My Entirely Unofficial Commencement Address to the Class of 2014

My university bid farewell to the class of 2014 yesterday.  Commencement exercises are a curious thing.  They are rightfully celebratory of the graduates’ accomplishments, but often overly reliant on pomp and ceremony for the tastes of those attending.  They are also long, sometimes painfully so and commencement addresses are oddly situated.  Supposedly meant to honor the graduates and the world of high education and accomplishment that they have entered, many bore or confuse those in attendance.  When delivered by a lofty persona, that person’s position and importance overshadows the graduates.  When delivered by someone with a lofty opinion of himself regardless of position and importance, the result is the same.  Far too few actually address the soon to be minted graduates with much more than pabulum about how accomplished they are.

Naturally, I have a few ideas of my own that I’d like to share with the Class of 2014.  And, consequently, this is why I expect to never be asked to address a commencement.

Dear Class of 2014.  The world you are about to enter is messy, perplexing, infuriating and the pathways to success in it are harder to find and to navigate than in any time since the end of World War II and almost none of the adults in your life to this point have been upfront to you about it.

I’m sorry.

I also suspect that you have figured it out on your own by now.  One of the funny things about people who are facing complex and anxiety producing situations is that they are fully aware of the ways in which they have been lied to far more so than the people who have done the lying.  Today’s youth employment market is perhaps better than it has been since 2008, but that is damning it with very faint praise.  Overall unemployment among people under the age of 25 is 14.5 percent.  For college graduates under 25, it is 8.5 percent, and the underemployment rate is 16.8 percent.  You can be thankful that you have a college degree in this respect: among your age peers with only a high school diploma, those numbers are 22.9 and 41.5 percent respectively.  And for those of you with jobs, well, they are paying less than they used to.  According to the Federal Reserve, 44 percent of recent graduates between 22-27 years old have jobs that do not require a B.A., and while that is not entirely unusual, those jobs are far less likely to pay a decent annual wage than in previous decades.

What is even more galling than those numbers is the insistence at policy levels that it is necessary for everyone to, in President Obama’s words, “eat our peas” — except the very movers and shakers who played Russian Roulette with the nation’s banking system and precipitated the economic wasteland you are looking to inhabit.  Austerity is not merely being imposed upon the assistance programs offered to the poor and ill in America.  In New York State, administrators estimate that the average school district  has had to make do with 3 million dollars less in state aid per year since 2010.  Nationwide, state spending per pupil in higher education is down 28 percent compared to 2008. Gross public capital investment in is now at its lowest level since the end of World War II, meaning that investment in schools and infrastructure spending, important drivers of economic growth and opportunity, are at a 6 decade low.

Some of this is not simply the result of the Great Recession.  The America you were born into was an America that was already well on its way to critical lack of investment in public capital in favor of private capital.  From 1950-1970, America spent 3 percent of GDP on infrastructure.  Since 1980, that has fallen by a third, and the result are transportation, sanitation and energy infrastructures from the middle of the last century and the diminished economic potential from that.

And what have you heard from the people who should have known better?  Who stewarded this reality into being?  Largely, they tell you “This is life, kid” instead of “This is the life we decided to give you.”

And let’s be clear — your generation of college graduates did what was asked of you.  When people demanded that our schools get “more rigorous,” you sacrificed swaths of your childhood to meaningless increases in homework for early grades.  When you got to the higher grades, you did hours of homework a night that had little connection to actually scaffolding your learning but for which your schools could tell the community and the state that they were “raising standards”.  You were born in 1992-1993 which means that you were not out of elementary school when No Child Left Behind demanded constant high stakes testing.  You are the most tested generation in American history.  In order to be competitive for college admissions, your generation took on more activities that, combined with homework and testing, meant very few of you had significant free time to manage.

You did all of that.  You got into college.  You quickly realized how different college was from a world where everyone chose your activities for you and gave you work that required little long term planning.  You succeeded here as well.

And now the world is giving you another “gotchya” moment in the form of diminished career and financial prospects.  By the way, your loan payments come due in 6 months.  If you concluded that every adult in your life, parents, teachers, principals, professors had little clue about the way the world works for your generation, I wouldn’t blame you.

The facts of this world you are entering means that you will have to downgrade expectations about career and financial success, but how you respond and move ahead from those expectations is a different matter.  When I began my career as a classroom teacher, I quickly discovered a set of students who were, for lack of any better words, school resisters.  They came from more impoverished neighborhoods.  Many of them had families struggling to make ends meet, and they had few close examples of people they knew who had used success in school to step ahead economically.  It was not uncommon for them to face forces of institutional racism and sexism that simply expected they would fail because of who they were.  Some of my colleagues were less than enthusiastic about their potential as well, but I made a habit early on of sitting down one on one with a student who was failing to turn in assignments and acting disengaged from our work and asking her who she thought she was hurting.  Such conversations invariably hinged on my acknowledging that student’s very valid reasons for doubting school and affirming what she already knew — that life was unfair and people expected her to screw up.

So why give them the satisfaction of seeing you do just that, I’d ask?   Yes, you have to work twice as hard for less, but in the end you can rub it in the faces of the people who expect you to fail and just maybe build something for your own children in the process.  My goal wasn’t to let a student’s resentment and anger go away.  It was to redirect it for her own benefit.

I challenge graduates of college in 2014 to do the same.  My generation made a half hearted affectation at being worldly and ironic slackers before a large portion of us went on and exploded the world economy and handed it to you.  Your generation has a real chance of showing Generation X and the Baby Boomers that you did not make this mess, but that you are capable of setting it straight.  You can become innovators and entrepreneurs, teachers and scientists, service leaders and public servants, artists and entertainers — and with the world changing as rapidly as it is and with gate keepers of industry, finance and content becoming outmoded, you can become leaders in all of these areas faster than your predecessors ever did.  You can show the endless parade of elder naysayers who make fun of your tastes and your alleged work ethics what you really are.

And I have little doubt that you can do it.  Your generation is vast and it is interesting.  You are more sincerely dedicated to the ideal of acceptance and a diverse society than anyone before you.  You are generous; most of you have already given to charity despite being young and in school.  You may have taken on loan debt to pay for college, but you are the most educated generation in history.  Your priorities are strong — far more of you value being good parents and spouses than value extremely high pay and fame.  You care about the environment and the future.

And there are a lot of you — the population aged 12-34 number at over 90 million.

So Class of 2014, this is my challenge to you: You have entered an unfair and vexing world not of your own making and that few adults in your lives have recognized as such.  But you need to take any anger you have about that and turn it productive — work, vote, lead.  Lord knows, we need you even if most people my age and older won’t admit it yet.

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