Life doesn't have a roadmap, but we're all stuck in the proverbial van on the highway, even so. And whether you're questioning your relationships or just trying to figure out how to climb one more step in your career ladder, having someone who can give you directions (translated, good advice) makes all the difference. But not everybody will give you the same amount of empathy. It turns out that middle-aged people are the most likely to really understand how you feel.

The inverted U-shaped curve

Researchers from the University of Michigan and North Carolina State University analyzed empathy data from multiple samples representing American adults. They honed in on two distinct empathy aspects--whether individuals were more likely to react emotionally to the experiences of others, and whether individuals were more likely to try to understand how things looked from the perspective of others. They found that empathy generally follows an inverted U-pattern across the life span, with middle-aged individuals reporting more empathy than both young people and older adults. Even more specifically, the analysis found that women in their 50s were the most empathetic compared to other groups.

Biology, social conditioning or both?

Researchers aren't sure exactly why middle-aged people are so good at the empathy stuff. But they hypothesize that young people might not be as empathetic because they lack some of the cognitive knowledge and life experience middle-aged people have. Older individuals might not be as empathetic because the natural cognitive decline that happens with age also effects emotional functioning.

Another theory that could explain the results, though, is that the middle-aged people involved in the study were conditioned to be more empathetic by society. The researchers note that "Americans born in the 1950s and '60s...were raised during historic social movements, from civil rights to various antiwar countercultures. It may be that today's middle-aged adults report higher empathy than other cohorts because they grew up during periods of important societal changes that empathized the feelings and perspectives of others."

Of course, the two explanations aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, either. It's possible that both biology and social conditioning factor into the mix.

Two big mentoring considerations

These findings are something to consider when you're trying to find someone who can be a great general or business mentor. It's tempting to want to work with the breakout CEO who's made millions before their 30th birthday or the "legendary" expert who has a lifetime achievement award on their wall, for example. And nothing says you can't find someone who fits that description and who really does "get you". But the heart of a great mentor-mentoree relationship is a solid emotional connection. The more connected you feel, the easier it is for you to be honest about what you need, and for your mentor to give it to you. And from the statistical standpoint, you're more likely to get that connection if you aim for someone who's been around the block but has plenty of years left to contribute to their field.

Consider "reverse mentoring", too. This is an increasingly popular approach where experienced workers purposely partner with younger individuals to learn from the next generation. Part of the reason this tactic might work so well for companies might be because the middle-aged mentorees are in the programs at a point in their lives when they are best equipped to listen and interpret the implications of what members of the younger generation might tell them. The mentorees can use that information and emotional understanding to unleash a resurgence of creativity.

Communication matters

Overall, the above research is worth noting if only because empathy affects behavior and the relationships necessary to complete business-oriented tasks. If you have a diverse workforce where multiple generations are represented, encourage good, open communication to ensure that generation-based empathy differences don't result in miscommunication and reduced productivity.

Published on: Apr 7, 2017
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