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Michael Hodin Headshot

Dear University Leadership

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Kenneth C. Zirkel via Getty Images

Dear University Leadership,

First, thank you very much for the invitation to give the 2014 commencement address. I very humbly accept the invitation

I recognize what a fine tradition of commencement addresses your institution has and I hope that my contribution will continue this honorable heritage.

While I will admit I was taken aback at your request to review my outline in advance, I suppose I do understand how sensitive University culture has become to what ideas are put forward. In preparing mine I have reviewed commencement addresses given at your university over the past decade, and I have noticed a few themes:

  • Persevering in the face of adversity
  • Doing both well and good
  • Shattering stereotypes and expectations
  • Saving the whales

Moving stuff, all.

This year, however, I wish to discuss something different. My topic, while challenging conventional norms will, I hope, still meet your approval and, importantly offer some wisdom to the graduates. My main point is to underscore for the graduates that even though we are living in the midst of an absolutely pivotal demographic transformation time, we still cling -- and your university still perpetuates -- norms, conventions, laws and regulations built for a different century. In this 21st century, the world will work differently. Lives are longer. Babies are fewer. And the proportion of old-to-young that once justified the shape of our social, civic, and professional lives has flipped upside down.

I should like to offer that today's youth are at the brink of something unprecedented: re-inventing work in America. It is to that end that I wish to speak. At your request, I hereby submit the outline:

  1. Plan differently. Your grandparents were children of the depression; your parents were part of the "baby boom." You are part of the first generation ever that can -- and must -- prepare to live to be 100. What are you going to do with the next 80 years? How on earth can you expect to retire at 55? Your longevity is ushering in an entirely new era of the human experience. Each stage of your life should be lived with your unique longevity in mind.
  2. Demand more. You will not get a pension. Your retirement package will be peanuts compared to what your parents and grandparents got. Sorry about that. But instead of wallowing, create new demands. Chances are, you will at some point be a "caregiver" for your parents. How are you going to manage that while working full-time? And that career ladder that everyone's talking about? How high can the thing go? With five-decades of work life ahead of you, think of yourself working on a lattice. Go sideways. Move laterally. It's not a straight shot. Make sure your employer gets that. If they don't, teach it to them.
  3. Be the solution. If you paid attention in history class, you will have noticed a trend: empires rise and fall. The Greeks. The Romans. The Spanish. The Portuguese. The British. The Chinese, Egyptians, Russians. And the Americans? Well, the day will come. And it's up to you to stretch out the prosperity. A prosperity that has led the world. That means being part of what it takes to get the U.S.'s fiscal house in order. How the U.S. manages to capture opportunity from it's aging population, and how the multi-generational workplace emerges in the U.S. in the coming decade will prove to be critical. You will work alongside people more than three-times your age. Take advantage of the opportunities.
  4. Create a social agenda. The '60s generation made so much noise and caused such an upheaval because they created a new agenda. That agenda is basically still around today. And it's as ill-fit for your needs as the institutional dogma it was revolting against. Think about what matters to you. What are you going to do when 35 million Americans have Alzheimer's? Or when the 65+ segment is a quarter of the population? Or when your parents both celebrate turning 95? If you do nothing, your parents may well spend twenty years "in a home." As bad as that'll be for them, it'll be worse for you.
  5. Reinvigorate the culture of work. Chances are, you're a fan of writers like Thomas Friedman who continue to tell how "the world is flat" and globalization is changing how America should behave in the world. Maybe. But what will really shape the U.S.'s fortune in the 21st century is what scholar Nicholas Eberstadt calls "America's entitlement epidemic." The U.S. government, as purveyor and distributor of over 2 trillion in entitlements each year, now functions in a way that would be scarcely recognizable to the white-wigged forefathers you heard mentioned on John Stewart. Your job is to reinvigorate the once-heralded American work ethic, but to do so in an aging world. There is no greater challenge and no more important task. Aging isn't about old people. It's about you and your children.

Please accept my apologies in advance for failing to mention the rain forests in Brazil or Matt Damon's tweets on World Water Day. I thank you again for this opportunity, and I hope you will share my commencement outline with others outside the university. Commencement addresses offer an opportunity to look ahead. And what lies in our near future is a world that looks very different than the one that we're used to. I'm sure the whales will understand.