Do Millennials lack empathy?

By Phyllis Weiss Haserot

This is part of a series of regular columns by generational expert and internationally known consultant, coach, writer, and speaker Phyllis Weiss Haserot on intergenerational relations and navigating the challenges of the multi-generational workplace for better productivity, retention, succession planning, and business development results.
 
Recently I was asked by a reporter to comment on some research studies concluding that Gen Y/Millennials (people approximately 31 and younger now) are much less empathetic to others than the generations coming before them. The studies were done with college students since 1979, and the big change showed up after 2000.
 
Generational Definitions
Here are some quick definitions. Generations are defined by the similar formative influences – social, cultural, political, economic – that existed as the individuals of particular birth cohorts were growing up. Given that premise, the age breakdowns for each of the four generations currently in the workplace are approximately:

Traditionalists born 1925-1942
Baby Boomers born 1943-1962
Generation X born 1963-1978
Generation Y/Millennials born 1979-1998 (under age 30 today)
 

My personal experience with the college students I know and/or mentor is not the same as the study’s findings, but my pool is much smaller, so I have no scientific basis upon which to refute the findings. As a workplace inter-generational relations expert, I mostly deal with Gen Yers already out of school. I think many of them get an undeserved negative reputation. I have found them to be eager to learn, open, hardworking, ambitious, and fun, in general.
 
My speculation concerning the lack of empathy shown would be a sort of numbness from the trauma of 9/11 at an impressionable age and being served a constant menu of violence in media of all sorts. I would say these factors influence the younger Gen Xers, say, under age 35, as well. Also, the pressure in school and to get into schools, and to deal with constant messaging from many sources has left many of them with little time to reflect outside of themselves. Yet, Gen Yers are big into community service and concern for social problems, which indicates empathy.
 
The study findings lead me to ask these questions:
  • What does this lack of empathy finding mean for their relations with colleagues in the workplace?
  • Will they be willing to pitch in and compensate for colleagues who need flexible time off (for a fair exchange)?
  • Will they continue to collaborate if they don’t get as much recognition as they want and somebody else does get the recognition?
  • Will they have the necessary empathy for clients and customers to provide the outstanding service that is demanded in these competitive times to succeed in business?
 
These are crucial business questions, and we need to instill the importance of empathy. Empathy is a very important quality to have for life and business. And here is a link to a very interesting article on the subject.
 
BONUS Bite on empathy and relationships
 
Charles M. Blow, New York Times op-ed columnist, wrote about whether we know our neighbors or even care in Friends, Neighbors, and Facebook (June 12, 2010). A Pew Research Center report issued in early June found that only 42 percent of U.S. adults know all or most of their neighbors by name.
 
[Disclosure: I live in a New York co-op apartment building, and know by name all the neighbors on our floor and many others in the building. My husband, not a dog owner, knows the name of every dog in the building, but only a few of the pet owners’ names. Interpret that as you choose!]
 
Segmented, the greatest percentage of respondents who know all or most of their neighbors are: females, non-Hispanic whites, age 50 or older, college graduates, and annual household income over $75,000. However, most of the demographic differences are not huge.
 
Blow admits to only knowing one person on his block (a Times colleague). At the same time, he has a very large number of friends and followers on social networking sites, which he actively participates on.
 
Two thoughts Blow offers speculating on why so few know their neighbors: 1) “Social networks are rewiring our relationships and affecting the attachments to our actual ones;” and 2) “Users of social networking services are 26 percent less likely to use their neighbors as a source of companionship,” according to a Pew report released in November 2009.
 
Your thoughts? I want to hear them – please share.
 
© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2010. All rights reserved.
 
Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the president of Practice Development Counsel, a business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching firm she founded over 20 years, with a special focus is on the profitability of improving inter-generational relations and transitioning planning for baby boomer senior partners (www.nextgeneration-nextdestination.com). Phyllis is the author of The Rainmaking Machine and The Marketer’s Handbook of Tips & Checklists (both West 2010). pwhaserot@pdcounsel.com. URL: www.pdcounsel.com.
 

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