Kevin Newman: Here’s what I’m telling my daughter’s Graduating Class:

Thank you for the very great honour of speaking before you tonight.

Some schools don’t call these rights of passage Convocations, they call them Commencements. I actually prefer that name because it subtly changes the focus.

All the young people in this room tonight are focussed on what they’re commencing. I’m not even sure what a ‘Convocation’ means. And a ‘Graduation’ is something we as your parents feel – a graduation from the childhood we’ve shared with you. But you are totally future-focussed at this moment in your life. So I hope you don’t mind me joining you in calling this a Commencement Address.

Story continues below


In my line of work we’re told to avoid predicting the future. Journalism is supposed to be ‘the rough first draft of history’ – and journalists the observers of it on the run. However there isn’t a journalist worth their salt who doesn’t look up, as they look at what’s happening around them, and ask – “Where is all this leading?”.

No one knows for certain, of course. But sometimes journalists have a good sense of where things are going because they’re paying such close attention to the here and now. I should also mention, however, that our view tends to be somewhat warped by the fact that we spend so much time focussed on places of misery, of conflict, of politics. That is only part of what will shape your generation. But because it is the part I have spent the past twenty-five years exploring, it frames my best guess.

So what will the world be like that you will soon have the responsibility to lead?

Much of it will be under your control. Much of it will not. Each generation in measured by how it answers the unique challenge of its time. There’s a book Tom Brokaw, the American news anchor, has published called “The Greatest Generation”. It’s about how your grandparents answered the challenge Hitler posed in the 1930’s. They answered it by sending hundreds of thousands of young men into battle to fight a fight that ensured each of us, all of us, could continue to write what we choose, think what think, and act on what we desire. They saw the threat, and acted on it. That generation saw its challenge clearly and was attentive and strong enough to rise to meet it.

If you had attended my generation’s Commencement, you probably would have heard about the fear of a future where the Soviet Union had nuclear missiles aimed at each of the major cities in North America, including Vancouver. There was a balance of terror that one wrong move would mean annahilation for millions — where the survivors would envy the dead. Not too long ago my children went to a public school in New Jersey that had in its basement a fallout shelter in case of nuclear attack. By then the sign at the entrance to it had become almost a relic of the past — easily ignored. You could visit New York or Washington or any other major city and not quietly wonder if this was the day you were unfortunate enough to be at ground zero for some missile. Our generation met the challenge of communism, and today millions of people in Eastern Europe are free to visit us, and we’re free to go there. In the world I grew up in no one had even heard an everyday Russian speak.

So what about your generation?

What are the messes we’ve made that you’ll be handling?

What will the challenges be of your time?

Do you have what it takes to defeat them – as your parent’s generation defeated the communist threat, as your grandparents helped defeat fascism?

Well, as many of you know, in my job I get see a lot of the challenges of the world first hand. And because I know people your age, I’m comfortable seeking them out where-ever I go. I can make a joke with a young woman in Kandahar about how boys think, and know that she gets it. By the same token I can look a young man in the eyes in Baghdad and know he’s high.

And knowing some of you as I do, and the ways your generation is already changing and shaping the planet, I am confident in saying you ARE up to the difficult tasks ahead. But they WILL be difficult.

Because I believe we are living in the early days of an era that will span your entire lives. It’s a very different world from the one your parents grew up in.

First of all, there’s a lot you’re going to need to fix:

You’re going to have to find a way to limit climate change. By the time you’re my age if you don’t figure it out, the world will be a place where millions are starving to death – where fresh water will be more valuable than oil.

You’re going to have to figure out a way to fix health care in Canada. There’s no way you can afford the medical bills we’re going to be sending your way as we age if health care remains free to everyone.

But most importantly, I think, we are now seeing a world emerge where the dominant clash will be between those who believe a better current social and political order can be created, and those who believe what exists must be destroyed.

If the struggle of your grandparent’s generation was between democracy and fascism, of my generation was between communism and capitalism – the one which will define your generation will be between those represented by suicide bombers, and those trying to establish schools for girls where none existed.

That is what our soldiers believe they are fighting for right now in Afghanistan. It is what is at the heart of the fight in Iraq, Iran, now Lebanon, Indonesia, Turkey, – maybe parts of Europe in your lifetime.

In each of those places, there are forces within those societies seeking to modernize, to improve people’s lives and futures. And they face forces which believe that push to modernize is wrong, soul-less, and against Devine will.

The shape of that conflict is unrecognizable to my generation. That’s why we’re creating a mess in trying to respond to it. But the shape is something your generation recognizes all-too-well. You have grown up in a time of gangs – and learned how to navigate them.

