Gen Z has less access to mentoring resources

Alia Wong

If it weren’t for his mentor, Kevin Villanueva, 19, says he may not have overcome all the necessary hurdles to getting into the prestigious business college of his dreams.

His mentor, Cal Mullan, entered his life at just the right time in 2019 – on the eve of the pandemic – as Villanueva, then 16, was gearing up for what he would discover to be a daunting college admissions process. The scholarship applications and personal statements and deadlines, not to mention the mental health toll of it all.

“It honestly was so nice to have someone by my side, to kind of relieve all that stress and take some of that off my plate,” said Villanueva, who grew up in New York City and is the first in his family to attend college. Now a sophomore marketing major at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Villanueva continues to talk with Mullan on a near-daily basis. Mullan is in investment banking, and Villanueva often practices entrepreneurial pitches in front of him. “My mentor has helped me out a lot being so far away from home, not knowing anyone in college being first-generation.”

Over the past half-century or so, mentoring has become significantly more common. Yet that trend appears to have stalled in recent years, revealing yet another impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and other societal shifts on today’s young adults.MENTOR, a national nonprofit that advocates and provides resources for mentoring, recently studied trends in mentorship over time, providing the results exclusively to USA TODAY.

Here’s an overview of some of the findings.

Who gets to be mentored?Today’s younger generations report higher rates of mentoring than older ones. Fifty-six percent of all adults say they had a mentor, compared with 66% of those under 40. The trend is primarily thanks to an increase in programs that facilitate formal mentoring relationships.

Because those programs have largely focused on low-income students of color, mentorship rates have seen significant growth in those communities. According to the report, these “are increasingly reaching youth who have experienced the highest number of adverse life experiences.”Yet overall, the report notes, ​​mentoring relationships – especially those that occur naturally, such as that with a camp counselor – remain “considerably more prevalent among youth growing up in wealthier households.”

What does mentoring look like for Gen Z?

A similar study conducted a decade ago found that one in three young people were growing up without a mentor. Given other signs of progress on the equity and programmatic front, researchers sought out to see whether that gap has closed.

But among Gen Z, particularly its youngest members (those ages 18-21), the presence of mentors appears to have declined.

Prevalence of having had a mentor while growing up, by generational cohort
Recent years have seen a noticeable uptick in youth reporting they’ve had no mentor at all. Young people now 18-21 are 5 percentage points more likely than slightly older members of Gen Z to say they haven’t had a mentor.

One striking data point for Native Americans, who used to have some of the highest rates of mentorship: 43% of Gen Z tribal youth say they’ve had no mentor. “Within a generation,” the study says, “Native Americans have gone from one of the groups most likely to have had mentors to the group least likely to report them.”

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How did the pandemic affect mentoring?

The pandemic put most mentoring programs on hold for at least some time and limited participants’ ability to meet in person. Typically, mentors have met with mentees in settings such as schools, workplaces and after-school programs and other clubs.

But COVID isn’t entirely responsible for the drop-off, the report suggests. The trend started emerging before the pandemic, it notes, citing economic and racial divides and shifting barriers to mentoring as possible reasons.

Either way, advocates say the need for mentorship has never been greater. A majority – roughly two in three – of 18- to 21-year-olds say they can recall times they wished they had a mentor but didn’t, compared with smaller majorities of millennials and Gen-X members.

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Rates of anxiety and depression among young people have surged in the years leading up to and since the pandemic’s onset.

Villanueva, who was paired with Mullan through a program called iMentor, hopes progress on efforts to expand mentoring resumes.

“Every young teenager, young adult needs someone in their life to look up to,” he said. “Many kids from the Bronx (like me) often don’t have a role model to look up to, or they don’t have someone who has gone to college. And oftentimes, all it takes is exposure … to have those ambitions, to have those dreams.”

Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.