Mentoring the Young Refreshes Senior Executives

By: Peter M. Newton

Mentoring can help the young feel nurtured, and the middle-aged, fruitful.

A young person faces the task of forming an occupation and an identity as an adult worker. Related to that is the necessity of finding a mentor to bless the young person's occupational dreams and confirm the authenticity of his/her identity as a beginning worker in the chosen occupation.

The critical age period for this lasts from about 17 to 35. Mentoring before that is encouraging but pre-occupational; after 35, the individual begins to lose the capacity to accept help, as well as his/her capacity to inspire it. Mentors are attracted by promise, and by the late 30s, promise that has not turned into achievement begins to look like failure.

Just as early adulthood has its specific tasks, so do the later years. The primary task of middle adulthood is to meet one's responsibility toward society (or a sector of it; e.g., family, community, work organization, profession) by passing on the knowledge and skill required for the upcoming cohort of young adults to lead it. The challenge is to do so in a generative, caring way.

To be generative means to have the capacity and the inclination to help others grow. One brings forth what is creative in oneself to facilitate and protect what is best in others. To care and protect others is keeping what is best in oneself alive. In middle adulthood, the opposite of generativity is stagnation.

Leadership in Their Hands
Meanwhile, the burdens shouldered by the middle-aged are enormous. The leadership of all the major institutions in society is placed in their hands; from the university to government, from the military to commerce. It is one of nature's pointed ironies-like the behest of great biological vigor to the young who lack the wisdom to use it well-that in middle age burdens increase as the body weakens.

The biological fires of youth are a near inexhaustible source of the illusions that quicken one's step throughout early adulthood. With their cooling in middle adulthood, the person enters into "de-illusionment," (I prefer this term to disillusionment," because the realm of illusion never disappears entirely, and because a vital engagement in living is hard to imagine without them.) "What and whom do I really care about? What does my work mean to me, my firm, my profession? Is there something else that I truly want that I am not doing, may never do, if I do not get started upon it? Am I wasting, have I wasted, my life?"

The combustibles of increased responsibility, unquenchable and increasingly unrealizable passions, and de-illusionment form the crucible of life in middle adulthood.

Work on developmental tasks is usually taxing, but needn't assume the severity of a crisis. When it does, the respective crises of youth and middle age can be described as follows. The crisis of early adulthood is a crisis of identity: "Who am I, what do I stand for, what can I truly do?"

The crisis of middle adulthood is a crisis of generativity: "What of enduring value have I created? Can I build a legacy that will not only sustain and inspire others, but one that will represent what is best in myself?" Fantasies of retirement become more prevalent in the late 50s, yet in truth, the person is ordinarily too young to stop working. By too young, I mean that the person still has too much left to give and too strong an inclination, despite weariness and de-illusionment, to stop giving it.

Engaging in genuine mentor relationships with younger people is an excellent way for executives in middle adulthood to refresh their own vitality and ensure their legacies. A good mentor not only exemplifies excellence and evokes effort-sustaining idealization from protégés, but he/she also acknowledges failings.

Sharing one's own imperfections is therapeutic; providing bearable glimpses to the young of life after youth is good for both people. Allowing the younger person to see how one got from 20 to 60 serves the need of the older person to tell and understand his own life story, and the younger person's need to imagine the future more realistically.

When the protégé has outgrown his need for mentoring and has entered middle adulthood, the individual will carry a legacy of good mentoring that issues forth naturally in generative relations with the upcoming cohort of future leaders and typically in a generative concern for the firm itself.

The retired or retiring mentor will have the satisfaction of seeing his former protégés working well, his work well cared for, and his legacy preserved.

Dr. Peter Newton can be reached at (510) 521-3848 or at

Reprinted with permission from Executive Talent Journal, Copyright Fall 2000 by Kennedy Information, Inc. Fitzwilliam, NH, 800-531-0007. All rights reserved.