Older and Wiser: New Ideas for Youth Mentoring in the 21st Century

by: Jean E. Rhodes

Youth mentoring programs must change in order to become truly effective. The world’s leading expert shows how.

Youth mentoring is among the most popular forms of volunteering in the world. But does it work? Does mentoring actually help young people succeed? In Older and Wiser, mentoring expert Jean Rhodes draws on more than thirty years of empirical research to survey the state of the field. Her conclusion is sobering: there is little evidence that most programs―even renowned, trusted, and long-established ones―are effective. But there is also much reason for hope.

Mentoring programs, Rhodes writes, do not focus on what young people need. Organizations typically prioritize building emotional bonds between mentors and mentees. But research makes clear that effective programs emphasize the development of specific social, emotional, and intellectual skills. Most mentoring programs are poorly suited to this effort because they rely overwhelmingly on volunteers, who rarely have the training necessary to teach these skills to young people. Moreover, the one-size-fits-all models of major mentoring organizations struggle to deal with the diverse backgrounds of mentees, the psychological effects of poverty on children, and increasingly hard limits to upward mobility in an unequal world.

Rhodes doesn’t think we should give up on mentoring―far from it. She shows that evidence-based approaches can in fact create meaningful change in young people’s lives. She also recommends encouraging “organic” mentorship opportunities―in schools, youth sports leagues, and community organizations.

Older and Wiser


“This engaging and well-written book is a significant advance in our understanding of when and how mentoring matters.  Mentoring is widely recommended as a strategy to help disadvantaged kids get a fairer start in life, but research has often failed to support that strategy, because of conceptual confusion about what “mentoring” means.  Jean Rhodes’ new book clears away this confusion and lays the foundations for an approach to mentoring that is both rigorous and rich in new ideas.”
-Robert D. Putnam, Harvard Kennedy School and author of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. In “Older and Wiser,” Dr. Rhodes forces us to slam the brakes on ineffective practices; not to blame or criticize but to prove and improve an industry that is devoted to the potential of our nation’s children. Ensuring access to mentors and effective mentorship programs has always been an essential component of the work of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. We’re thrilled to watch how this candid new research and concrete recommendations will disrupt and redefine how to build social capital and create new pathways to opportunity for youth in greatest need.”
-Michael D. Smith, Executive Director
MBK Alliance & Director, Youth Opportunity Programs, The Obama Foundation

“In this superb book, Rhodes has demonstrated why she is regarded as the foremost authority on youth mentoring in the U.S. and internationally. Her singularly broad and deep knowledge of the science and her unparalleled understanding of the program and policy implications of mentoring research are crystallized magnificently in this important and timely book. Accessible to scholars, practitioners, students, parents, and other caregivers, this book will quickly be seen as a classic.”
-Richard M. Lerner, Ph.D., Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science
Director, Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development
Tufts University

“Rhodes is not only a pioneer in mentoring research but she has always look around corners for where the power of relationships can be harnessed most effectively so our young people can thrive and strive. She sheds light on innovative approaches that can amplify and refine approaches in mentoring to do what it has the potential to do at its best: provide the connections that meet young people where they are with the personalized support we all need for healthy development.”
-David Shapiro, Chief Executive Officer
MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership

“With a lifetime devoted to the study of mentoring, Dr. Rhodes delivers a powerful assessment of what is needed to best help young people today. She challenges us to consider a supportive accountability model focused on technology delivered interventions that may significantly improve outcomes for mentees. Older and Wiser is a wonderfully thoughtful, engaging, and interesting read, It serves the purpose of getting the mentoring community to think of different ways we can serve youth with greater impact.”
-Pam Iorio, President and CEO
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America