It’s that time of year again: when the Class of 2012 don their mortarboards and are subjected to round after round of post-graduate advice. Every year around May, the Grown Ups scramble to lanterns and op-ed columns for one last change to dispel their wisdom and guide the new generation, despite recent developments that suggest the Grown Ups have no idea what they’re doing and hardly care about the success of Millennials.
There’s never been a shortage of advice for college grads. But whereas previous classes enjoyed optimism, humor, and even profundity—see Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford University and David Foster Wallace’s at Kenyon College—this year’s grads must bear advice that is sober, uncomfortable, and weirdly angry.
Robert Reich’s advice? “You’re f*cked.” Not so much advice as a prognosis, really.
Or take Bret Stephens: “Dear Class of 2012: Allow me to be the first one not to congratulate you.”
The condescension doesn’t end there: “Through exertions that—let's be honest—were probably less than heroic, most of you have spent the last few years getting inflated grades in useless subjects in order to obtain a debased degree.”
Lovely. In addition to calling this year’s graduates lazy (“here you are, probably the least knowledgeable graduating class in history”), he defends the very people responsible for such fainéants:
“Please spare us the self-pity about how tough it is to look for a job while living with your parents. They're the ones who spent a fortune on your education only to get you back— return-to-sender, forwarding address unknown.”
Other columns were less blatantly mean and more “tough lovey.” Take Alexandra Petri’s column in the Washington Post: “Next year, you will probably be unemployed, or live in your parents’ basement, or be unemployed and live in your parents’ basement. This is not cruel. It is factual.”
Thanks? (Do Grown Ups really think this constitutes breaking news for recent grads who have heard nothing but apocalyptic dismay for the last four years?)
More things to look forward to: “You don’t get gold stars for cleaning the shower,” and “Regardless of anything the rampant college hookup culture has taught you, you are suddenly expected to Start Going On Dates.” But don’t expect to bring your date home, considering you’ll be bringing him or her to your parent’s basement.
Other members in the newly-banded club of glass-half-empty inspirational speakers include Charles Wheelan, who declares: “Some of your worst days lie ahead.” (Or maybe we just live in a glass-half-empty kind of world.)
Wheelan also advises college grads to lose their ambition and lower the standards for success, another common refrain in this year's commencement speeches. “Don't try to be great. Being great involves luck and other circumstances beyond your control. The less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn't, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being solid.”
This is probably the most substantial and useful piece of advice in the muck of Baby-Boomer resentment towards their children. And I agree: There’s nothing wrong with being solid, and solid might be the new fantastic. We need to lower the bar for life success.
I hardly know any recent grads content with their jobs as barista/teaching assistant/data puncher, even if they enjoy the day-to-day work. And that’s a shame, because the careers we think we should have do not exist in the current economy. Lena Dunham is an aberration. We cannot all be expected to tweet our way to fame and fortune.
The pressure we feel to be exceptional are the result of twenty-some years of accumulated expectations, handed down to us by teachers and parents, demanding that we love what we do and do what we love. Perhaps its time to change our way of thinking, to recognize that employment prestige is not the only, or even most important, marker of a successful human.
The new bar according to Wheelan? “Don’t make the world worse.” Agreed.
Image Credit: The New Yorker