Dear Graduates…

Lillian Rubin, a frequent contributor to Dissent, gave the following address at the University of California, Berkeley’s 2008 Sociology Commencement.

IT’S CUSTOMARY at an event like this for the speaker to say two things. The first is to thank you for the invitation to be here today; the second to speak some inspirational words for you who are about to embark on the next step in this adventure we call life. I’m happy to do the first and to tell you how touched and honored I am to be able to share this moment in your lives. It’s both a wonderful and humbling experience—wonderful because it’s a validation of my professional life as a sociologist, psychologist, and writer; humbling because it leads me to think about just what combination of luck, perseverance, skill and changed social conditions enabled me—a non-English speaking child from the streets of the Bronx—to make the long trip from that impoverished childhood to this platform today.

The answer to the question is complicated and not fully knowable. Certainly some personal qualities helped me to become an able student when I entered this university as a freshman at the age of 39 and went on to earn my Ph.D. But as sociologists we know that our lives and the choices open to us rest in a social context. So it helped that I had a husband who could afford to support me and our daughter during the eight years I was a student.

And while some of the personal qualities I brought to my professional life may have contributed to my success, I’m quite certain that I wouldn’t be standing here if there had been no feminist movement. That movement and its aftermath are perfect examples of the incredible power of collective action to change what once seemed to be fixed social institutions and conditions. The women who came before me were no less thoughtful, no less wise, no less capable than we who came later. Yet even those few who had the requisite credentials were largely ignored because each spoke alone, as isolated individuals. It wasn’t until women found their collective voice that they were able to open the door, not just to the academy and the corporate world but to a worldwide publishing market. It was my good fortune to come of age professionally at the very moment when it was both “in” to hire women and profitable to listen to what we had to say.

FOR YOU and for your parents, this day marks a beginning as well as an ending, which means that it embodies a host of feelings. There’s joy and excitement, of course, and the satisfaction of a job well done—for you, for what you’ve accomplished; for your parents, for having helped to steer you here. But for all of you, there’s also the sadness and fear that comes with endings. For each new beginning requires that we give up the safety of the familiar, and walk alone into what is for us uncharted territory, an uncertain future. As you take that next step, you’ll be saying goodbye to the particular struggles that come with the tasks of moving from adolescence to adulthood.

It isn’t that there will be no more pain and no more joy. But they’ll be different. And the issues that will engage you in this next stage of life will be different as well. For the world no longer belongs to “them” out there—to your parents and their friends and peers. It’s yours now—yours and your friends, which means that it’s your turn now to deal with the challenges the world will put before you. And that brings me to some of the things I want to talk about this afternoon.

I don’t have any easy inspirational words for you—partly because it’s not my style, but more importantly because you’re graduating into a world fraught with problems and conflicts: a war never should have been fighting that, like Vietnam, almost certainly cannot end well; a faltering economy and tight job market in which far fewer jobs offer the kind of benefits—paid vacations, health insurance, and pensions—that earlier generations took for granted; an unfettered corporate world, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the early days of the last century and that, in partnership with our government, has created a society in which 10 percent of the people own 60 percent of the wealth while 70 percent are mired in debt and 37 million—one in eight Americans—live in poverty; a public education system that was once the envy of the world and is now a national disgrace; a nation whose soul is so stained with oil that it willingly imperils the planet while continuing to pretend it isn’t happening; and a political culture that has probably always been corrupt, but reached its zenith in the last seven-plus years.

That’s the bad news. The good news is staring back at me. For when I see you before me, all I can think is: Wow! Look at you. I’d already asked about the demographic makeup of your class, so I knew the numbers. But the reality is something else. I wish I could hold a mirror up so you could see what I see. I wish, while you were looking at yourselves, I could flash an image on a screen behind me showing you the face of the class of 1968. You surely would not recognize it as a graduating class from the university you know today.

I know that for you 40 years is two lifetimes ago, but for me, your parents, and grandparents, that old image, not this one, was the reality with which we lived and which, therefore, formed us. I know also that if you could stand here to see what I see, you’d shrug and think: What’s the big deal. This is who we are!

I’ve spent my whole professional life examining the dynamic relationship between social institutions and individual psychology. And you are the living, breathing exemplars of the way changes in the society are reflected in our psychology. The various movements that were responsible for the social changes of these last four decades allow you to sit in this auditorium, with all your remarkable diversity, and not give it a thought. So while I gaze in amazement at a graduating class where whites and men are a distinct minority, for you, it’s the way of the world.

We need only look to the Democratic party primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to see how much has changed and how differently from earlier generations you experience those changes. Indeed, while there’s endless talk about the race-gender divide in the voting, it seems to me that the more remarkable division is to be found in the generation gap.

Every analysis of democratic voters shows that more than 70 percent of whites over the age of 65—that’s your grandparents’ generation—support Hillary Clinton; the numbers drop down to somewhere between 50 and 60 percent, depending on class and gender, for your parents’ generation; and in your age group—18-29—the numbers flip over entirely: over 70 percent of you support Barack Obama.

