Can empathy make a comeback?

Author: Mike Hayward

"We're collectively drained, overwhelmed and losing our patience,"

begins United Way's report following their expansive survey on empathy burnout. The picture doesn't get rosier after that.

Empathy ratings decreased by 14% post-pandemic vs. pre-pandemic, and the drop in empathy for women was double that of men.

The never-ending onslaught of negative news via social channels and media outlets had the biggest impact on empathy ratings37% of overall respondents said they are now less empathetic to negative news while 57% of women said they "feel emotionally exhausted after watching negative news."

Activism fatigue is also a contributing factor as "61% admit to experiencing burnout to social justice issues."

Daunting global issues with no clear solution in sightclimate change, racism, the Russian Ukraine warare collectively weighing on us as well.

In short, the overload of negative content and immediate and long-term issues we should care about are causing us to care less about everything. 

Potential good news: it's not simply us growing more callous and uncaring as a society, which could be irreversible. As Dr. Susan Albers of the Cleveland Clinic notes, "empathy fatigue is a defense mechanism. It's your body's way of telling you to pay attention and take a step back to care for yourself." Which means this trend can, and hopefully will, change.


The Return of Empathy: Bring on Gen Z!

Boomers in particular are becoming more immune to social causes, with 23% saying they don't invest themselves in social issues at all anymore. Their social media habits may be to blame. They are much more likely to use Facebook as their primary platform, and Facebook was cited by the majority of respondents as the biggest contributor to their empathy fatigue due to "misinformation and toxicity."

Twitter came in second.

Gen Z, on the other hand, experienced the lowest drop in empathy levels. It was still a drop to be sure, but some signs point to Gen Z as our possible empathy cavalry. 

According to youth culture agency Archrival, interviews with Gen Z Insights Community about their focus for the future revealed surprising results. Archrival had expected to hear about climate change action and social causes. Instead "three key themes emerged: acceptance of others, selflessness, and intention + awareness."


Doctor, Heal Thyself

Surely a younger generation deprioritizing climate change and social issues can't be good news, right? Well, it could be. We are in desperate need of an empathy reset. Acceptance, selflessness, intention and awareness are the very building blocks of empathy. This is the chance for Gen Z, the future of this planet, to regain their sense of empathy then turn to tackling our biggest challenges with understanding and empathy for others...rather than turning against others. 


TikTok as an Empathy Ally?

A joint study conducted by Kantar and TikTok of more than 7,000 global users (which heavily skew Gen Z) found they are "increasingly getting enjoyment and connection from the app" and the audience comes to TikTok "for the community, stay for the creativity, and leave feeling happy and inspired."

The study goes on to conclude, "users find a constant stream of joyful entertainment, liberating creativity, and endless's a positive experience that primes people to join in the fun and take action."

Now this is a study funded by TikTok, and "taking action" may mean joining the latest duet trend. Having a positive experience connecting with others within a community, though, is a lesson worth learning for young people. And as they feel more welcomed, appreciated, and heard in any space, empathy could take root again.

I've personally wasted many hours on TikTok with little besides a new recipe to show for it. As a once-dedicated Twitter user, I can unequivocally say I feel much happier using the former than the latter. And watching the increasingly hateful "free speech" Twitter implode may indicate that younger people are fed up with constant vitriol.

Washington State's groundbreaking lawsuit against the largest social platforms concerning their negative impact on kids may have something to say about TikTok and empathy. The importance of the TikTok study, though, could be that Gen Z is choosing the platform with the most positive content. While Boomers are considered the generation responsible for the fake news epidemic spread mostly via their Facebook pages, Gen Z could be the first to roundly shun clickbait negativity.


Midterm Voting: A Hint of Empathy to Come

Much attention was given to voters' rejection of major candidates who supported the Big Lie and Donald Trump. But through another lens, the split ticket Republican votersthose who voted for Republicans in some races and Democrats in othersrejected the least-empathetic candidates, those who regularly vilified others and showed zero empathy for anyone who didn't agree with them 100%. Even their own party members at time, as failed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake famously told McCain voters "to get the hell out."

While not scientific in the least, my own study of my two Gen Z'ers at home gives me hope that empathy will make a comeback. They are much kinder to each other and fellow schoolmates than my sister and I ever were. And just last week, while I was complaining about poor service at a restaurant, my son chimed in, "Dad, maybe they're having a bad day."

Maybe these kids will be alright. Maybe they'll make us alright again too.