What’s missing from graduation speeches

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/04/22/whats-missing-from-graduation-speeches/

Graduation season is upon us, and thus starts the annual ritual of the middle-aged and elderly offering advice to the young. “Go forth and change the world!” “You can do anything!” “You have freedoms and resources that previous generations only dreamed of, take advantage of them!” These sentiments are unobjectionable, if trite. But is it all they need to hear?

American culture celebrates successful individuals who pursue their dreams, and develop their talents, at all costs. We celebrate Steve Jobs transforming personal computing from an idea to a product and changing the world while accumulating incomprehensible wealth; Oprah Winfrey developing a multi-media empire; or athletic stars, like Michael Jordan, whose passion for the game is so strong it appears nothing can overcome it.

We encourage our youth to emulate these cultural shooting stars – to focus on being the best, to let nothing stand in the way of “success.” But think of the happiest people you know personally, particularly the happiest old people. Most did not get there by obsessively pursuing professional success (though many are conventionally successful) but, instead, by sacrificing for others, usually their spouse and children. They age in constant contact with a network of beloved family and members and the community or church in which they raised their families – they are rarely surrounded by Steve from Accounting or Jill from Sales.

Yet for some reason we are loathe to point out to our youth that, for almost all of us, the success of our family will have as much or more to do with our long term happiness as the success of our careers. Even though marriage rates are on the decline, it is still true that 70 percent of people 25 to 34 have been married. Thus the odds are that vast majority of the 18- or 22-year-olds listening to graduation speeches will get married, and do so within 10 years of hearing the graduation speech. And yet marriage is rarely mentioned as something for young people to ponder when considering the future, even though the odds of getting married probably dwarf the odds of actually finding a job in your college major.

It is understandable why marriage is rarely a topic of graduation speeches – marriage can be hard, and success is not guaranteed. After generations when heterosexual marriage was essentially forced on everyone as an “expectation” of early adulthood (with predictably bad results for, among others, gays and lesbians) we want to be cautious about encouraging people to “pair off” who aren’t ready for marriage for whatever reason. Some strains of feminism view marriage and children as in tension with, if not inconsistent with, women’s ability to achieve career success, which can makes marriage and family an uncomfortable topic for a graduation speech at liberal institutions. Moreover, anyone who has actually been married for a few decades is generally cautious about overselling the institution. Like parenting, just because marriage can bring you the deepest joy imaginable does not mean that each moment is idyllic.

But marriage remains the building block for a successful society. Not all of us can change the world like Steve Jobs (who on his deathbed recognized that he had misplaced his priorities with respect to his family), but most of us can change our world by finding a spouse to share our life with, starting a family and providing those children with a stable and comfortable home. While we may change jobs numerous times during our adult lives, we (hopefully) will choose only one spouse, who will be there for our benefit and that of our children, throughout it all. Whether to get married, and to whom, is an important decision – probably the most important one recent graduates make.

And yet, discussion of how graduates might discern their desires with respect to marriage and children, or how they might seek to maximize the love and connectedness they have in their life, or how a successful marriage and family might be the paramount achievement of their life, rather than a merely a detour on the way to material success, is notably absent from the advice we give our youth at graduation time.

So if you really want to be countercultural at your next graduation party, after listening to the graduate’s professional school or career plans, ask him: “So, who are you dating?” In addition to winning the “most awkward party guest” award, you might spark a discussion that is worth having.

Robert N. Driscoll is a native of the Boston area who currently practices law in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his firm. Nor are they the views of his wife, daughters, or greyhounds. Read his past columns here.

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