What the class of 2020 can learn from this crisis

For many students graduating this year, this time seems unfair. From quite possibly heading into the hottest job market in decades just weeks before to now entering into a job market with the highest unemployment figures. The reversal has been steep. A Stanford research paper from last year explained how recession graduates earn less for at least 10 to 15 years compared to those that graduate during normal times. But despite the clear negative economic ramifications of this crisis, it’s the social ramifications that should worry us the most.

As a member of the class of 2020, we owe it to those that come after us to ensure that we all collectively deal with the problems of the past. Commencement addresses almost always include some version of changing the world, and our unique attachment to this crisis offers us an interesting opportunity to do so. If only by ensuring that while our economic prospects might be dire, our social prospects needn’t be so. The world was an unequal place heading into the crisis, it’s going to be more unequal coming out of it. 

As the class of 2020, we’re given this unique opportunity to hit reset. We need to build a more equal world because while this might have been the biggest disruption of our lives until now, it’s unlikely to be the last. Automation is coming and it’s coming faster, not only because many businesses will heed the wrong lesson from this crisis- to replace their human workers more quickly. But as we’ve learned from this crisis, our heroes aren’t those that build tools for us to inhabit other planets, rather those that make this one better in the face of great adversity. Given the hold that this crisis will have on our lives as we go out in the real world we need to learn the right lessons- to build a more equitable and less tribal world. 

Political scientist, Robert Putnam had characterized this phenomenon in his book, Bowling Alone which laid bare how American civic and social life had been in disarray long before the tribalism of today. The irony is that given the current crisis, the only way you might be allowed to bowl is alone. Author, Brene Brown has long famously popularized the notion that we all need to embrace vulnerability, and what better time to start when we’re all faced with an unprecedented crisis? The first step to building a more empathetic world is to understand that we’re all afraid of something. This crisis has accurately exposed inequities of our social and civic life but given our unique place in history, we need to ensure that these inequities are temporary rather than permanent. If only by realizing the one lesson mother nature has been trying to teach us through this crisis- we’ve always been in this together. 

We’re heading to a world that is characterized by its uncertainty, and as the class of 2020, we can use that to ensure that “changing the world” is more than just a feel-good slogan at a commencement address. 

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