To the most important generation in history ...

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

This Sunday is OPRF High School's graduation ceremony. I'd offer my accumulated wisdom to the outgoing class but instead found a couple of others with wiser counsel worth attending.

Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, recently published a book titled, Thank You for Being Late – An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. I'm only halfway through but find it equally unnerving and exciting — similar to what our soon-to-be graduates are likely feeling. 

Life and the pace of change are accelerating, Friedman says, in three main arenas: Technology, Globalization, and Climate Change. It's hard to keep up. Well, that's wildly understated. It's pretty much impossible, but speeding up is not the only response. Keep in mind his book is "An Optimist's Guide to Thriving," so Friedman, at least, sees hope. I just haven't gotten there yet. 

I'm still in the unnerving part of the book. It's been a long time since I read something that truly "blew my mind," but this book has. That's OK. Our minds need to be blown. Blown open, that is, and on a regular basis.

If Friedman were to deliver the commencement address to the OPRF High School Class of 2017, it would probably be titled, "Say Goodbye to All That."

"Just as we seem to be leaving the Holocene climate epoch," he writes, "that perfect Garden of Eden period when everything in nature was nicely in balance, we are also leaving the Holocene epoch for work. … [Back then] just working an average of five days a week at an average of eight hours a day, you could buy a house, have an average of 2.0 kids, visit Disney World occasionally, save for an average retirement and sunset to life. …

"Well, say goodbye to all that."

And to much else.

"The high-wage, middle-skilled job has gone the way of Kodak film," he says. "In the age of accelerations, there is increasingly no such animal in the zoo anymore. There are still high-wage, high-skilled jobs. And there are still middle-wage, middle-skilled jobs. But there is no longer a high-wage, middle-skilled job.

"Average is officially over. When I graduated from college, I got to find a job; my girls have to invent theirs. I attended college to learn skills for life, and lifelong learning for me afterward was a hobby. My girls went to college to learn the skills that could garner them their first job, and lifelong learning for them is a necessity for every job thereafter. Today's American dream is now more of a journey than a fixed destination — and one that increasingly feels like walking up a down escalator. You can do it. We all did it as kids — but you have to walk faster than the escalator, meaning that you need to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, obtain at least some form of postsecondary education, make sure you're engaged in lifelong learning, and play by the new rules while also reinventing some of them. Then you can be in the middle class."

Friedman admits that's not a great bumper-sticker slogan. And this may be a lot to lay on new high school graduates, but better to hear it now than crash into it unawares later and wonder why they can't find a rung on the ladder.

More upbeat is the advice Bill Gates, who never completed college, dispensed to new grads in a recent essay on Mic.com.

"Some things in life," he wrote, "are true no matter what career you choose. I wish I had understood these things better when I left school. For one thing, intelligence is not quite as important as I thought it was, and it takes different forms. In the early days of Microsoft, I believed that if you could write great code, you could also manage people or run a marketing team or take on any other task. I was wrong about that. I had to learn to recognize and appreciate people's different talents. The sooner you can do this, if you don't already, the richer your life will be. …

"If I could give each of you a graduation present, it would be copy of The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. … It is the most inspiring book I have ever read. Pinker makes a persuasive argument that the world is getting better — that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. This can be a hard case to make, especially now. When you tell people the world is improving, they often look at you like you're either crazy or naïve. 

"But it's true. And once you understand it, you start to see the world differently. If you think things are getting better, then you want to know what's working, so you can accelerate the progress and spread it to more people and places. It doesn't mean you ignore the serious problems we face. It just means you believe they can be solved, and you're moved to act on that belief. …

"This is an amazing time to be alive. I hope you make the most of it."

My tip for new grads — high school, college, postgraduate or lifelong learners — is to read both Thank You for Being Late and The Better Angels of Our Nature (the latter from a phrase coined by our most influential president, Abraham Lincoln), and read them as soon as possible because, just as I agree with Bill Gates that our problems can be solved, I also agree with Thomas Friedman that we're quickly running out of time. 

Unnerving? Indeed. Exciting? Absolutely.

What that means is you are the most important generation in the history of the world.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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