Graduation speeches tend to be a mix of advice and calls to responsibility. Most tend to cover a broad patch of issues. Given the difficult job market high school and college graduates are entering today, perhaps a speech that advises and cajoles responsible actions to navigate the labor market is called for.
Here’s my career advice and call to action.
Congratulations! You have heeded your parent’s advice to work hard in school and get the best education possible, with the implied promise that by doing so you will do well when you graduate. You held up your part of the bargain, but unfortunately the economy you are entering is not holding up its part.
You are entering a troubled labor market that doesn’t have enough jobs to go around for all new high school or college graduates. Some of you will do very well indeed, especially those of you who have gained some work experience while in school and especially those of you who were fortunate enough to work in summer or co-op jobs and are now invited to join that organization on a full-time basis working in a career that uses your education and skills. Others with highly marketable technical or so-called STEM (science technical, engineering, and math) majors also face somewhat better prospects than those of you who followed your dreams to study literature, history, or the arts.
We’ve all heard the message from our parents: If you work hard, get a good education, and play by the rules, you will do well in life. Baby boomers like me were able to turn that formula into the American Dream.
But while we were able to graduate from high school, vocational school programs, or college into an economy that was growing and providing us with great opportunities, we cannot make the same promise to our children and grandchildren today. Instead of hope, the nation faces a widening economic divide; according to Gallup and other surveys, a majority of Americans agree that the U.S. has been going in the wrong direction for at least a decade, and they expect thenext generation will have a lower standard of living than ours.
Is this gloomy outlook inevitable? Have the global economy, ever-advancing technology, and other forces left us with no control over the destiny of future generations? Only if we choose to do nothing. Reversing course is possible, but it will take a cross-generational effort by baby boomers and next-generation leaders to negotiate what I call a New Social Contract that fits and works with the features of the future economy and workforce.
Thomas Kochan is the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management, a Professor of Work and Employment Research and Engineering Systems, and the Co-Director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management.