MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Today's college graduates must face change with confidence in a "highly unstable, unequal and unsustainable" world and help others do the same, former President Bill Clinton said Sunday at West Virginia University.
In previous generations, Clinton said, young people needed only to get an education, land a job, pay taxes and vote intelligently to be a good citizen.
"Today, we also have to do what we can as private citizens to tackle public problems and advance the public good," he told more than 1,000 graduates of WVU's Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. He urged them to embrace change and get in "the future business."
The 21st century is an exciting time to enter adulthood, he said.
"When I became president, believe it or not, there were only 50 sites on the entire World Wide Web. There've been more than that added since I started talking," Clinton said. Mobile phones once weighed 5 pounds, and now "people with big hands have a hard time dialing numbers."
But not everyone is in a position to take advantage of change, technological or otherwise.
"Change falls unevenly in our country and in our world, and for all of its benefits, the time you live in is highly unstable, and unequal and unsustainable," he said.
From a financial crisis that triggered the Great Recession to incidents of domestic terrorism, Americans are exposed to dangers they hadn't expected, Clinton said.
The nation's thirst for energy is unquenched, and disasters still unfold in the race to supply it – including the April 5 explosion that killed 29 men in West Virginia's Upper Big Branch coal mine and the massive oil spill now threatening the Gulf Coast.
Some people respond to change with fear, digging in their heels, Clinton said.
That's what the former president said he saw in Virginia when Gov. Bob McDonnell declared April "Confederate History Month" but didn't acknowledge slavery until pressed.
Clinton said it wasn't racism that caused the flap; it was politicians playing to the anxieties of people who struggle to make sense of the current world and "don't feel like they have a place to stand."
"They were scared to death. ... They were saying, 'Stop the world, I want to get off,'" he said.
Fear of change is also evident in the battle that states such as Arizona are having over immigration, Clinton said.
He urged graduates to focus instead on finding common ground and solutions that work for everyone.
The sequencing of the human genome revealed all people are 99.9 percent the same, he said.
"In an interdependent world, the only way to celebrate what is unique about your life is to recognize that what we have in common matters more," he said.
Clinton earned cheers and standing ovations from a crowd of nearly 10,000 gathered to watch the graduates collect their degrees. It was one of 14 graduation exercises held in Morgantown throughout the weekend.