A Speech for the Generations

Retiring professor Alan Robbins wants to tell graduating students that where they are in life is not that different from where he is.

May 20, 2016

As the semester ends, my graduating students have only one thing in mind: getting through the ceremony so they can finally start what we all coyly refer to as real life.

That includes sitting through the inevitable, and frequently interminable, commencement address. As a professor, I have endured plenty of them and been by turns bemused, bored or just plain exhausted. You can take only so much wisdom, especially when you know that most of it sounds better than it works. I have heard all the advice, snappy quotes, telling anecdotes and smart jokes, and I always hope that my soon-to-be ex-students get more out of all that than I do.

I do, however, have sympathy for the speakers. I can only imagine what it must be like to face all those young people, filled with energy and anxiety about their plans, confident and concerned about their future, hopeful and worried about what comes next. It must be hard to figure out what to say that has not been said before.

But not for me. This year I have something in common with my graduating students. They may be ending their college careers, but I am, too. After decades of teaching, I am planning to retire. So although no one has asked me, I know just what I would say to them as they face their uncertain futures. Only six words: “I know exactly how you feel.”

Pearls of wisdom gathered and polished over years of adulthood would play better, but, to tell the truth, I have little to offer in that respect. In fact, I would prefer to sit down with the students and commiserate and share worries -- although I doubt that it would be proper to descend from the podium for a nice whine party.

After all this time, what I have to tell them is less about success and more about how I feel their pain. It is ironic but true. Here we are, after all, at opposite ends of the work cycle -- not to mention the life cycle -- and yet we share more emotionally and psychologically than anyone would imagine.

The most obvious point is that we are all seniors now, although the description may be a tad more upbeat for them. About three million undergraduate degrees will be granted this year. That’s roughly the same number of boomers who will retire. We are all ending one phase of life and starting another … and trying to figure out what to do next. I see the worry in their faces when they talk to me about it, the hope that things will work out for them and the concern that they might not. But honestly, I see that exact same expression when I look in the mirror.

Naturally they worry about money, about making it and keeping it and having enough to meet their needs. News flash: me, too. The average student loan debt this year will be around $35,000. That is something to be concerned about. But my generation has not only education debt but credit card, car and mortgage debt, too. I would love to be all wise and sympathetic about this, but I have my own problems here.

We are also all looking for jobs. Students need to jump-start new careers fast, but so do I. Boomers for the most part do not retire; they re-career. My recent graduates are mostly working, but all of my retired friends are working. The trader became an actor. The teacher became a docent. I will return to writing full time. But there is no guarantee that any of this will pan out. When I gently reassure students that they will find something fulfilling and rewarding, I suspect that I am also trying to encourage myself. My secret dread is that I will end up somehow competing with one of them for a job. Or being hired by a former student. Or worse, being fired.

We share other things as well. We can’t remember anything. The so-called senior moment is true only in the sense that they have it as often as I do. Maybe more. Even on my worst day, I remember far more than my students can -- in spite of the fact that I have more to remember. I may not recall the name of that actor in the movie whose title also escapes me, but neither can they. And they have only seen scores of films, not the many hundreds that I have.

And if, as they sometimes tell me, they think they can finally abandon their obsession with tests and scores once they leave school, I have news for them. Worrying about a GPA is child’s play once you start dealing with PSA, HDL, BP and plenty more. Other than the fact that young folks want higher numbers and adults want lower ones, we are all constantly being tested and waiting and wondering.

So I can see why requests for my commencement address have been lacking. You cannot inspire by fretting nor uplift with worry. I would not know what else to tell them other than what I try to tell myself: hang in there. Keep trying. Be positive. And I hope it all works out … for both of us.


Alan Robbins is, for the moment, a professor at the Robert Busch School of Design, Kean University, N.J.


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