Is Care a 4-Letter Word? How Declining Empathy in Young Adults Impacts the Workplace

Do kids care less about people in need these days? A recent study shows a dramatic drop in empathy among college students today compared to 30 years ago. Seventy-five percent of students today rated themselves lower in empathy than those from 30 years ago. Worse, a rise in narcissism accompanies the drop in empathy.

The authors of the articles that covered the study (in Time http://newsfeed.time.com/2010/12/30/who-cares-not-college-students-study-finds-co-ed-empathy-decreasing/ and Scientific American http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=what-me-care) conjectured why today’s kids might be less empathic:

  • An increase in social isolation
  • Less desire to join groups
  • Social media technology precluding the face to face interaction
  • A sharp drop in fiction readers

Since we’re all born with empathy as a trait, it’s clear to me that the environment of the young adults is causing the trait to decline. If you’re a teacher, a parent, or an employer, you’ve likely seen the decline in empathy in certain individuals first hand.

Does this affect the workplace? You bet:

  • More training will be needed to develop relationship building skills, such as communications, customer service, and teambuilding.
  • The gap among the generational differences in empathy is likely to cause increased friction and misunderstandings.
  • Expectations of employees will need to be crystal clear. Some things older employees take for granted may not be obvious to younger workers.

Here are a few tips I recommend to prepare your workplace for the generational differences in empathy:

  • Use hiring tests to assess levels of empathy in candidates, especially when they will have interaction with clients.
  • Conduct training that will build customer service skills.
  • Encourage socialization among employees and discourage isolation.
  • Start a fiction book club.
  • Reimburse employees who join groups of professional associations and become active on a committee or in an officer role.
  • Allocate part of the performance review to assess socialization and communication skills so that learning is encouraged and financially rewarded.
  • Designate workers to be responsible for social activities such as recognizing birthdays, awards, accomplishments, celebrations, holiday events, and competitions.
  • Encourage volunteering and develop a program that supports employees who donate their time to nonprofit work or philanthropy.

Building a supportive environment in the workplace will be key to reversing the trend of declining empathy in young adults.