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QUINTESSENCE

Where or Why

"Like love we don't know where or why,
Like love we can't compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep."
-"Law Like Love," W. H. Auden

Just a few more observations of my travels east. Today a note about the graduating Class of 2011. I visited my daughter, nearing the end of fall term in her senior year. She is deep in the stacks, working on her art history thesis and simultaneously completing pre-med classes and studying for her MCAT exams. All her friends and class mates, many of whom I have gotten to know well over the years, are interviewing furiously for consulting and banking positions, trying to nail down salaried internships with investment firms, applying to law schools, sending in applications to community outreach programs like Teach America. Walking this idyllic campus, drifting with crimson and gold leaves, I expected a light note of self-satisfaction and accomplishment among the Class of 2011. What I noted instead was a pervasive, low-key anxiety. A discernible level of dread and worry regarding the future.

The economy, unemployment, and the political climate of this November have become the cadence of the class song of graduates all over the United States. Will there be employment? Of any kind? Does the degree, and the debt that goes with it, carry any advantage in a job market where young graduates compete against mid-career adults willing to downsize to starter positions to land jobs after two plus years searching? Does a college graduate's idealistic commitment to service, education, and the principles they believe in, end on the other side of the gate of the college green? Will survival tactics replace that principled faith?

We have hobbled the opportunities of the next generation so badly that I cannot feel sorry for the mishaps of my own in this economy. I sympathize with the young. Those who fear they will never see an opportunity to even get a toe in the door. Who won't begin careers in their chosen professions but slip into marginal employment that carries the risk it might drag them down into darker prospects. How did we do this, America? HOW could we do this? Who exactly do we think will pay down the 3+ trillion debt of the future? We, the collective AARP community queueing up at the Costco? Buying ten packs of DVDs and multipack tissue?

On the plus side, perhaps housing will be affordable for our newest graduates - if bankers will lend. And perhaps the American lifestyle of "buy now, pay later" will fade into a smarter consumerism, where we get what we pay for, and get what we need. Hopefully the Class of 2011 will hang onto their ideals and their dreams and jump forward when the opportunity presents itself. In the meantime, smile at the barrista, tip the grocery bag girl, add a little to the tab on the lawn bill. That student you encourage may one day be the medical professional that cares for you, a Chief Justice, Teacher of the Year. Or just a kid struggling to make rent who dreamed of being an engineer.

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