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A misled generation graduates to a future behind the counter

The Baltimore Sun

Last month, author Barbara Ehrenreich gave a chilling address to the Class of 2007 at Haverford College near Philadelphia. She told the graduates, "At the moment you accept your diploma today, you will have an average debt of $20,000 and no health insurance. You may be feeling desperate enough to take whatever comes along. Some of you will get caged in cubicles until you're ejected by the next wave of layoffs."

She continued: "Others - some of the best and brightest of you, in fact - will still be behind a counter in Starbucks or Borders three years down the road."

And so, on a day typically marked by tears of pride, inspirational toasts and congratulatory gifts, at least one American college had a somber brush with reality. Ms. Ehrenreich's harsh but realistic rant struck some as insulting, but others, many of them graduates, found solace in her words: At least one representative of the generations ahead of us is willing to be honest about the state of the world we are to inherit.

Year after year, as I see friends graduate from reputable schools and watch all but a select few struggle to find jobs, I can't help but reflect on how horribly my generation has been misled.

Since our first days of grade school, we've been duped - told that if we worked hard in high school and gained acceptance to a good college, the world would be ours.

To be clear, the students Ms. Ehrenreich damned to Starbucks and Borders weren't graduating from a community college or a second-tier state school. Haverford is one of the country's more respected small, liberal arts schools. Almost 90 percent of its students graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes.

It's a common exercise for commencement speakers to ask graduates to look around at their classmates and see "future leaders of America" or "future best-selling authors." But with the Department of Education predicting a flood of 1.3 million graduates into the job market to join the work force of a stagnant economy this summer, many graduates will find it hard to envision those few leaders among all the bartenders and third-shift managers blocking the view.

A study by the Economic Mobility Project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, found that men in their 30s have a median annual income of about $35,000. Thirty years ago, American men in their 30s were making 12.5 percent more, their median annual income closer $40,000 (after adjusting for inflation).

At Amherst College in Massachusetts, graduates were lectured on our nation's similarities to the Roman Empire. Amherst President Anthony Marx cautioned, "If we do not learn from the limits of our victories, we risk the fate of Rome."

In his commencement address at Tufts University, also in Massachusetts, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg spoke of the graduates' parents and relatives "beaming proudly and not even thinking about what it cost to get to this day. Or what happens if you can't get a job and have to move back home." That joke will undoubtedly be less comical after the graduation parties end and the job search starts up.

It appears that my generation is stuck with the hazy morning after - the inevitable, dreary dawn after being rushed awake. We've been dragged out of a deep sleep and awakened to a harsh reality.

Parents, guidance counselors and principals assuaged us: Keep working hard; get into a good college; your future will be bright. They cajoled us, all the while electing leaders who ran up the deficit without hesitation, who refused to listen to the science community about the dangers of global warming, and who refused to take steps to adjust our economy while lifting trade barriers.

Most of those recent graduates struggling to find jobs today did everything asked of them. They studied hard in high school. Many gained acceptance to prestigious universities, then buckled down further once they arrived.

To Ms. Ehrenreich, I thank you for your honesty.

To the graduates of the new millennium: The cards may be stacked against us, but we're hardly the first generation of Americans stuck with an uphill battle. Our apathy and taste for procrastination must be left by the wayside because, as Ms. Ehrenreich warned last week, "it's a matter of survival."

Brian Till is a Haverford College student and freelance writer working as a research assistant for several Washington-based journalists. His e-mail is

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