My Speech to the Class of ’23

First, let me make it clear that I will not pay off your college debt. You signed a contract promising to pay it back. So live up to your responsibilities and do what you said you would do. Doing things you promised to do — especially when they turn out to be harder than you expected — will be a key ingredient in making you a successful person. And, let’s face it people, the Supreme Court is going to blow this idea away next month anyway. So, let’s just make a virtue of necessity — another key skill for a successful life.

Second, stop obsessing over your “privilege” or your victimhood. Life is unfair. But in America what you get is about 75% on you. Some of you got a leg up while others have a bigger challenge. So just deal with it. If you were born on third base, please for the love of God, do not celebrate like you just hit a grand slam when you happen to cross home plate. And if you’ve had a rough go of it so far, well, everybody will respect you a hell of a lot more if you don’t remind them of it every 30 seconds.

Third, let me quote Col. Saito, the Japanese work camp commandant in Bridge on the River Kwai: “Be happy in your work.” It is not your employer’s job to fulfill you, to help you find your true self or to solve every social problem that exists. Do that on your own time. Your job is to do whatever it is that your company, government agency or nonprofit does. If that doesn’t line up with your values or your personality then find another job or strike out on your own, but do not mope around or try to bend your workplace to your will. That’s just going to make everybody miserable.

And by the way, there’s less reason to stay in a job you hate than ever because you’re among the most fortunate graduates ever. You’re moving into a red hot job market. Unemployment for college grads is about 2%.

Which brings me to my fourth point, which is that the world you’re entering (as if you haven’t been here already) is, on balance, pretty hopeful. That’s not what you’ll hear from other commencement speakers and it’s why I was worth the extraordinarily high honorarium and the honorary degrees in law, medicine and nuclear physics, as well as the excellent parking spot, that I demanded before I agreed to join you this afternoon.

Let me quote from a piece of drivel that appeared this weekend in the New York Times;

You are children of the 21st century, and yours is the first generation to recognize the inescapable urgency of climate change, the first not to deny the undeniable loss of biodiversity. You have grown up in an age permeated by the noise of a 24-hour news cycle, by needless political polarization, by devastating gun violence, by the isolating effects of “social” media. You have seen hard-won civil rights rolled back. You have come of age at a time of existential threat — to the planet, to democracy, to the arc of the moral universe itself — and none of it is your fault. I wouldn’t blame you if you’re wondering how somebody of my generation, which wrecked so much that is precious, could dare to offer you advice. 

Oh, for cryin’ out loud. Similar indictments can be leveled against every generation in history. The “Greatest Generation” gave us nuclear weapons. What’s worse than that?

I don’t know why it is that every older generation feels the need to flog itself in front of their offspring. Let’s emphasize the positive. If we’re going to blame ourselves for climate change and everything else, well, how about giving us the credit for smart phones and tablets (and put those down while I’m talking to you!), making great progress on heart disease and cancer, and actually having less war, famine and disease than at any time in human history.

And, by the way, while I’m at it, let me point out that “we” didn’t do any of that. I’m not responsible for overturning Roe v. Wade any more than I had anything to do with inventing your phone. Progress and the reverse is made by individuals. I’m not Steve Jobs (which is fortunate only because he’s dead) and I’m not Clarence Thomas. In fact, this generational stuff is really pretty bogus. Individuals and groups of individuals do things that effect history. It’s always a good idea to resist lumping people into tribal categories based on anything.

And, finally on this point, do you really want to go down this road? Because 40 years from now you’ll have to apologize to your grandchildren for every crummy thing that happens over the next four decades while getting to claim no credit for all the good things that will occur.

So, that’s it. Pay back your loans. Stop whining. Enjoy your job or find another one. Be an individual. Blame yourself and take credit for only the things you actually did. Acknowledge your advantages and don’t dwell on your disadvantages.

Now, get to work. You’ve got bills to pay.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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