LONGMONT, Colo. 05/20/2011 — Graduation speakers across America will be in a reflective mood over the next few weeks. It’s an annual ritual. Student speakers, in particular, reflect on the journey they’ve traveled and what the future might hold.
I heard my first round of graduation speeches last night. The narratives included the usual mix of “we can change the world.” I enjoy the inherent sense of optimism expressed by young people. But, I heard something else last night that struck a nerve.
One student recounted events of the past decade that shape our shared memories. It was an unsettling tale.
Young people – all of us – could easily look back on the past ten-plus years and feel a lot like Charlie Brown. One could easily spin a narrative that nothing’s going right in the world. It’s been a decade of terror, war, disasters and economic upheaval.
This year’s graduates are old enough to remember 9/11. Madrid and London have also been attacked. Our country has been at war nearly, if not, half their lives. We don’t yet know if the Middle East is on a path to democracy or will implode. And, in a war of a different type, our neighbor Mexico has lost tens of thousands of lives in a drug war.
Terror also strikes close to home. The Columbine and Virginia Tech shooting sprees and Washington, DC sniper attacks took place during these students’ formative years.
Major natural disasters seem to be an annual event: Tsunami’s in the Indian Ocean; Hurricane Katrina; earthquakes in Haiti; floods in Pakistan, and, this year alone, the earthquake and nuclear disaster in Japan, record floods along the Mississippi and devastating tornadoes throughout the Southeast – not to mention the BP Oil Spill.
Our economy began to unravel when this year’s seniors were freshman. First came the mortgage crisis and the bursting housing bubble. Then came the collapse of Wall Street followed by the auto industry going belly up. The economy continues to stumble along with an anemic job market that leads, by some estimates, two-thirds of college graduates to return home.
Bailouts, stimulus, austerity and deeply partisan fights over health care and budgets have dominated political news the past few years. The Tea Party was born in protest. And, Americans hold their elected leaders in lower regard than even the days of Watergate.
Americans are in a bad mood. Nearly three in four Americans is dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States according to recent Gallup polls. This is a slight uptick from two or three years ago but nearly double the level of dissatisfaction recorded in 2000.
Looking back at the top news stories of the past decade and it’s easy to understand why.
I would argue there is different narrative that took shape while this year’s graduates were going through school that will have a far greater influence on their lives.
If I were asked to write a headline, I would describe the past ten-plus years as “The decade of liberation.” The tools of learning, production, distribution and communication are accessible – or on the verge of being accessible – to us all.
It is increasingly possible to learn where and when we want, to design and manufacture our own products, to share and collaborate with people across the globe. A kid working with a few friends in his dorm room can now conceive of and create one of the most powerful companies in the world. The possibilities for us all are profound.
I am curious to know how historians will write about these times. Will they focus on terror, wars and economic strife? Or, will they emphasize the new infrastructure that is taking shape that enables us all to be creators and proprietors of our own lives?
I hope this year’s graduates learn from the difficult experiences we’ve had to endure so mistakes are not repeated and so society can be better prepared.
I also am excited for young people who will embark into a world in which the limits of time, place and, to large extent, economics are no longer constraints. We are in the early stages of a remarkable time in history. It’s a great time to be young.
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John Creighton writes on community life and public leadership at johncr8on.com. He can be found on Twitter @johncr8on and on Facebook. Read more of John’s work in Dispatches From The Heartland at the Communities at the Washington Times.
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