Mentorship died in the 21st century

How Mentorship Died in the 21st Century, and Why it Matters

By now, you may have heard the term “quarter-life crisis”, coined to describe a uniquely 21st century phenomenon in which, for the first time in human history, people in their early to mid-twenties break down, lost in a swirl of confusion and anxiety. Why? Because they so profoundly lack direction and guidance that the transition into adulthood presents a seemingly insurmountable hurdle.

According to Wikipedia, common symptoms of a quarter life crisis include feelings of being “lost, scared, lonely or confused” about what steps to take in order to become a happy, successful adult. Studies have shown that fears over unemployment, inability to choose the right career path, and suffering from feelings of isolation and loneliness upon leaving the home are all major contributors to the quarter-life crisis, which often induces a range of secondary issues, including depression.[1]

Many older adults immediately blame young people for their own problems, citing the “materialism” and “selfishness” of the millennial generation.

Young people, they say, are just too busy obsessing over Facebook and having the latest iPhone to get a grip on their real priorities and “grow up”.

However, it doesn’t take much investigation below the surface of young adults’ lives to reveal that these presumptions are not only short-sighted and judgmental, they miss the point entirely. It is, ironically, the selfishness and materialism of older generations which has left today’s 20-somethings without a key support that every generation prior had easy access to: Mentors.

This deficit could not have come at a worse time; our world is more complex than ever, requiring a mastery of more intricate skills in order to prosper (owing to the impact of the digital revolution), more education than ever before if one desires a career, and more money to get started in life — or more debt. Likewise, all of this comes at a time when there is greater access to information than ever before, keeping the millennial generation constantly barraged with the harsh realities of our global society, with every problem going on in every place on Earth. Can you really blame them for feeling a bit overwhelmed?

20-somethings could use more help than ever before, and the sad fact is that they aren’t getting it. The availability of mentors and apprenticeships is at an all-time low. Long gone are the days where, if you offered a unique skill or particular talent, teachers, tradespeople, and business professionals were willing to put you under their wing and nurture you, regardless of your wealth or social status. In today’s money-oriented and egocentric world, talented young people often slip through the cracks, finding that unless you can pay the vast sums needed to “get ahead” it doesn’t matter how creative or how bright you are — there is no willing adult available to guide you into a prosperous, fulfilling adult life.

Where Have All the Mentors Gone?

As surprising as it is to many young people today, mentoring and apprenticeships used to form the bedrock of society, and were far more important than expensive college educations. During the Middle Ages, it was simply expected that all able-bodied young people would find a place next to a wise older person, learning how to work as a blacksmith, an apothecary, a candle-maker, etc. Medieval craft guilds would closely bind young people to their elders, with the Master a young person was apprenticed to therefore easily filling the void of authority left by his parents — even taking over the role of feeding and housing him while helping him to develop morally and emotionally:

“Indentures were drawn up, binding servant to master and vice versa; in which the master personally taught the apprentice; took responsibility for the latter’s moral welfare; and gave him board and lodgings.” (Charles More, Skills and the English Working Class, Croom Helm, 1980, p41)

The first national apprenticeship system of training, which was introduced in 1563 by the Statute of Artificers, included conditions which prevented this system from being abused: Masters should have no more than three apprentices and apprenticeships should last no longer than seven years.[2]

The popularity of this system waxed and waned over the centuries (experiencing a brief period of ill favor in the 19th century, when concerns about the welfare of child workers ran high in Victorian England), but the idea of mentoring carried on as one of the fundamental threads of society, making its way over to the New World in various forms.

In rural areas in North America, “unofficial” apprenticeships were the most common way to learn one’s future trade right up until the 21st century; these could be anything from a father, grandfather, or uncle grooming a young boy to one day run the family farm, to a mechanic hiring on a young person as an assistant so that he could learn to professionally repair cars and trucks, and so on. Even within the city, youngsters frequently left high school and directly entered the workforce, securing manufacturing jobs where they would be trained — without charge — by well-meaning senior workers at the plant they chose to work at. This, along with honesty and a willingness to work hard, was all it took to secure a decent quality of life for one’s self.

Then, greed began to change society in deep, complicated, and broad ways: Companies realized that if they moved their manufacturing jobs overseas, they could make far more profit than if they left them in North America to provide needed employment for millions of young people who lacked the funds for post-secondary education. So abrupt was this change that, despite the population (and demand for goods) within the United States growing exponentially from the 1970s-present, the amount of manufacturing jobs has declined from 19.6 million in 1979 to 13.7 million in 2007. (Bureau of Labor statistics)

This left a deep scar on many cities, creating what is known as the American “rust belt” today: A swath of decaying urban centers that stretches across the upper Northeastern United States, the Great Lakes region, and the Midwestern States. This region is infamous for its inner city ghettos, in which young people — deprived of all hope for a real future — descend into lives of violent crime just trying to make ends meet.

