Thursday, June 05, 2008

Just One Word: Plastics

Who does not recall the title's words as the quintessence of sage advice of the 1960s, from the film The Graduate? What would we tell the graduates of today, among them my son, who is getting his bachelor's degree from Harvard this morning? Computers? Homeland security? A young man wants the answer, but he wants to find it on his own.

My recollection of this period of my life involves a healthy dose of anxiety. The first lesson I learned in the job market was that everyone wanted someone experienced. How the hell was I going to get experience unless someone hired me?

Besides, what was wrong with these people? They were merely interested in making money, when I brought the wisdom of the ages.

Yes, what one is going to do with one's future -- asked of The Graduate's Ben as of everyone at that stage -- seems the important question, but it really isn't. Much more important than a job and a future, it seems to me, is learning and the present.

What have you learned? I toted up 17 years between kindergarten and my university graduation and, at the time, I asked my good friend Michael what I had learned.

"Never to do it again," was his reply. Three decades later, my son laughed at the words, as I tried to help him make sense of his moment.

One hopes a university graduate has learned how to learn. Perhaps a graduate has a rough map of stored human knowledge and where it is to be found.

A few graduates have particular, occupationally specific skills. Yet in a world in which most people can expect to change careers, not just jobs, several times in a lifetime, this is not all that meaningful.

Besides, making a living is predictably easier than it seems at first blush. Anxious graduates remind me of fretful mothers who worried whether their babies would ever walk and talk. After all, how many people never learn how to walk and talk?

Even at the depths of the Great Depression 78 percent of all able-bodied available U.S. workers were employed. That wasn't good news for the 23 percent that weren't, but it meant that you had a 4 in 5 chance of having a job. Today U.S. national unemployment stands at 5 percent. This means that 95 percent of all people able and willing to work hold jobs. You have more than 9 out of 10 chances of being employed.

My son and his peers will get jobs, likely get married, have kids, "the full catastrophe" as Zorba put it. Anthony Quinn, who played the Nikos Kazantzakis character, rendered the adjective with a faux Greek accent that lent the phrase delicious ambiguity. In his mouth it sounded as "the fool catastrophe."

So the first concern is what one learns, not what one can do with it. The wise and honest answer is perhaps that of Socrates: that one knows nothing.

The second is like it: who one is. A young man or woman at the age of graduating from university is most clearly no longer a child. Graduation is the modern bar mitzvah, the coming of age ceremony for the educated classes in the Western world.

My son's grandfather was given $100 in 1923 and told to make his way after he came out of Princeton and set out for business in New York. According to the inflation calculator, that's $1,227.31 in 2007 dollars.

So, who are you at this moment in which parents watch you fly off the nest for the last time? There's a different answer for everyone.

I would like to suggest that we are all, at any given point in our lives, somewhat more than what you look like, how much you earn, the kind of work you do or the kind of mate you attract. In some ways we are all less unusual and unique than we would like to think, less free to be individual; in others, we have made choices that define us -- rarely irrevocably.

If you or someone you know is graduating this season, take a moment to take stock, an unhurried pause, without thinking about a job and the future. Just revel in what you understand and who you are this moment.

Before you know it ... it will be gone.
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