What more commencement speakers need to say


Vice President Joe Biden gestures after delivering the keynote speech during commencement exercises at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/The State, Tracy Glantz)

It's the height of graduation season, and this past weekend was packed with commencement speakers of nearly every stripe.

There were the high-profile figures from Washington, such as Vice President Joe Biden at the University of South Carolina and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, at Duke University. There were noted authors, including New Yorker editor David Remnick at Syracuse University and one of his writers, surgeon Atul Gawande, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. And there were the less obvious graduation day choices, ranging from Tiger Woods' wife Elin Nordegren at Rollins College to Sean Combs at Howard University. Rick Mastracchio, an astronaut, even delivered a commencement address to the University of Connecticut's School of Engineering from space.

But one thing several of these speakers had in common was that they gave words of advice the current crop of graduating millennials already knows: Do something with purpose. "We all have an intrinsic need to pursue purposes larger than ourselves, purposes worth making sacrifices for," Gawande told the light-blue clad graduates at UNC. A few miles down the road, Dempsey told Duke students "you've got to make this wonderful education you've just consumed matter." Remnick, began the main part of his address with: "I also hope you know, as of today, you are inescapably citizens of the world."

It would seem they do. One 2011 report found that the No. 1 factor young adults want in a successful career is a sense of meaning. Other research has also shown that this is a generation that values balance, benefits and purpose much more than money. More than past generations, today's graduates seek fulfilling lives and organizational cultures that reflect their values, and they are looking beyond traditional corporate careers to find those attributes.

Of course, such advice is good for graduates to hear on their big day. Gawande's suggestion that grads should not just follow a passion, but find a community to which they can be loyal, was delivered with the same trademark clarity as his writing. Dempsey's "make it matter" refrain — a phrase also written on a box he keeps on his desk filled with laminated photos of troops who've died — was a powerful image that offered important perspective.

And Remnick's advice for graduates to have a vision for was grounded in real issues and conveyed with a dazzling eloquence one rarely hears in a stadium on a Sunday in May. "If this day means anything, it means that you are now in the contingent of the responsible," he said. "You must be kind, yes, but you must also look beyond your own house. We're depending on you for your efforts and your vision. We are depending on your eye and your imagination to identify what wrongs exist and persist, and on your hands, your backs, your efforts to right them."

But what this generation may need to hear more than anything is not just that they need to lead lives with purpose, to be active in the communities of their world, or give back to something greater than themselves. They already want to do that. What they need is to know how to maintain that focus when not only are they struggling to find jobs that let them do such purposeful work, but they are struggling to find jobs at all. These students face a difficult job market and are commonly under-employed or overqualified for the jobs they do find. Landing a job that doesn't feel utterly disconnected from those higher aims and larger goals is even harder.

All graduates need to hear inspiring words and soaring rhetoric on this meaningful day. But for this generation, in particular, a little more advice on how to navigate the cold reality of first jobs and find meaning in the meantime would go a long way, too.

Read also:

Ben Bernanke's 2013 commencement address

President Obama's 2013 graduation speech at Morehouse College

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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