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Mentoring and being mentored: A win-win situation

Mentoring is a two-way street: Young and old can benefit.

Making a difference in the lives of others is one of the keys to fulfillment. I found this out in my study of happiness in midlife adults. No matter what their job, the most fulfilled were the people who were reaching out to the young and helping them through life hurdles.

In earlier blogs, I've talked about why the young find Betty White to be such a cherished icon with hundreds of thousands on Facebook demanding that she host the show. She represents the grandmother they either had and loved or didn't have but wished they did. Guidance and love from a grandma is certainly key to our own successful development. But the guidance doesn't have to be restricted to our biological relatives. What's more, by guiding the young, those in the mentoring generation gain important psychological benefits.

Mentoring is becoming a phenomenon in the business world as indicated by its appearance on NBC's The Office webisode. There is a national Mentoring Organization and January was National Mentoring Month. Research on the topic is beginning to gain traction including the issue of race and mentoring. I recently surveyed the psych articles data base and was surprised to see 15 major scientific articles just in the past 3 months; hundreds more have come out in the past few years. My colleague, Jessica Henderson-Daniel of Boston Children's Hospital began a mentoring initiative in the American Psychological Association several years ago that has become a vital part of the organization.

By helping young colleagues, students, friends, and family members, midlife and older adults provide valuable insights based on their own life experiences, insights that can't be easily transmitted through "book learning." There is all kinds of advice that the experienced can give to the novice ranging from proper behavior in new situations to hands-on skills to succeed in a given profession. In fact, you don't even have to be that old or experienced to pass along the knowledge you've acquired. I've seen many junior and senior undergrads help "mentor" their first-year and sophomore classmates. You don't have to reach that far down the age hierarchy to pass the torch.

Passing along knowledge from one generation (defined loosely) to the next is a central feature of what psychologist Erik Erikson called "generativity." He believed that the feeling of connection you derive from mentoring helps your ego develop the value of caring. If you don't develop this quality, you run the risk of what he called "stagnation."

Old young adultsIn my research on midlife adult Baby Boomers who I followed from college through their late 50s, I used scores on a scale of generativity as a way of determining who was on a pathway to fulfillment. Invariably, it was the people who were involved in some type of mentoring who were most likely to reach the "Authentic Road," in which they experienced the greatest happiness and sense of purpose.

Though I'm confident that mentoring can help you psychologically, I am not so sure of this next claim I'm going to make but I'll make it anyhow. I think that those who are truly involved with the life of young people themselves manage to stay young if not in body then in mental outlook. Keeping an open mind to the ideas of the young keeps you mentally refreshed and young. You'll also increase your chances of maintaining your edge over your age peers who refuse to stay in touch with the young.

In my field of education I have many opportunities to mentor the young; I'm lucky because it almost comes with the territory of college teaching. But even if you are in the most apparently non-generative occupations you can still find ways to express this vital side of your personality. Showing the ropes to young colleagues is a great way to mentor. Encouraging them is another. Some people fear that by sharing their hard-won secrets with their younger colleagues this will somehow put their own jobs in peril. After all, you might think, they're the people right behind you, breathing down your neck, ready to take over should you falter. This is not true! Well the part about them wanting your jobs might be true, but your mentoring or not mentoring them isn't going to change that. It's more likely that if you become protective and paranoid, you'll put your job in even worse jeopardy than if you show yourself to be a helpful and kind senior colleague.

Gen gap 2I also hear middle-aged people and older adults complain that the young generation is worthless, lazy, rude, and selfish. They say that it's the fault of Baby Boomers for raising their kids with the wrong values. Guess what. Older people have been complaining about the young since Biblical times (at least). The Echo Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, Yers, Millennials, and whatever the 10's will be called are no different than preceding young generations have ever been. How many parents gave up in despair on their own Baby Boomer teens? Remember the "Generation Gap"?

If anything, there is less of a gap than ever at least if you use popular music taste as a guide. When I was a teen, the last thing in the world I'd be caught doing is listening to the music my parents enjoyed. Now, young people are as likely to load up their iPods with tunes from the 60s and 70s as they are songs from the current crop of teen stars. Recently I was at a mixed-age social event when Journey's song "Don't Stop Believing" started to play. I took a double-take realizing that it was the younger crowd there who sang along with every note. The 1970s young would never have boomed out the chorus to "Volare," I can guarantee that.

Arguing for the current generation gap, Don Peck makes a compelling case in his March 2010 Atlantic piece, "How a new jobless era will transform America." He states that: "Many of today's young adults seem temperamentally unprepared for the circumstances in which they now find themselves." Disclaimers aside (lip service to individual differences) this sounds to me like the sort of castigation of the young that turns middle aged folk into permanent stagnaters.

Just the other day, I found myself slipping into this sort of mentality while complaining about a person in my profession, much younger than me, who (attempted to) put me in my place when I requested cooperation on a project that would be mutually beneficial. I thought "When I was [that person]'s age, I would NEVER have talked to a senior colleague that way. Never!" Then I stopped myself- not just at the use of the term "senior" to apply to myself (which I now grudgingly accept). But "when I was that age?" I felt a burst of stagnation sweep over me before I was able to stop myself. Then I related the conversation to a colleague who's about my age, who had a similar experience herself. We decided that it was not age that made these people talk so rudely, but their own sense of self-entitlement. And entitlement can come to anyone of any age and any generation. Personality and common sense trumps age when it comes to showing respect and professional courtesy.

My advice is: Don't give up on the young. Don't label them any more than you would like to be labeled. And when a young person appears disrespectful, don't take it as a sign to write off an entire generation. The person you will be writing off is-- yourself.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010