Every year at this time we get to read/hear/see some of the best commencement speeches to graduating classes. Some of them are quite inspiring, but what interests me is that, after years of supposed ‘education’, graduates get to hear advice, rather than information or knowledge.
If I had 30 minutes to address a graduating class I would resolve to actually try to impart some knowledge, rather than advice. Personally, I only take advice from people who know me, and who I trust, so I don’t think giving it to a bunch of restless strangers is, in the long run, very useful.
When I mentioned this to a friend, she asked me:
If you had 30 minutes to teach (rather than preach to) a graduating class, what would you teach them?
In the past year I have learned so much that I would answer this question much differently today than I would have at any previous point in my life. What I would do would be to show them how the world really is, and I would do it entirely with data presented in graphical format. I would not interpret it, or tell them what it meant. I would let the facts speak for themselves, and trust them to be smart enough to figure out how to act on it. My objective would be to infuriate them, provoke them to say (as graduate students have told me on more than one occasion): Why didn’t anyone tell me this before; why don’t they teach this in school?
Here are some of the data I would show them:
- Large corporations have, for years, been eliminating more jobs than they have created, and this trend is accelerating. The data supporting this (for the US) are shown above. Just to keep even with growth in the labour force, the US needs to create 150,000 net new jobs per month, and Canada needs to create 20,000.
- Virtually all the new jobs that will be created in the next decade (all by small to medium sized employers) will be low-paying clerical, administrative, and retail sales and service jobs. The data supporting this (from the US Department of Labor) are shown below.
- Since 1970, the top 5% of income earners have more than doubled their real incomes and net worth. For the other 95%, real income and net worth have decreased. If home prices and stock prices dropped a mere 30%, the majority of the population of affluent nations would have a negative net worth. We have more assets than ever before, but far more debts, and average spending is now 4% more than average earnings. This is despite the fact that, during this period, most families grew from one-income to two-income families. The income inequality curve (below) is so steep it’s almost invisible. And for 99.9% of families, the chances of significantly improving your economic status (the second chart below), no matter how hard you work, are negligible, much less than the chances of your economic status significantly falling.
- Then I’d show a chart showing what Fortune 500 executives think are the biggest risks facing their companies and facing the economy in the next generation, and the 10 things they say currently keep them awake at night. Hint: global warming and talent shortages are not on these charts; consumers slowing down their rate of ever-increasing consumption is.
- Next I’d show charts of how our governments spend their money, in both affluent and struggling nations: How much goes for military, defense and ‘security’ spending, how much for corporate subsidies, consulting fees, tax breaks, debt repayment and ‘pet’ projects, versus how much goes for health, environmental protection and education. And with them I’d show charts of average de facto tax rates for different income levels (pretty much flat lines). And I’d show the trends of US government debt levels and trade deficit levels, which affect everyone in the world. I’d show what would happen to debt repayment costs if we get another interest rate spike like in 1980. And I’d show the trends of how much of our ‘wealth’ is generated by ‘financial’ activity versus activity producing real goods.
- After that I’d show the simulation of the human cost in deaths and disability (significant but manageable) and the economic cost (staggering) of a global influenza pandemic, alongside health experts’ cumulative probability chart of such a pandemic occurring over the next 50 years.
- Next I’d show maps of deforestation, fresh water and air pollution, and soil degradation around the world, alongside violent death and suicide rates where these problems are the worst, and life expectancy charts in AIDS-ravaged countries and in the former Soviet republics.
- Then I’d show Hubbert’s Peak Oil chart, and a supply/demand chart showing what happens to prices when demand for a product is rising in some places by over 20% per year while global supply is in long-term, permanent decline. Beside it I’d list all the products that currently depend on cheap oil.
- After that I’d show charts of life expectancy, disease rates, suicide and murder rates, poverty and bankruptcy rates between 1929 and 1939, alongside economic data for 1920-1928 and 2000-2008, and a couple of the historic 80-year-cycle curves in The Fourth Turning.
- Next I’d show a map of the world highlighting the area with a current population of a billion people who will be underwater if the Greenland ice cap and Western Antarctic ice sheet both melt. Superimposed on it I’ll show global population since ‘prehistoric’ times, and the ‘normal’ population curves of the six most-studied previous civilizations.
- Then I’d show the charts of biological and biodiversity loss in the past five great extinctions in history, and the data to date for the current, sixth great extinction.
- Finally, I’d show the famous scene (below) from Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth showing average Earth temperature (blue line) and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (red line) for the past 650,000 years (with Gore on the forklift at right)..
My ‘speech’ would contain no pleas, no exhortations, no wise counsel, no clever quips. Just enough information for them to think, just for a few moments, about what they intend to do with the rest of their lives. Andthen I’d sit down.
I wouldn’t expect any applause.