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The graduation speech your kid needed to hear, but probably didn't

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POSTED July 6, 2012 9:52 p.m.

Lately there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about this year's crop of college graduates and the tough time they will have finding decent jobs. Yet the commencement speeches today's graduates hear at their ceremonies don't talk about any of that. Instead they are being told to "follow their stars," "make the world a better place," and so forth.

Which, of course, is totally safe; I get it. Nobody wants a commencement speech that's a total downer.

But I do wish today's graduates were getting a dose of reality and solid advice along with the platitudes. Here's the speech I would love to give if given the opportunity:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted at the opportunity to address the graduating class of [name of college], though I am sorry the reality TV star who was supposed to be here canceled at the last minute for a better opportunity.

It is customary for commencement speakers to inspire you, make you laugh, reminisce about the great times you had here, and challenge you to follow your dreams and make the world a better place.

But here's an inconvenient truth: before you can realize your dreams, you are all going to have to figure out a way to make a living and support yourself, maybe a spouse and children, and maybe your aging Baby Boomer parents who never saved anything for retirement or nursing home bills. I don't have to tell you that it has never been harder in America to do that.

It gets worse. Many of you here are woefully unprepared for the real world of work. You have crammed your heads full of information, among other controlled substances, and the best among you have learned some important lessons about meeting deadlines, thinking critically, performing research, and arguing positions. Those are all very important skills.

But they won't get you a job, much less launch you on a career.

What you need in today's world of work are marketable skills. Sadly, your academic program didn't help you develop those — you are educated, but you are unskilled labor. And hardly anybody will pay you for the stuff you did learn here.

So here is some practical advice on surviving in the real world. Ignore it if you wish as the ranting of an out-of-touch Baby Boomer, but those of you who listen will profit from it.

First, if you don't already have a job, get out there and get working. Take whatever is available, whether it makes use of your degree or not. Get a job that pays as much as possible, then get another one to fill your time on evenings and weekends. Unpaid internships are for losers (and rich kids). If an internship won't lead to a paying job in six to 12 months, you're better off waiting tables.

Work as hard as you can, and save as much money as you can. That's what new immigrants to the United States have always done. They work a gazillion hours a year at jobs nobody else wants, they spend as little as possible, save every penny they make, and eventually they have enough to start their own business, buy a business, or make highly profitable investments.

While you are doing this, look for opportunities. What emerging new industries and technologies will dominate the American economy, what services will be in demand in the next five, 10, 15, and 20 years? Position yourself for the future, not the past. Forget about traditional jobs, even lucrative ones, that will eventually be eclipsed by technology and an evolving digital world. And forget about law school — we have far too many lawyers, and not enough good clients.

If there truly are no jobs to be found, consider joining the U.S. armed forces. Too many young people have been taught to be cynical about America and its institutions. A couple of years spent serving your country is the best cure for that. Also, you will get some discipline, you will learn some marketable skills, and you may get the chance to pursue further education, all at the taxpayer's expense. Not a bad deal.

Be very careful about relationships and commitments. Don't take them on until you are emotionally and financially ready for them. Much of the happiness and misery you will have in your life comes from the person you choose as a life partner. Choose wisely. Love your family, but don't let them hold you back.

America is, and always has been, a land of opportunity, not a land of guaranteed success. If you want something badly enough, you'll get it badly enough. Find out what you want to get out of life, figure out what it takes to get it, and then pursue it ruthlessly, with everything you've got, and without distraction. Follow that plan (not the stars), and you will succeed, no matter what the economy does or what life throws at you."

 

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