Today, as it rained outside my apartment I found myself reading commencement addresses. I meandered from John F. Kennedy’s speech to American University about the need for world peace to Steve Jobs’ address urging Stanford to stay hungry and stay foolish. I ambled between the words of greats like Winston Churchill and George Marshall, whose speeches to otherwise distracted students in mortarboards ended up changing the world.
I read, but didn’t linger. It was not until I got to the commencement address of Bradley Whitford to the University of Wisconsin in 1993 that I found what I was looking for.
I know you’re probably asking the same thing I was: who the hell is Bradley Whitford. And standing against names like Kennedy and Churchill it is a fantastic question. In fact, he’s a relative nobody. An American actor best known for his role as Deputy Chief of Staff on the West Wing, or as he refers to himself in the speech, a “glorified circus clown from a television show.”
Whitford’s lack of name recognition doesn’t get in the way of his ability to inspire. Indeed, his words likely speak to this generation of young adults more than any in recent memory:
“Many of you started here in the fall of 2000. You go out into a world we could not have imagined four years ago. Ominous threats seek to distract us from achieving our spectacular potential as individuals, as a nation and as a delicate, shrinking planet. We need you.
Come as you are, armed with nothing more than the tools of a mediocre television actor. All we need is for you to find joy in your journey, to find satisfaction in hard work, to be aware of what is happening around you, to free yourself of imagined limitations, to listen, and finally, to act – not to play make believe. This isn’t a television show. The choices are difficult and the consequences are real.
No matter where you stand politically, we need you to participate in an urgent discussion about the future that we will all share.”
In many ways this belief doesn’t just distract, but diverts us from reaching our potential. The latest data from the Associated Press shows that 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of college graduates under the age of 25 were either jobless or underemployed.
The deep cut left by years spent in a low-skill job is not one that will heal anytime soon. The AP tells the story of Michael Bledsoe, a 23-year-old college graduate with a degree in creative writing. Fresh from graduation Bledsoe blitzed the job market, sending out dozens of applications each week. After three months of rejections or worse, being ignored, Bledsoe took a barista job at a local coffeeshop. He still works their, sending out a dwindling stream of resumes to employers who become less and less impressed with his lack of experience.
Many young adults face much the same struggle. After donning their robes and turning their tassels from right to left, Americas youth are left to fend for themselves in a tough economy. With no job or prospects to speak of they return home, live with their parents, take a job they are overqualified for, and grow gradually less attractive to employers.
It’s a vicious cycle made worse by President Obama’s lack of answers.
Now is not the time for resigned complacency, it is time for young adults to stand up and participate in the urgent discussion about the future. It’s time to fight for lower deficits, to ensure that are futures are unburdened by today’s largesse. It’s time to reduce Washington’s reach, to allow the private sector to grow and create the jobs Americans desperately need. And it’s time to fight for a competitive tax system, to keep America attractive to the next generation of entrepreneurs and businesses.
As Whitford concluded his commencement speech, “you don’t just get democracy – you have to make it happen.” America’s young adults should heed his call.