Sunday, June 03, 2007

"Welcome to the 'Real World'": A Commencement speech grads should hear--but never do

Required Reading
By Daniel Brook |
June 1, 2007 (Boston Globe)

FOUR YEARS AGO, you were all gathered before me on this quad as eager freshmen; today we are gathered here again, to send you off into what MTV has dubbed "the real world." [pause for laugh, look surprised and flattered when it comes]

Back then I urged you to embark upon a liberal arts education. By sophomore year, reality began to set in, and your schedules included a "practical" course or two. You dipped your toes into Economics 101 and, as it's known on this campus, "Accounting for Lemmings." Ultimately, most of you, like most American undergraduates, majored in a pre-professional field.

While it is customary to inspire graduates with a plea to go forth and serve humanity, I will take the advice of one of your eloquent classmates and "cut the crap." This college, like many in our great nation, is sending most of you into the world burdened by five-figures worth of tuition debt and without a loan forgiveness program for public service. Choose to be a teacher in Boston and you'll find you've been priced out of homeownership in 91.7 percent of the region's census tracts. Take a government or nonprofit job in Washington, and get ready to commute two hours a day from affordable West Virginia if you want to start a family. Or you can go corporate and embrace the five-fold pay advantage of entry-level K Street lobbyists over Capitol Hill staffers.

During your four idyllic years here, your class has become known for its creativity. This year, we had a record number of entries in both our entrepreneurship concept contest and our playwrights festival. Should any of you decide to pursue a self-employed existence be sure you don't have any preexisting medical conditions, because if you do, you will not be able to get health insurance. Even those of you with more mundane aspirations must be careful: nearly 40 percent of entry-level jobs for college graduates no longer include employer-provided insurance.

To the parents who are shaking their heads and muttering "it was always thus," I say, it was not. In the 1970s, students could pay nearly three-quarters of their tuition with a Pell Grant; today, a grant covers only one-third. As recently as 1984, the cost of housing in San Francisco was just 63 percent higher than in the average American locale, proverbial Peoria; now it is three times as expensive. When I graduated from this university in the 1960s, my tuition was one-third of what it is today. (And to the chairman of economics: yes, Dr. Wisenheimer, I remembered to adjust for inflation.)

This may sound quite hopeless. Yet, if you managed to squeeze an American history course into your schedule of McKinsey & Company recruiting panels, you might have learned that these seemingly immutable financial facts of life are not foreordained. You might have learned that many public universities used to be free and private tuitions modest. And you might have studied how the rightward political swing of recent decades -- from Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign up to President Bush's Ownership Society --changed all that.

You'd know about how Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, overturned a hundred-year tradition that the University of California system would be tuition-free and as president, Reagan's federal human resources policy explicitly channeled top candidates into the private sector.

While I have enjoyed flouting convention in this speech, there is one convention I dare not overturn: ending on an upbeat note.

I would be remiss not to mention the remarkable opportunities available to those who successfully stifle their impulses toward service and creativity. With your prestigious degrees, you can easily join the ranks of America's millionaire yes-men and yes-women. In a nation with literally millions of millionaires, there's no need to build a better mouse trap or even to rise to the top of your profession.

It's just a matter of choosing the right field and always answering in the affirmative. "Yes" to hundred-hour workweeks; "yes" to never seeing your children; "yes" to your boss's capricious 3 a.m. BlackBerry demands.

As one of our trustees confided to me, every law partner at the eighth-best law firm in Cleveland is now a millionaire; the dead weight on the Wall Street trading floors get bigger Christmas bonuses than our department chairs make in a year. So think small. Aim low. Aspire to corporate mediocrity. And if you ever feel handcuffed to a job as pocket-lining as it is soul-crushing, then and only then, I urge you to give something back -- preferably in the form of a check to the alumni fund.


Daniel Brook is author of "The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America."

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