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Intergenerational Mentorship and Empathy

ANITA NOWAK, PH.D., PURPOSEFUL EMPATHY

I’ve been going on coffee dates with students and alumni for more than a decade. Typically, they want advice about their careers or discuss anxiety they’re feeling about finding a job that aligns with their values. Sometimes they want feedback about their start-ups, and once in a while, they simply want to ask questions about my life. These meetings are always a treat for me and I’m especially heartened when they act on a suggestion I made over lattes – or these days, over zoom.

I recall one graduate student who audited my Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation course every Wednesday evening. After class, she would walk home with me for 15 minutes in the freezing cold of Montreal winter and pummel me with questions. At the time, she was designing a toilet that converted human waste into fuel, thus addressing a public health and energy challenge in her native India. I did my best to suggest people, tools and resources to help her advance her initiative, and to my delight, each week she informed me where the previous week’s suggestions had taken her. It was evident she valued my advice, which created a positive feedback loop. I was always ready to invest more time and energy in her.

Enter Mentorship

Mentoring is defined as a relationship between two people with the goal of professional and personal development. Typically, the mentor is older and has more lived experience. These days, however, there is a growing trend for mentorship to happen in the reverse direction, too. Known as Intergenerational Mentoring, it yields benefits for both parties through mutual learning, growth, and impartation of knowledge and support.

Intergenerational Mentoring

In 2017, when Generation Z entered the workforce, it was the first time in history that five different generations were active in the workplace – sometimes even in the same organization. Since each generation has something unique to offer the others, intergenerational mentoring is what you might call a quintessential win-win. Anecdotally, I can’t count the number of times my students and alumni have mentored me about things like social media, climate justice, anti-racism, indigenous reconciliation and identity politics. (Trust me, I had a lot to learn.)

Research confirms that quality mentoring relationships have powerful positive effects on mentors and mentees. Despite the known benefits, according to mentoring.org, a third of American youth do not have access to a trusted mentor. Meanwhile, a 2018 Cigna survey found that loneliness had reached epidemic levels – and that was before COVID-19. Intergenerational mentoring programs can address both of these issues simultaneously.

In his TED Salon talk, What baby boomers can learn from millennials at work – and vice versa, AirBnB CEO Chip Conley says: “The more I’ve seen and learned about our respective generations, the more I realize that we often don’t trust each other enough to actually share our respective wisdom…I believe, looking at the modern workplace, that the trade agreement of our time is opening up these intergenerational pipelines of wisdom so that we can all learn from each other.”

I believe empathy plays an important role in that process.

To me, empathy is the innate trait that unites us in our shared humanity – without denying or discounting lived experience. Empathizing with someone also requires leveling the playing field. Empathy precludes power asymmetry. No exception.

To foster empathic intergenerational mentoring, both parties have to commit to a horizontal relationship, whereby they treat each other’s history and perspectives with equal importance and value each other’s input equally. As a consequence, the best of intergenerational mentoring challenges assumptions and reduces inaccurate stereotypes about “the other.”

Sometimes it even leads to friendship.

More than a decade ago, I was paired with a mentor through the International Women’s Forum, and I’m grateful she became – and remains – a dear friend. Two years ago, as an IWF Fellow, I was once again paired with a mentor. She is a published author and leadership coach, from whose counsel I have benefitted greatly, especially as I complete my own book and grow my coaching practise.

In other words, mentorship for me has been the gift that keeps on giving. I suppose that is why I am committed to paying it forward. Even if that means I drink a little too much coffee.

About Anita Nowak, Ph.D.

For more than a decade, Anita Nowak, PhD has been singularly focused on leveraging empathy for personal and social transformation. She teaches Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation at McGill University and is co-founder of PVM-Studio, a global advisory firm that supports purpose-driven people and organizations.

Anita hosts a YouTube show and podcast called Purposeful Empathy. She is also completing a book by the same name – pre-order it here! You can read her weekly blogs and sign up for her monthly newsletter here. You can also follow her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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