Graduates, the joke is on you

By BRIAN TILL Special to the Times
Published June 9, 2007

Last week, author Barbara Ehrenreich gave a chilling address to Haverford College's class of 2007. She told the graduates: "At the moment you accept your diploma today, you will have an average debt of $20, 000 and no health insurance. You may be feeling desperate enough to take whatever comes along. Some of you will get caged in cubicles until you're ejected by the next wave of layoffs."

She continued, "Others - some of the best and brightest of you in fact - will still be behind a counter in Starbucks or Borders three years down the road."

And so, on a day typically marked by tears of pride, inspirational toasts and congratulatory gifts, at least one American college had a somber brush with reality.

Year after year, as I see friends graduate from reputable schools and watch all but a select few struggle to find jobs, I can't help but reflect on how horribly my generation has been misled.

Since our first days of grade school, we've been duped. Told that if we worked hard in high school and gained acceptance to a good college, the world would be ours. A tacit promise of a comfortable future came tied to a college degree.

To be clear, the students Ehrenreich damned to Starbucks and Borders weren't graduating from community college or a second-rate state school. Haverford is one of the country's more respected small, liberal arts schools. Almost 90 percent of its students graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes.

It's common for commencement speakers to ask graduates to look around at their classmates and see "future leaders of America, " or "future bestselling authors." As 1.3-million graduates flood the job market this summer, and join the work force of a stagnant economy, it's hard to picture these graduates as anything grander than bartenders or third shift managers.

A study by the Economic Mobility Project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, shows that today men in their 30s have a median annual income of roughly $35, 000. Thirty years ago, American men in their 30s were making 12.5 percent more, their median annual income closer to $40, 000 (after adjusting for inflation).

At Amherst College, graduates were lectured on our nation's similarities to the Roman Empire. The president of the college, Anthony Marx, cautioned, "If we do not learn from the limits of our victories, we risk the fate of Rome."

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's commencement address at Tufts University featured several jokes that garnered laughs while hiding unspoken truths. The mayor said, "Your parents and relatives - who are sitting out there this morning, (are) beaming proudly, and not even thinking about what it cost to get to this day. Or what happens if you can't get a job and have to move back home."

It appears, America, that my generation has been dragged out of a deep sleep - and one hell of a euphoric, American dream - and thrown into a harsh reality.

Parents, guidance counselors and principals alike assuaged us: Keep working hard, get into a good college - your future will be bright. They cajoled us, all the while electing leaders who ran up the deficit without hesitation, refused to listen to scientists about global warming and refused to adjust our economy while lifting trade barriers.

Most of those recent graduates struggling to find jobs today did everything asked of them. They studied hard in high school, gained acceptance to prestigious universities, then buckled down further once they arrived.

To Ehrenreich, I thank you for your honesty.

Brian Till will begin his senior year this fall at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.