05/11/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Happened to Wisdom?

From the three wise men in the Bible, to the witches in Macbeth, to a favorite childhood movie, The Karate Kid, many of us have grown up with the idea of wise elders. Sage mentors warn us, encourage us, and keep us focused in the right direction. Yet, as I listen to younger colleagues, friends and patients, it is not clear that many seniors these days are willing to pass on wisdom in the way they once did.

There seems to be a lack of mentoring for the current generation of young professionals who will eventually be running the world. Publishing expert Bob Sacks commented on this problem in 2007. Other disciplines have also addressed a lack of mentoring. For example, one study reviewed by the Resources of Ethics Education points out that 40% of postdoctoral fellows reported having no guidance in ethical research. And another article suggests that African American nurses receive little mentoring, which could potentially serve the purpose of retaining this underrepresented group in the medical profession.

Sacks talks about how mentoring involves the joy of transferring knowledge and power to a younger generation. When I asked him about the reasons why mentoring is less frequent, he articulated that the demands and problems of today's workforce (time, money, and decreased job security) are likely culprits. The mentoring ideal is that there is a sense of relief and pleasure in passing on knowledge with the idea that enhancing younger colleagues benefits the society as a whole. This involves a spirit of generativity; psychologist Erik Erickson described this concept as the desire to guide the next generation. The idea is that we are all better when we help to develop the careers and identities of those younger than ourselves. As Sacks put it, "without mentorship we are collectively less than we might have been."

Sack's reasons for the apparent lack of mentoring seem true. But do today's senior professionals find pleasure in the transfer of knowledge? Or is it a burden? Mentoring involves the sharing of resources, which seems quite tricky in an age where sharing advice means generosity regarding resources, especially those related to knowledge, clients, and tricks for how to be successful. In the current difficult economy, I am not sure that many people feel that there is enough good stuff to go around -- at least not enough to give wisdom away.

Knowledge is a valued commodity and is threatened in a number of ways. Intellectual property is now shared openly via the Internet, and piracy threatens to whittle away at author's rights. In the world of publishing, one can imagine that authors might feel threatened about sharing too much of what they know, as their wisdom, in the form of publications, can be easily taken and used without permission.

However, I suspect the possible wariness of sharing intellectual property is a symptom of a larger cultural problem. Advanced professionals just don't seem to have the time or energy these days to provide mentoring relationships. What is it in the current generation of older adults that keeps them from wanting to mentor the youth in their world? Perhaps ambivalence in wanting them to succeed is a factor.

The current generation of probable mentors includes the baby boomers. The "me generation" has been focused on getting what they want, when they want it. By and large, they have gotten what they have worked for and deserve their success. But boomers are struggling too. Due to potentially long life spans, preparing for retirement has never been so complicated. Many people in their 60s and beyond feel forced to keep working. Older adults need to continue to establish themselves as experts in their fields, as fears of not being taken seriously or having to give over their jobs to younger colleagues are taxing realities. Given this, it is understandable that boomers may be hesitant to pass along wisdom.

But younger people still need their elders: they are also under pressure. Quite often they don't have the help and support of what more senior colleagues can impart. Early career professionals without mentors seem to be at higher risk for loneliness and a sense of displacement that is already so prevalent in our time. Let's face it, for all of its immediate gratification, social networking and related avenues that younger people embrace do not really convey wisdom. For that, we need good old-fashioned relationships that include in person connections, good advice, and modeling of how successful professionals function.

My own transformation to middle age has been met with the thrill and relief of advising people whom I know will someday take my place. Though I gladly step-up to this challenge, I wonder if others are trying to do the same. Wisdom is not a right, but a privilege, and should be shared.