We—that is, your parents, grandparents, and I—watch this historic political event entranced and unbelieving. Older women say, “I never thought I’d live to see a woman as a serious contender for the presidency.” Blacks, who a year ago thought Obama’s candidacy was an impossible dream, now stare at their television screens in wonder while they also live with the fear that a white bullet will stop him. But for you—black, white, Latino, Asian, Native Americans, mixed race, whatever—your internal barometer doesn’t rise or fall over race or gender in the same way.

You have your parents and grandparents to thank for the social-cultural shifts that allow you to take for granted today many of the things they fought for yesterday. And we have you to thank for pointing the way to yet the next step in building a new world and showing us the way to a different set of internal responses to these historically troubled arenas of social and personal life.

AS I THOUGHT about which of the many tasks confronting you that I might focus on today, the two that kept coming to mind are, I dare say, the two most universally dear to all our hearts: The challenge of love and work. Sigmund Freud said long ago that the two central issues of adult life are love and work, and that how we resolve them would determine the quality of our lives. We can—and often do—quarrel with much of Freudian theory, but he surely was right in his understanding of the human need for connection, for mastery, and for a sense of purpose.

In the intellectual world, love and work have traditionally been spoken of as independent arenas of living: Love is thought of as the private sphere, work as the public one; love is the province of the psychologists, work the concern of the sociologists. But as students of society, we understand that much of the source of strain in managing love and work lies in the public institutions of our time that are outside the control of any individual—the cultural expectations about masculinity and femininity, for example, or political decisions about war, the environment, the economy. We live in the wealthiest nation the world has ever known, yet our governments—Republican and Democrat—have consistently failed to articulate and implement a full-employment policy so that every woman and man is entitled to a job with a self-respecting and self-sustaining wage—a policy that would make the quest for both work and love infinitely easier.

So what good are these sociological understandings? Will they help you resolve the problems you face any better? I’m virtually certain that many of your parents and grandparents sitting here now asked just those questions when you announced your major in sociology. Well, let me assure you and them that without the sociological training of the past four years, you would have a much harder time understanding the depth of the connection between self and society and, therefore, less ability to negotiate between the two.

To underscore the point, I’d like to talk briefly about some of what I learned from my recent research on aging and the life course. No, I’m not going to bore you with talk about getting old. Your parents and grandparents may want to hear that, but for you it’s an eternity away. But I do want to lay out for you the impact on your lives of a single sociological fact—in this case, the enormous increase in longevity over the last century.

When, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the median age at death was just over 49 years, people had no time to spend in time-outs, whether to think about what they’d do about love or work, or to set off in search of the “self” that seems so important to us now. If they were going to live long enough to launch the next generation, they had to marry young and have children as soon as their bodies would cooperate. Now, when the median age at death is close to 80 and people over that are the fastest growing segment of our population, there’s no rush anymore.

Stop and think about what it means that in the last century we’ve gained 30 years of life—an increase that’s greater than in all the preceding 5,000 years. That’s more than a cold statistic. It adds up to a whole new stage of life, one that never existed before. It’s a demographic miracle that also has enormous social and psychological implications, because it isn’t only the old who are affected by a life that, like the Energizer bunny, keeps going and going and going. This single demographic fact ricochets around our society like a shot fired in an echo chamber, undergirding the most important social and cultural changes of our time and revolutionizing the public sphere as well as the private one.

Everything changes when we live so long. The question is not just when we die, but how we live—how and when we move through the various stages of life, what problems we face at each point, and what our options are as we try to resolve them. I don’t mean that we wake up one morning and say, “Hey, now that I’ll probably live to be eighty, I don’t have to get married at nineteen anymore.” Or that we’re conscious of what motivates our changing ideas about the timing and sequencing of major life events. Rather, the reality of our expanded life, a reality observed even when it doesn’t fully enter conscious thought, infuses all of us with a new and enlarged sense of life’s possibilities and opportunities.

Suddenly love, work, family, identity—all these and more are up for discussion. We wait to start a career, marry, and have children, not only because each of us makes a private decision to put off embracing these traditional markers of adulthood, but because our extended lifespan makes it possible in both the external social world and our internal psychological one.

These are revolutionary cultural and psychic shifts to which the institutional world has been slow to respond. But it doesn’t have to be that way, not when you understand that the constraints it imposes on you are not given in nature, not when you know that you have the power to join in collective action to make the system more responsive to this new world and your emerging needs.

Every generation leaves the world a little different, hopefully for the better. And yours will do no less. The personal and social issues that lie before you are large indeed, but they also offer you the opportunity to make your mark. You have the sociological imagination to create a more hospitable world and the technological know-how to make it more habitable. It’s an unbeatable combination. All you need now is the political will to come together to do the job. My hope and the hope, I’m sure, of your parents, your grandparents, your professors—indeed, the whole world—is that you will find the way to do it.

That’s a very big charge, I know. But to steal a line from the Obama campaign: Yes you can!

Lillian B. Rubin’s latest book is 60 On Up: The Truth About Aging in America (Beacon Press, 2007).

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