At the same time, the rural landscape has undergone its own dramatic transformation; as big Agribusiness has moved in, farming on an industrial scale to maximize profits (while relying heavily on herbicides, pesticides, and the abusive “factory farming” of animals), the family farm has been all but squeezed out. Unable to compete with these new corporate behemoths, the sons and daughters of farmers have been moving to the city to look for work in unprecedented numbers, depriving them of the mentoring of parents and relatives and forcing them to seek employment while far away from everyone and everything they once held dear.

At the same time, their parents languish at home, knowing that the land they have loved all their lives is destined to be sold off to the very agricultural businesses that have driven away their children.

“Aging farmers and ranchers, whose average age has risen from 52 to 57 during the last 20 years, are often retiring without a younger family member willing to take over, thus too often removing multi-generation ranches and farms from production.”[3]

With the decline of the family farm, an entire way of life is sinking into the sunset, one which revolved around close-knit communities, neighbors helping neighbors, and above all else, mentors guiding young people into secure, rewarding jobs — often the same jobs their families had done for generations.

The Consequences of The Decline in Mentors

Nobody knows the impact our modern lack of mentors is having on poor and lower-middle-class youth better than an inner-city judge; Andre M. Davis, a judge practising in the Baltimore area, is all too familiar with what happens to young people who lack positive mentors: They soon find negative ones to replace them. As Davis describes, “In my day job, one of the unfortunate but necessary tasks I must perform is criminal sentencing. Even in federal court, as well as in state juvenile and criminal court, many of the offenders are people who began at a young age to make “bad decisions” resulting in convictions.

Yet many of these “bad decisions” are exactly that: decisions that would have been made differently if the young man or woman had the benefit of alternative sources of information and insight — information and insight available only from mature, caring adults willing to offer it. We all know that many young people in our community lack ready access to such adults….”

“Young people,” laments Davis, “choose mentors and role models on the streets every day, [where] they may be learning exactly the life choices that will become so detrimental to their lives — and to the well-being of the entire community. Moreover, when I sentence a young offender to federal prison, you can bet that he or she will be “mentored” in the institution to which he or she is assigned to serve the sentence that is imposed according to law. My state court colleagues agree. What judges desperately need is for [adults] to reach out to these young people in meaningful ways before they make “bad” decisions; in this way, we can actively reduce the number of incidences that destroy their lives and those of so many around them.”

Davis’s theories are not based in sentiment; numerous studies back up his assertions. Take, for example, the results of a recent survey released by Boston-based nonprofit group MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership: The report, released for January’s National Mentoring Month, is the first nationally representative survey on the subject of mentoring in the modern world. The results were compiled from conversations with 1,109 young adults (ages 18–21), all of whom were not wealthy, and half of which were considered “at-risk.” Although the report found that “mentoring provides positive outcomes,” it also discovered that many young people critically lack adult guidance in their lives — fully one in three young adults will reach 19 without ever having had a mentor (over 16 million youths in total).

How could mentoring change their lives? According to the report, for many it could be the key difference in whether or not these young people seek post-secondary education (76 percent of at-risk young adults who have been mentored said they are more likely to seek a college education, versus 56 percent who haven’t been mentored), while also encouraging them to participate in sports or extracurricular activities at school and deterring them from getting involved with gangs and other criminal activity.[4] In fact, according to another similar study, mentored youth see a 21% decline in risk factors (including violent behavior), whereas there is a 13% increase in risk factors (from violence to bullying to sexual activity) among non-mentored youth. (Philliber Research Associates, 2014)

Unless this trend is altered, a vast wealth of talent is likely to be lost within this generation; underprivileged youth — many of whom are more than willing to learn and grow as people — are often astounding visionaries, forced by the nature of their circumstances to become more creative and ambitious than their wealthy peers. Robert Sun, a businessman and CEO of Suntex International, who works with inner city kids, has witnessed this fact time and time again: “I can tell you firsthand we’re not making the most of this amazing resource… No question, many urban children face a lot of challenges in their young lives. But from my experience, they have developed one powerful, extremely valuable characteristic that many of their suburban counterparts lack: grit. By this I mean they have courage and persistence and quickly get back on their feet after setbacks. Urban kids have grit by the boatload — and with the right tools and encouragement, grit will turn these young people into a wellspring of talent in the future.”

At a time when our society is increasingly revolving around instant gratification and formulaic, unoriginal entertainment, we need this talent. We need new ideas, new approaches, toughness and inventiveness. We need the great artists, musicians, dreamers, thinkers, and visionaries of tomorrow.

So, why aren’t we mentoring them?


[1] Goldstein, Meredith (September 8, 2004). “The quarter-life crisis”. The Boston Globe.

[2] Mirza-Davies, James; A short history of apprenticeships in England: from medieval craft guilds to the twenty-first century, http://commonslibraryblog.com/2015/03/09/a-short-history-of-apprenticeships-in-england-from-medieval-craft-guilds-to-the-twenty-first-century/

[3] Toews, Jacob C.; The Disappearing Family Farm, http://realtruth.org/articles/100607-006-family.html

[4] Chow, Lorraine; 16 Million Young Americans Grow Up Without This Vital Service, http://nationswell.com/mentoring-young-adults-college-students-at-risk-youth/#ixzz3lfjVSU8y

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