the personal contact and discussion time to fully understand the uniqueness of the other person regardless of their generation?

Three responses reinforce this anti-stereotyping of the generations:

Additional comments or thoughts that would help us better understand what is unique about coaching and mentoring your age group.

People are unique not numbers or ages (Senior)

There is a universal need to be understood and heard (Xer) 

I need to truly connect with the coach or mentor on a personal level (GenY)

[1] Lynne C. Lancaster, When Generations Collide: How to Solve the Generational Puzzle at Work.  Management Forum Series, March 17, 2004, Synopsis by Rod Cox.

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