Those who address graduates usually speak about the struggle to obtain success in life. Graduates are told that they must now face the difficult challenges that await them. They should accept no limits in their quest to change the world. Armed with their new skills, they can now face whatever life can throw at them.
Such speeches have long served to launch graduates out into the world. However, this year’s Generation Z graduates face different challenges that also need to be addressed.
Rarely do we find a graduating class that enjoys such prosperous times as ours. Graduates will face little difficulty securing a job inside today’s tight labor market. Colleges will seek them out, offering them opportunities to further their education on excellent terms. Employers will cater to their every need supplying unheard-of perks, lattes, and benefits. Even the government is working to lend them a helping hand as legislators look for ways to “forgive” student debt and provide free college in the future. Indeed, this year’s graduates will be the least materially challenged in decades.
Happy Economic Times Are Here Again
All of this is due to the happy economic times that are here again, as unemployment is down to levels unseen in nearly fifty years. Wages are also rising. Industrial production is up as the economy is booming. Graduates have before them an enormous variety of goods and services through which they can enjoy life as never before.
Thus, the traditional advice about challenges, limits and misfortunes, while still helpful, is not nearly as relevant today. Life seems to be throwing much more fortune than misfortune at graduates. It is hard to imagine what advice to offer those who will soon have everything.
Perhaps it is best to acknowledge defeat and keep it simple—no need for poetic prose or pompous ceremony. According to the trend of the day, today’s ideal graduation address would be better delivered in a tweet that would say in fewer than 288 characters, “Sign the best contract, enjoy life and be happy. Go forth and join the party while it lasts.”
The Anxious Generation
However, that is not the message today’s graduates need. Happy economic times may be here again, but young people are uneasy.
While this year’s graduates may be the least materially challenged in decades, they face a world of contradictions that causes them enormous anxieties. The new generation is not a particularly sad generation, but one that is insecure and nervous.
Sociologists point out that the present generation will be the most anxious one to go to work.* Universities have been overwhelmed by students experiencing extreme anxiety and mental-health issues. Widespread stress creates difficulty for new hires to stay focused and calm. Employers are baffled by their behavior.
The good times only make their suffering worse since the optimistic world outside clashes with the dramatic fears inside. They suffer the anxiety of living Facebook lives of appearing fine online while feeling insecure in their souls.
Addressing the Causes
Thus, any message to the Class of 2019 should address the causes of these terrible anxieties that afflict postmodern youth. We need to denounce the contradictions of the culture that promises them everything yet delivers them to the whimsical terrors of their anxieties.
In this sense, there are three causes of anxiety that should be addressed.
The first cause is a world that strongly affirms uncertainty. The contradictory messages graduates have long received is that the only certain thing is that there are no certainties. The only universal truth is that there are no universal truths—only what we experience at the moment. Truth is whatever is true to you right now, values are whatever you happen to value and you are whatever you self-identify as.
The Challenge of Emptiness and Hyper-Individualism
The second cause of anxiety is a world “full” of emptiness. We live frenzied lives with hectic schedules bursting with notifications, interruptions, and noise. We suffer the immense anxiety of wanting everything instantly and effortlessly, yet we experience the emptiness of never feeling satisfied.
A culture that is the expression of unbridled-yet-empty desires loses its core and becomes hollowed-out and soulless. Thus, we face empty Facebook friendships, fake news cycles, and empty politically-correct narratives.
The final cause of anxiety in graduates is the contradiction of hyper-individualism. Individualism is a deformation by which a person becomes the center of an enclosed world of personal self-interest that tends to disregard that person’s social role in a community. This develops into a hyper-individualism with the introduction of electronic and social media that facilitate and intensify a person’s vice of self–absorption.
This hyper-individualism brings anxiety because it causes two contrary movements inside the soul. It causes isolation from others by the lack of direct human contact with others. It leads to conformity because the person seeks to break the intense isolation by projecting a false image of what that person imagines is popular in mass and social media.
The Right Message for Graduates
Thus, the message for today’s graduates should not be focused on the material prosperity that they will have, but on the spiritual security that they do not have. They must reject a culture and education system that fail to address the causes of their hidden anxieties and frustrations.
The message graduates need is not new, but is neglected in the chaos of our postmodernity. In our zeal for material progress, we have ignored the enduring truths upon which all true progress is built. We have forsaken and even hated the Christian moral principles that have set us free from the slavery of our unbridled passions.
Thus, we must return to that secure moral and social order that comes from our human nature, valid for all times and all peoples. It is firmly based on the orienting principles of natural law and the Ten Commandments, and rooted in the social institutions of family, community, and faith.
Thus, to dispel their anxieties, graduates must boldly seek after objective truth, not subjective feelings. They must be willing to put their lives in order by following those timeless moral principles that link us to the order God stamped in the universe. They can fight uncertainty by never being afraid to declare something right or wrong.
Graduates can become calm by rejecting our frenzied and empty culture. They can then value tranquility, recollection, leisure, and prayer. They can come to enjoy those proportional spiritual pleasures like conversation, art, and silence.
Above all, they should remember that confiding in God Who is the source of all certainty will put their minds at rest. If they follow this final piece of advice, even in the worst of times, they will indeed have everything. As Saint Teresa of Avila said, “Whoever has God, lacks nothing.”
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* “The Most Anxious Generation Goes to Work” by Sue Shellenbarger. The Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2019.