This month's college graduates will lead 21st century lives. There is
much we cannot know about this new century. If you doubt this, think
about the world at the time today's graduates were born. The Soviet
Union was collapsing. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were still intact
countries. Saddam Hussein was busy occupying Kuwait, soon to be ousted
by an extraordinary coalition led by the United States. Here at home,
offices were just getting desktop computers. Cell phones were as large
as they were rare. Libraries still had card catalogs. There was no
Facebook, no Google, and no Twitter.
But there is also a lot we can predict. Over the next ninety years, the population of the United States will increase from 300 million to well over 500 million. The number of people in the world could reach 10 billion. America will have a majority minority population. China will likely constitute the world’s largest economy. Climate change will probably alter global temperatures, sea levels, and weather patterns.
More important, the world will matter as never before. Ours is an age of globalization, a world defined by large and swift flows across borders of tourists, businessmen, students, dollars, greenhouse gases, oil and gas, manufactured goods, services, emails, television and radio signals, technology, drugs, germs, weapons, terrorists, viruses, and much more. There is no escaping this: the world is not Las Vegas; what happens out there does not stay out there. For better or worse, much of it will come here.
And vice versa. A good deal of what we do here goes there, be it what Americans produce in the way of manufactured goods and ideas or by the example they set as a society.
More than 95% of the world’s people live outside this country. And while our share of global economic output is high -- on the order of 20-25% -- this number is coming down. All this means expanded markets for what we produce. But it also means expanded competition.
How this competition plays out will go a long way toward determining future American employment levels, income, and standards of living. Americans can no longer assume they will prevail. They will only hold their own if they continue to educate themselves.
Graduates also need to be ready to serve their country. The United States requires a large number of citizens who can operate successfully overseas. These men and women can literally be the country’s foot-soldiers, or they can be involved in diplomacy, intelligence, law enforcement, foreign aid, and homeland security. They could also enter journalism, academia, business--or work for one of the many NGOs involved in promoting education, health, or development. Knowlege is essential if one is to work successfully in or on the world.
There is no one-stop shopping for where to find the needed intellectual fuel, but I have several suggestions. Travel overseas. Better yet, live abroad for an extended period. Learn a second language. Return to school for another degree or go on line to take a course. Regularly read a serious newspaper or magazine or visit an authoritative website or tune in to one of those rare but still possible to find television or radio shows that provide real news and thoughtful discussion.
All Americans, whether they hold a college diploma or not, will need to top off their intellectual tank often, and some of the topping off should involve gaining the knowledge or skills that will prepare them for the opportunities and challenges of the modern world. Their future, not to mention their country's future, depends on it.
The author is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. This blog is adapted from the commencement talk he delivered this past week at Miami Dade College.