I’m scheduled to deliver the commencement address Friday at my alma mater, Grambling State University in Louisiana, so I’ve been giving quite a bit of thought to the America into which these students are graduating.
I must admit that finding hopeful, encouraging things to say has been exceedingly difficult, in part because the landscape at the moment — particularly for young adults — is so bleak.
Here are some of the facts that I’m up against rhetorically and that these students will be up against more literally.
1. Being a college graduate is becoming less exceptional. As the Pew Research Center pointed out in November, “Record shares of young adults are completing high school, going to college and finishing college.” And college graduation rates are growing even more in other countries. And Anya Kamenetz noted in The Atlantic magazine in December, “During the past three decades, the United States has slipped from first among nations to 10th in the percentage of people holding a college degree, even as the job market has eroded for Americans without one.”
2. Graduates are emerging with staggering amounts of debt and entering a still-sluggish job market. This is causing them to delay major life decisions, like marriage or buying a home or even moving out of their parents’ home.
A Pew report from February 2012 found that:
“Since 2010, the share of young adults ages 18 to 24 currently employed (54 percent) has been its lowest since the government began collecting these data in 1948. And the gap in employment between the young and all working-age adults — roughly 15 percentage points — is the widest in recorded history. In addition, young adults employed full time have experienced a greater drop in weekly earnings (down 6 percent) than any other age group over the past four years.”
3. Emerging markets, like China and India, have become major competitors for exportable jobs.
4. Income inequality between top earners and the rest of America has risen. And the recovery since the Great Recession has essentially been a recovery of the rich. A recent study by Emmanuel Saez, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, found that:
“From 2009 to 2011, average real income per family grew modestly by 1.7 percent but the gains were very uneven. Top 1 percent incomes grew by 11.2 percent while bottom 99 percent incomes shrunk by 0.4 percent. Hence, the top 1 percent captured 121 percent of the income gains in the first two years of the recovery.”
This was similar to a finding by the Pew Research Center last month:
“During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent.”
5. At the same time, the cost of basic goods has soared. For example, when I graduated from college the average price of a gallon of gas was about a dollar (adjusted for inflation that would still be less than $2), and it’s currently nearing $4. Some people now have to make desperate choices: a tank of gas, a bag of groceries or a bottle of medicine.
6. Our politics have become polarized to the point of paralysis. A Pew poll in June found that Americans’ “values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.”
What gives me hope is that despite this dire environment, young people remain more optimistic than anyone else. Some of that may simply be the intrinsic glow of youth, but I believe that with this generation, something more is afoot.
This is a generation of people who have come of age in an era of overlapping traumas — terrorism and wars and recession. They have also come of age in changing times, and are more tolerant and less punitive in their social view. They see this country, and the world, differently than we older folks do. Theirs is an America waiting to be made better, not one that is simply, and irreversibly, getting worse.
According to a CNN/ORC poll released last month, young adults (those 18 to 34) were the most likely to think that things were going well in this country.
I plan to tap into that optimism Friday, and I hope to reflect some of it back at those beaming faces under square hats.
Dear college graduates, this is your moment and your America. Both need your vision and demands your efforts. Keep your head up and your hopes rising. Congratulations and good luck. You’ll need it, and I’ll be rooting for you. (Flip tassels.)
Charles M. Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.
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