Commencement reflections, 2012

This weekend my first-born son will graduate at age 20 with a B.A. in Biology.  He will join thousands of other graduates across the country marching to the dais to accept his hard-earned degree from school officials dressed in the medieval cap and gowns we still wear for such occasions.

And then he will march out into the world to join the hordes of recently graduated young adults, confronting one of the worst job markets ever seen in American history.

When I graduated college back in 1982, there was also a bit of a recession on, but things quickly rallied, and I had no trouble finding a job in journalism, and working my way up from reporter to staff writer to editor at publications in New York City.

When I chose to go to graduate school, it wasn’t hard to find a part-time job as an assistant editor to make room in my schedule for my studies.

And so it went, one step leading to the next with a steady predictability.

For my son, now, that kind of reliable future is out of the question.

We live in such a fast-changing world that there is no way to predict with certainty what kind of challenges we’ll be facing in, say, the next five years.

Will climate change come to a head and rain environmental devastation down on us?  Will an antibiotic-resistant bacteria strike?  Will the risky behavior of the financial sector finally put us completely at the economic mercy of the Chinese?

We can’t know the answers to any of these big global questions, any more than we can know the answer to the very small, local question that I am sure is in the minds of all the parents and grandparents who will be watching their graduates march this weekend: will s/he be able to find a job next year?

Many of the graduates will choose to put off confronting that question by diving back into graduate school.  That is certainly what my son has in mind, and it is the right thing to do, given his desire to work as a marine biologist.

Even a Ph.D. is no guarantee of a living wage anymore, although things are somewhat brighter in the sciences than for those of us stuck in the doldrums of the humanities.

I am proud of what my son has accomplished in his first two decades, and proud of the fine human being he has become.

I am much less proud of the world we, his elders, have created, into which he’ll now be stepping as a young adult.

As a teacher, I see clearly that what is needed is a collaboration of older, more experienced minds, with the open, energetic and passionate young minds who are now coming into their full powers.

I don’t want my son and all the other graduates to follow blindly in our path, doing things as they’ve always been done, which is largely what I myself did as a young adult.

Knowing how desperately we need to change our habits in order to shift our society on to a sustainable path, we can’t afford to give young people the luxury of just following along the paths that are already established.

We need them to be blazing new trails, and we older folk need to work with them closely in this crucial undertaking.

As my son strides off the dais with his BA in hand on Saturday, this is the blessing that will be in my mind:

May you take your knowledge and talents and use them for the benefit of our planetary home.  May you be a warrior for good, and become a leader in your sphere.  May you prosper and find happiness in working for the prosperity and happiness of all. 

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