Broadly defined, empathy is the ability of one person to share the same emotions another person is experiencing.
It’s an invaluable skill because it fosters kindness, innovation, and community. Unfortunately, researchers claim our ability to empathize has declined dramatically, by as much as 40% among people born after 2000, according to a 2010 University of Michigan study. (Yes, it was referring to Millennials and GenerationZ. More on that in a minute.)
The Michigan study was referenced in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, a book authored in 2011 by Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and psychologist. Professor Turkle believes there has been an “assault on empathy,” caused by our growing reliance on technology, a belief she has continued to espouse in subsequent work, including her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, which was released several months ago.
Admittedly, we are still negotiating the role technology plays in our lives and relationships, but some new research seems to indicate that the world’s youngest generations (about whom Professor Turkle has expressed the greatest concern) are far from being disconnected and indifferent to the suffering of others. In reality, instead of declining, empathy around the world (especially among its youth) seems to be increasing. A kind of planetary collective is forming, and its growth is fueled by the ability to “see ourselves in the lives of others” (as one scholar has described empathy).
This shift to a world more influenced by empathy could have a dramatic impact on societal machinery, including the structure and functioning of institutions, and the way that business is conducted.
As evidence that empathy is on the rise, here are five recent studies focused on Millennials and Generation Z (yes, the population that Professor Turkle claims is particularly empathy-challenged) and how they view themselves in relation to each other and the rest of the world.
In 2013, international pollster, John Zogby, published an in-depth study of American Millennials (who, numbering over 80 million, are now the largest living demographic in the U.S.). Zogby discovered they possess a shared set of values that includes the desire to positively impact the world. Survey participants demonstrated an awareness of being connected to others beyond their immediate context, stating they consider themselves citizens of the world first, and citizens of the United States second. Zogby’s conclusion:
American Millennials have experienced a “sea change in orientation” that has introduced them to the concept of a “shared or linked fate.”
A 2013 survey by JWT, found that six in ten Millennials in Brazil, Russia, India and China also consider themselves citizens of the world first, and citizens of their home nations second. In addition, more than half said they have friends all over the world. (By the way, there are 700 million Millennials in India alone!)
In 2014, Zogby followed up with another poll of American Millennials, which concluded that,“Millennials are truly developing their global citizenship.” In fact, 77% of those surveyed said it is important to “live a life that makes a difference for other people in the world.” When asked if American culture is inherently superior to other cultures, only 24 – 36% agreed (which was a marked decline from previous years), leading Zogby to declare:
“America’s Millennials – our First Globals – are very aware, more engaged, more networked, and more empathetic to the people of the rest of the world.”
MTV conducted its own poll in 2014. The results were similar to those of Zogby and JWT, revealing that 60% of American Millennials consider themselves “global citizens.”
The latest from Zogby
In 2015, Zogby conducted another study, this time focused on younger Millennials (often referred to as GenerationZ, and thought to be a different cohort than Millennials). This study included the U.K. and Australia, in addition to the U.S. It revealed the international group shares, “common values, moral culture, and commitments to each other.” Those common values include the desire to live abroad, make charitable contributions and help improve the world.
Zogby’s final assessment
Why do these studies matter?
What Zogby and the other researchers make crystal clear is that a massive, unprecedented, positive change is occurring. Simply stated: A new community has formed. It is now the largest collective on earth. It stretches to every corner of the planet. It has begun articulating a specific vision for how it wants the world to operate. That specific vision begins with a shared belief that this new, planet-spanning community is just that – a cohesive entity.
A collective that numbers in the billions (which Millennials and GenerationZ do), has the power to demand change on a huge scale. That’s already beginning to happen, as several recent surveys have discovered, and what’s particularly exciting is that the influence of empathy is evident in the behaviors that are being requested.
Here are two of those recent studies:
In 2014, an international public relations firm, MSLGroup, surveyed 8,000 Millennials across 17 countries. Survey participants said they believe, “Corporate involvement in tackling issues such as the economy, health, and environment is a key factor to build a successful outcome. Millennials look to businesses not only to lead but to actively engage them in the process. This opens up huge opportunities for businesses worldwide to re-set in the face of declining consumer trust.”
Deloitte’s 2015 Millennial Survey studied 7,800 Millennials who represented 29 countries around the globe. The study found that 75% percent of Millennials believe businesses are too fixated on their own agendas and not focused enough on helping to improve society. Survey participants also felt strongly that “business should focus on people and purpose, not just products and profits in the 21st century.”
In other words, the world’s youngest generations have expanded the definition of empathy to include the entire supply chain of existence, starting with individuals and moving on to communities, governments, and businesses.
As the authors of the Deloitte survey stated: This is what tomorrow’s leaders think about business today.
What appears to be informing the thinking of tomorrow’s leaders (and tomorrow is already here, really) is empathy. That’s good news for all of us.⇠ Back to White Papers