Graduation season is upon us, and with it all the speeches about shooting for the moon, going for the gold, nothing is impossible, yada yada. I myself have delivered three such college commencement addresses in recent years.
But as I've spent the last year crunching the numbers and talking to young people, I've come to see the striking disconnect between those greeting-card messages from the successful, usually middle-aged adult speakers and the reality of diminished expectations of our debt-ridden young people, anxiously emerging into the unwelcoming job market.
At a charity event recently, I spoke to Stella1, a friendly, socially conscious young volunteer on the verge of her college graduation. Jobless, she was gloomy about moving back in with her parents in a small town upstate. "What's your goal?" I asked her. "What kind of job would be your first choice?"
"I don't know," she said quietly. "To be someone's assistant, I guess."
I didn't know anyone who aspired to be an assistant when I graduated from college a generation ago. This kind of diminished dream is typical today.
Hundreds of teenaged girls were recently asked this question: "When you grow up, which of the following jobs would you most like to have?" The menu they were offered were:
- The chief of a major company like General Motors
- A Navy Seal
- A United States Senator
- The President of a great university like Harvard or Yale
- The personal assistant to a very famous singer or movie star
I clutched my heart reading this survey, because after speaking at many middle and high schools, I had a sick feeling I knew how this was going to turn out.
It was even worse than I thought.
The top choice? Over 43% chose personal assistant to a celebrity. A usually minimum wage, tedious job, picking up dry cleaning, getting coffee, answering phones, with little or no hope of advancement.
I am painfully aware that young people are obsessed with celebrities. Tabloid media and reality shows are dumbing us down at a frightening rate, as I wrote in my first book, Think. But the option here is not even to be a celebrity -- simply to be the go-fer for one. Girls are outperforming boys at every level of middle and high school. Their reading and communication skills are at an all time high. Doors have swung wide open for them. And this is their dream job?
Teenaged girls chose the personal assistant job two to four times as often as the other choices. Just 9 % chose "the chief of a major company like General Motors"; 10% chose "a Navy Seal"; 14% chose "a United States Senator"; 24% chose "the president of a great university like Harvard or Yale."
Of course all work has dignity. I worked several minimum wage jobs in my teens. Certainly there's nothing wrong with beginning young adulthood as an assistant, to learn about a field or get one's foot in the door. But as a fantasy job?
This dream deficit is typical for young people in 2012.
Underperforming at every level of school, dropping out of high school in record numbers, boys' expectations are even worse than girls'. In the course of interviewing boys for my new parenting book, Swagger, I met Giuseppe, an intellectually crackling eighteen-year-old high school student. I asked him about reading and the conversation pleasantly meandered to his favorite book, about Buddhist philosophy. "If you could have one thing in the world, what would it be?" I asked him. I was expecting an iPhone, the coolest new sneakers or, maybe, given our philosophical discussion, world peace.
Instead, his mood noticeably darkened in response to my question. "A job," he said, allowing his hoodie to slip over his eyes. "I've filled out like a hundred applications. Haven't even gotten one call. Do you know of any jobs?"
Any at all?
It's the subtext of nearly every conversation I have with young people, especially guys. Young male unemployment rates in the U.S. are currently the same as in Arab Spring countries: 18 to 25%. Many I interviewed yearned for jobs, independence and adulthood, intensely, angrily frustrated by their failure to launch.
Yet our culture's attitude is to belittle these jobless young men. A television producer recently asked me if I'd like to host a new reality show. The premise was that we'd do "interventions" in homes where twenty-something men are living on their parents' couches. They wanted me to be "big and loud" towards these "moochers."
Uh, no thanks. "How do you know there are jobs available?" I asked. "How do you know he wants to live this way? Perhaps he's depressed. Why is it all his fault?"
When did we decide to be so mean?
Perhaps some other television host will run with this concept, and we'll all sit comfortably in our living rooms and be entertained by humiliating young people whose dreams have been dashed.
No wonder young people are so disheartened.
I can just imagine Stella's or Giuseppe's reaction to a graduation speaker who tells them that the world is their oyster, that all they have to do is imagine. One third of people in their twenties is depressed, according to a recent British study. Insecurity about about unemployment and debt tops the list of their concerns. What cynical, dark thoughts run through graduates' minds as they sit this year in their caps and gowns?
"Get real," I bet, for starters. And they're right. They deserve more than clichés this year. A little honesty, even accountability, is in order.
So here's the real commencement address you'll probably never hear:
Young Americans, my generation has failed you.
In our time, we enjoyed decent public schools and low college tuition, and many of us sailed through them securely on our way to a middle class life. Today, as class sizes grow and schools crumble, our kids slip to the bottom third of developed countries in math and science. Most of our fourth graders don't read proficiently. One in five kids graduates high school illiterate -- if they finish at all. The majority of our African-American and Hispanic boys drop out. The majority. Far from the outcry this deserves, there's barely a whisper in the media about our drop in educational achievement, though we can count on hundreds of reporters to turn out for a court date featuring Lindsay Lohan.
Standards have slipped, we've deprioritized education and we've hardly even noticed. And young Americans, you are suffering as a result, arriving into adulthood without the knowledge and skills you need.
Older adults enjoy ridiculing you for your "slacker" ways, while we brag about how hard we had it. You know -- walking uphill through the snow for five miles both ways to go to school.
Young Americans, that you are slated to be the first group in American history to be less educated than your parents is our fault, not yours. While you were children, we allowed college costs to skyrocket 400%, pricing many of you out altogether, as though higher education is a luxury good, like a Rolex or a Ferrari, an extravagant perk for the rich only. More of you shoulder part- or even full-time jobs during college than ever before: the majority of you struggle with twenty or more hours per week of work while attending college. As a result, most -- most -- of today's college students drop out, and the top reason is that "the need to work and make money" became too stressful."
For those who do stay in school, many in my generation have taken advantage of you, hiring you as unpaid interns to do our grunt work in record numbers, when you deserve to be paid for your work just as we are. We ridicule you for living at home, instead of appreciating your family's willingness to sacrifice and support you during a time of the highest unemployment rates for college grads in over a decade.
Young Americans, you deserve more than platitudes about reaching for the stars. You deserve a quality public education, low cost college, and more than McJobs upon graduation. My generation has failed to deliver those basic items to you.
At a minimum, you deserve our apologies and our respect. Because you are the ones who are walking uphill through the snow.
1 I changed the names to protect the privacy of the young people in this article.
Lisa Bloom is a practicing attorney, television commentator, and the author of Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness and Thug Culture and Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, now out in paperback.