Living Up To Expectations: Understanding Generational Expectations in the Workplace

Not only are expectations subject to personal nuances, they can be further understood by looking at broad generational values that underpin behaviour.

Generational Theory as originally promoted by Howe and Strauss, two Yale and Harvard trained political economists, suggests that there are value bases to each generation that have been shaped during our formative years and influenced by local events with a global reach. Of course a great deal has since been written and debated when it comes to this theory and arguably TomorrowToday, having presented and taught Generational Theory is some 45 countries, has more experience in this area than any other consultancy or institution globally. The theory provides a helpful framework from which to explore and understand generational differences – and generational similarities.

When it comes to workplace expectations it is useful to understand that each of the Boomer, Gen X and Gen Y generations have distinct and at times contradicting expectations. Let me highlight just three dominant expectations for each of these generations.

Let’s start with a brief look at the Boomers (those born from around 1947 – 1969). Boomers are ‘in charge’ – a fact that needs to be acknowledged as one ramification of this reality is that it is Boomers who set the policies, determine the rules and create the management blueprint.  When you step into a work environment the chances are you will be stepping into a Boomer environment. Being prepared for this will help you adjust!

Boomer Expectation 1: Hard work. Be prepared to work hard. Boomers invented the term ‘workaholic’ and they didn’t achieve the success they have by working a regular workweek. There have been consequences to this but it doesn’t diminish the Boomer’s drive and work ethic. They will expect you to work as they did and the opportunities they give you will be gift-wrapped in terms of work hours and sweat equity. In short, Boomers live to work.

Boomer Expectation 2: Sacrifice. Boomers will expect you to sacrifice the personal for the professional. In other words, the work demands trump your personal preferences. Boomers may preach balance and family but they seldom practice what they preach in this area. Absenteeism from family for the sake of work is expected. More than that, it is what will get you ahead and prove your commitment to career advancement. You will hear the stories of their (the Boomer’s) hard work – stories that will most likely have assumed legendary status in their own minds. The ‘moral’ of the story is often lost on Gen X who doesn’t see the point of it all.

Boomer Expectation 3: Teamwork. You will be part of the team and play accordingly. Boomers know how to build teams that are cohesive, aligned (a favourite Boomer word) and designed to achieve and deliver on the Boomer agenda. This of course is not how Gen X understands teams but that is another story. The point is you will be stepping into a Boomer dominated environment and so you had best understand the importance that Boomers place on teams and how they function. Boomers will expect you to wear the ‘team T-shirt’ with pride and know the chant, the vision and mission off by heart.

Gen X (those born between 1970 – 1989) is well and truly in the workplace and starting to reach positions of decision-making and influence. For the most part they have had a tough time adjusting to the Boomer mould. They have precipitated the extraordinary focus on ‘talent management’ – a topic that has spawned an industry that ranges from consulting to business education and has (according to the Boston Consulting Group’s global research,) become the number one corporate strategic challenge. Gen X sees and does things differently from the Boomers and as such carry vastly different expectations.

Gen X Expectation 1: Flexibility. Gen X desires the kind of flexibility that will allow them to balance their work life with their personal life. They are motivated more by the reward of flexibility than they are by monetary incentive, assuming of course that the basic monetary hygiene requirements have been met.  They know that technology allows them the kind of flexibility they crave and will enable them to do their job in such a way that provides them with choice of whereabouts, timing and method. In essence they ask to be measured by outputs rather than the standard measure of inputs.

Gen X Expectation 2: Change. Gen X sees change as good, as an indication of progress and growth. Retaining Gen X for 12 years will most likely require 4 three-year contracts – or various ‘bite-size’ work commitments where change is embedded in the process. Gen X does not require ‘change management consultants’ – tell them to change and they change; tell them not to change – and they change! You will need to provide a workplace that offers regular change and opportunity in order to meet this fundamental Gen X expectation.

Gen X Expectation 3: Individuality. Gen X expects to be seen and treated as individuals and to be taken seriously. In fact Gen X resists the very label ‘Gen X’ as an unwanted categorization. They tend not to buy into the Boomer notion of team and regard difference as something that ought to characterize good teamwork. They don’t like blanket policies and a ‘one size fits all’ type approach. If someone steps out of line then punish that individual rather than create an overarching policy that ‘punishes’ everyone – would be the Gen X logic.

Gen Y (those born between 1990 – present) is, for the most part, not yet in the workplace in the South African context. But they are coming and best the workplace prepare for their arrival!

