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Commencement Day for a Lost Generation

Bill Blum
Contributor
Bill Blum is a former judge and death penalty defense attorney. He is the author of three legal thrillers published by Penguin/Putnam ("Prejudicial Error," "The Last Appeal" and "The Face of Justice") and is a…
Bill Blum

More than 1.7 million students graduated from four-year colleges across the country over the past two months. Along with their parents, all have a story about what they took from their commencement ceremonies, and all have a story about what they expect once they enter our sorry excuse for a job market.

My parental story unfolded as the morning fog rolled away and sunlight streamed across the blue-gray expanse of Monterey Bay. I sat down for breakfast with my wife, oldest son Max and youngest offspring Sam, who would be donning the cap and gown that afternoon at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Our waiter, a young man about Sam’s age, attentively refilled our coffee cups and carefully recorded our orders. I breached the normal customer-server barrier and asked if he, too, was connected with the University of California. “I graduated last year,” he answered. “Philosophy major. Berkeley.” He gave us a knowing smile, wished us a great day and moved on to another table. I opened my wallet and left him an oversized tip. Despite our having taking out a personal loan and having scrimped on everything from cable TV to wintertime heating to help finance Sam’s education, this was no time to get frugal.

For a moment I flashed back to my own undergraduate career and Sartre’s parable of the cafe waiter who had invested so much of his essence in being a waiter that he had lost his authenticity and the capacity to transcend the circumstances of his job. And then it hit me just how much times had changed since I was a fresh face coming out of university. There was nothing inauthentic about our earnest young server. In fact, he was fortunate to have a job, much like Sam’s friend Joe, who had left Santa Cruz last year with honors in English literature only to find himself pouring lattes for customers at the Coffee Bean back home.

According to a study conducted by Northeastern University labor economist Andrew Sum, a mere 74.4 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 had jobs from October 2010 to March 2011. Of this same demographic, only 45.9 percent held positions that required a college degree, down from 80 percent a decade ago.

The country my generation is passing on to Sam and his peers is a mean-spirited place of global warming, class warfare and diminishing expectations, where the top 1 percent of households own nearly 35 percent of all privately held wealth and the “bottom” 80 percent lays claim to less than half that. It’s a place where that same top 1 percent receives 23 percent of the nation’s income, three-quarters of which stems from thinly taxed capital gains, and giant corporations such as General Electric and Exxon receive billions in federal tax subsidies. It’s a place where unions are disappearing and the public sector is dying, where good-paying entry-level jobs with health insurance and defined-benefit pensions are being replaced by unpaid internships, which nearly all colleges advertise at their career centers and on their websites. It’s a place where Republicans, emboldened by the tea party, clamor for ever more spending cuts, and Democrats, bereft of leadership and resolve, object only to the degree of retrenchment.

It is a place where it would be easy for students to fall into cynicism, despair and anger at their elders. But, to my surprise, there was little of that on display at the commencement. Maybe it was just Santa Cruz — the home to radical academics like the late Norman O. Brown, Angela Davis and G. William Domhoff (the author of the 1967 classic “Who Rules America?” from whose updated online work some of the depressing economic statistics cited above are taken). I found there a sense of continuity, a passing of the baton of social commitment from the old to the young.

Feminist-studies professor Bettina Aptheker delivered the commencement address. Exiles from the late ’60s and the ’70s like me remember Aptheker not only as an intellectual in her own right but as the daughter of Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker, a member of the American Communist Party and, though Jewish and white, a pioneer in the study of black history. Bettina Aptheker took the assembled throng on a 15-minute tour of the world’s major ills, from famine and rape in Darfur to climate change and corporate greed. She congratulated the science majors for their choice of career paths most likely to lead to immediate financial security and reminded the philosophy and history scholars that they had received an education enabling them to think critically and creatively. But most of all she exhorted everyone to understand that while none of us alone can repair the world, together we have a chance.

By the time she had finished, the coastal clouds had returned and the wind on the grassy field where the commencement took place had picked up. In a scene replayed at colleges across the nation, graduation caps were flung into the air, backs were slapped, fists were pumped, hugs were shared, dinner plans confirmed.

Still for me it was, and remains, hard to imagine exactly how the new crop of grads could come together in a divided nation for the common good, as Aptheker had urged, especially in view of their parents’ abject failures and the obstacles posed by the destructive top 1 percent whom Domhoff monitors. As I trundled off to the rental car, I reminded myself that Sam is more fortunate than many other young people in this crumbling nation: A family of two on welfare in California is expected to survive starting this July on a monthly stipend of only $516. In any case, there will plenty of time to answer the important questions this summer when Sam, like thousands of others among this country’s best and brightest, moves back in with his parents, struggles to repay his student loans (the latest figures show a national default rate of 8.9 percent, up nearly two ticks since 2009) and begins to chart a most uncertain future.

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