By the middle of June, more than 1.8 million young Americans will have graduated from four-year colleges this year. Many will have endured commencement speeches intended to inspire and motivate. “Find your passion,” “dream big” and “don’t be afraid to fail” are still universal themes. But, in an age of snarkiness, the idealistic approach is fading on campus, perhaps for understandable reasons.
It’s true that last year was the best for job creation since 2000, and that the economy is enjoying its longest uninterrupted stretch of private-sector job creation on record. It’s also true that the labor market finally is generating more high-skill jobs. Still, the prospects for graduates — and for other millennials — aren’t all that terrific.
Start with the fact that, for multiple reasons, three in five millennials never make it to the college graduation stage. It’s not that these young people don’t work. They do. They just don’t make much money. Incomes for people between 25 and 34 have fallen every year since 2007 in every field but health care. Even for college graduates, underemployment is rampant and getting worse. While the unemployment rate has declined dramatically, the underemployment rate for college grads remains 7 percentage points higher than it was in 2000. Overall, wages for recent college grads have fallen by 7.7 percent over the same period. As Derek Thompson wrote recently in the Atlantic, “College grads still aren’t finding ‘college jobs.’ ”
If you add in the problem of student debt, you begin to understand why universities are increasingly selecting comedians and other entertainers to give commencement speeches. This year’s lineup included Stephen Colbert at Wake Forest, Ed Helms at Virginia, Maya Rudolph at Tulane, Jon Bon Jovi at Rutgers, Matthew McConaughey at Houston, Stephanie Courtney at Binghamton and Anthony Hopkins at Pepperdine.
Robert De Niro, with a characteristic twinkle in his eye, told NYU grads, “A new door is opening for you — a door to a lifetime of rejection.”
Despite the gallows humor, it should be noted that a high-paying job may not be the main benefit of a college education. And even for those with a paycheck in mind, college grads enjoy a big leg up over their non-college contemporaries in the job market. Yes, college grads are taking a hit on income, but non-college grads are getting creamed. More and more, the Atlantic piece observed, a college degree is looking less like a ticket to success than an insurance policy against failure.
Or, as Winston Churchill may have said long before the dawn of snarkiness: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”