Gen Y Expectation 1: Technology. Gen Y have grown up in a world where access to technology, especially that of social technology, is a given. It defines them and any restrictions to such would be like talking to a fish about life without water. It would not be much of a life! Gen Y will arrive at the workplace and expect connectivity. They will expect to encounter policies and attitudes that both understand and support this essential requirement.

Gen Y Expectation 2: A cause. Gen Y wants something to believe in…a bigger cause that underpins all we do in business. Idealistic? Perhaps. However, this is an important motivator for Gen Y and they hold onto the expectation that the workplace will allow them to contribute to something bigger than themselves. The story of Toms Shoes is testimony to this expectation.

Gen Y Expectation 3: But why? Gen Y will question everything. Expecting them to simply do as they are told or to comply with orders, instruction or company policy merely because ‘it is written’ will be something that will be robustly and confidently challenged. Gen Y will expect to be consulted, to be asked and to have the opportunity to share their opinion. They have grown up in a world of transparency (everything is on Facebook) and information is ‘on tap’. Why should it be any different in an environment  (at work) where they will have to spend so much of their time?

Conversations to clarify expectations across the respective generations are all too often limited or too infrequent in the workplace. Often one generation (usually the Boomers) get to decide what is best for the others. Much of what they formulate isn’t working – or certainly not working quite as well as it once did. Building a framework of understanding (I would suggest Mind the Gap: Understanding why we don’t understand – a TomorrowToday presentation) will allow productive conversations to take place. Asking the right questions will lead to an exploration of discovering the appropriate answers.

A good place to start would be to simply ask of one another: what are your expectations of our workplace?  The ensuing conversations will need to be both authentic and sustainable – they are also unavoidable if you are serious about Talent retention!

Note: The generational dates that earmark the respective generations in this article are based on the South African context.


0 thoughts on “Living Up To Expectations: Understanding Generational Expectations in the Workplace”

  1. The challenge with this approach is the gross generalisation it applies. Unlike Value Systems Theory (See the work of Clare W Graves) that presupposes the individual construct first based on the individual’s operating environment, the typology markers of Boomer, X, Y et al fix an individual’s approach based on nothing more than their age.

    Overall this tends to be highly useful as broad strokes and highly distracting in more specific cases. And it’s horses for courses, or course. If all you need is a ‘one size fits all’ model, generational typology markers work well.

    1. Graeme says:

      Marcus, thanks for your comment.

      I think some people use generational generalisations as a bit of a blunt instrument, and so there is some negative reaction to it in the workplace. You’re absolutely right that it doesn’t explain everything and can be quite dangerous even if used inappropriately to predict and pre-empt the behaviour of specific individuals.

      Having said that, it is most definitely an important tool in the toolkit of any leader or manager of others: in the same way that personality typologies, gender generalisations and cultural stereotypes are helpful. So, for example, we know that Germans are meticulously punctual and if you have a meeting scheduled with a German you need to be on time in both starting and ending; Africans are not – they tend to focus more on the occasion than the clock. This is a stereotype, a generalisation. In reality, it does not apply to every German, nor to every African, but that does not diminish its usefulness as a framework or general characterisation.

      The same is true, for example, of classifying people as introverts or extroverts. No-one is “pure introvert” – acting in that way all the time, entirely predictably. Nevertheless, knowing whether a team member is an introvert or not provides a useful starting point for engaging with them.

      And I suppose that’s why I like the generational theory so much. It’s not that it explains everything. But it’s a great starting point.

      A final note about Graves’ work is that the generational markers in properly researched generational theory are based precisely on historical markers that define specific eras, and therefore take account of political, economic, cultural, structural, educational and other factors that influence young people in their formative years. That really is the point of generational markers, and why it is linked with Value Systems Theory.

  2. Jim Lee says:

    It is a good article, but the dates are a bit off.

    According to Strauss and Howe and other sources, the respective birth dates for various generations are:

    1943-1960 Boomers
    1961-1981 Gen Xers
    1982-2001 Millenials
    2002-now Homelanders

    The homelanders are the children of Gen X, being raised in a protected environment of scheduled activities and safe playgrounds…

    1. Graeme says:


      The dates that you list are indeed Strauss and Howe’s original dates (in their 1991 book, Generations, and others since then), and specifically refer to American generations. As we’ve repeated their research methodology and applied it to different countries, we’ve found that the dates differ from region to region. Almost all countries have 1989 as a critical date (slightly different from the Millennials’ date as originally set out by Strauss and Howe, but still close enough). Because we work internationally across so many different countries, we tend to take “average” dates whenever we write about generations.

      But you can see specifics in some of the white papers we’ve written about generations in different parts of the world:

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