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The Graduation Speech Your Kids Really, Really Need to Hear

Cliff Ennico on

This column, which originally appeared in May 2009, is one of the most requested and reprinted "Succeeding in Your Business" columns, especially during graduation season.

Members of the Class of 2022:

I was sorry to hear that the reality TV star who was to be your commencement speaker today had to bow out at the last minute. I was delighted, however, when the Trustees called me an hour ago and asked me to fill in.

Now, I've never done this before, and I wasn't given a whole lot of guidance, except to tell you to "follow your dreams" and "reach for the stars." Apparently there's a federal law requiring those statements to be included in all graduation speeches.

While I know some of you already have jobs and some (OK, most of you) do not, I know that all of you are wondering today what your lives are going to be like.

I have two pieces of information for you. They are not fun to talk about, but I feel you need to hear them, and no better time than today. First, whatever dreams you hope to accomplish in your lives, you won't be able to achieve them until you have first achieved financial security for yourself and your loved ones. For most of you, unless you were born wealthy (and sometimes even then), finding and holding onto that financial security will be the primary, if not the only, thing you will spend time on for the next 50 years.

 

The second thing is that it has never been a more difficult time to make a decent living in America. I'm not just talking about high inflation, supply chain disruptions or skyrocketing interest rates. I'm talking about some longer-lasting structural changes in our economy.

For your grandparents, it was easy. You signed up with a large corporation, worked your way up the corporate ladder and retired at age 65 with a pension, Social Security and a gold watch. You can forget about doing that today.

Years ago, when America dominated the world economy, corporations viewed employees as scarce assets to be cultivated. In today's brutally competitive global economy, they view employees as costs to be reduced or eliminated. Labor in America is extremely expensive and getting more so, forcing employers to look anywhere they can for cheaper options. If you can buy technology to do the work employees are doing, you buy the computers and fire the employees. If you must hire people to do a job, you hire the cheapest people you can in developing nations. And if you really must hire Americans, you "outsource" them as independent contractors rather than employees. That way, you don't have to pay them benefits.

The bottom line: If you work for a large corporation today, odds are you will be unemployed in a few years.

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