Whether they’re bike gangs, gangs based on an idea, or simply ethnicity – no generation has had to cope with more gangs in competition than yours. Even Canada’s wealthiest neighbourhood – the one we’re meeting in tonight – the nature of gang behaviour is known to you.

Thomas Freidman, who wrote the top-selling book ‘The World is Flat, wrote in the New York Times two weeks ago that:

“When I graduated in 1975, the world was dominated by interstate rivalries and conclusive wars. The class of 2007 is graduating into a world of state vs. gang wars and gang vs. gang wars that are often inconclusive.”

Look at the Middle East today. You have gangs fighting states and armies in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Gaza. And pretty soon one of those gangs is going to acquire nuclear weapons.

Aren’t I Mr. Sunshine?

But ignoring an emerging threat isn’t a way to prepare or deal with it. Your parents and grandparents know that. And the challenges facing the Class of 2007 are very significant and very real.

Are you up to it? Can you succeed in wrestling the challenge of your time?

Well as I said, I believe you can. Because of some of the things I’ve already seen about your generation.

For all the mess of the Iraq War and all the pictures you’ve seen of young men and some women returning to Canada from Afghanistan in caskets, there is one fact that says everything about your generation. More of you are signing up for military service than my generation ever did. People your age are dying in foreign places – few of your mother’s and father’s generation did. And yet neither the US nor the Canadian military has any problem recruiting.

It means you ARE optimistic that you can make a difference in the world. And your generation’s willingness to venture into it – into some of the most inhospitable places – is so important. Because it shows you will not be cowered into hiding from your responsibility. Just about every student in this room has had the desire, and fortunately the means, to explore the world at a young age. Many of you have already developed the social responsibility to help build homes or facilities for families in other places. Keep it up. If you’re going to win the war of modernization, the world is going to have to see your values at work – person to person.

The good news is, in spite of your generation witnessing that horrible morning of September 11th, you haven’t let fear stop you from engaging the world.

The Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi observed:

“Triumphing over fear is the victory of the democratic citizen against the paralyzing effect of terror. It has to be done, though, at every level of each citizen. Leaders can help, but ultimately victory is about not letting the fear engendered by this new era paralyze you.”

And it hasn’t. You are linking to people in ways that are unprecedented in human history, and in your own way exploring the tools which will defeat those who dream of turning the world against progress.

You are the generation that is defining the internet and using it in ways no one ever imagined. Not all of them ways your parents would applaud.

But consider that this time last year, no one had heard of Facebook. Now its beating Hotmail as the main way people connect. That’s how much power you have to change the nature of social interaction – how you know how to reach out to the world.

Your generation’s hunger to connect will protect our democracies from people who want to steal their openness and optimism. That skill you have of getting around iTunes, or Global Television for that matter, by downloading from Limewire is precisely the skill you need. Because as authoritarian regimes gain power and try to stop progress, you’ll protect it anyway you can.

You will not be stopped – you will innovate – you will ensure that no one can ever monopolize information again in human history. With the ability now to compress video images, just as we’ve been able to compress audio and the written word for the past few years, everything that happens in any corner of the world where someone has the ability to point a small video camera, will become known to everyone. Something like the massacre of 800,000 people in Rwanda will no longer have no visual record. It happened ten years ago – and there isn’t a single image. Imagine if one person, with a cellphone camera, could have captured one brutal beating? Would that have mobilized the world? Probably. Finding new ways to connect, I believe, is your generations greatest weapon in confronting the complicated world you inherit.

Right now, you’re using those critical skills in fairly frivolous ways. You use them to date, break up, explore common interests, swap silly stuff, and share gossip.

Someday, I know, you’ll develop a way to use them not in the insular way you do now, but as tools to protect our societies. The technology is only as old as you are. Ask any parent – they have no idea what an online community is. You invented it. And I predict it will be what your children will look back on as your generation’s Greatest contribution – because it helped protect progressiveness against its challenger – the forces of fear and regression.

So that is why I think you are precisely prepared to meet the challenge of your time. You are flexible thinkers, you are adaptable, you insist on having your own voice. You will need all of that. Because the problems of the world you have inherited will take more patience than you can imagine – a quality I hope you will also come to appreciate as you grow older.

There is a clash of ideas only beginning that will define the next 50 years – and defeating ideas isn’t something done quickly. Communism took 40 years. Facism, thankfully, only 15. All of them, including the ideas that will challenge your generation, were born from political frustration, poverty, and in some cases real hardship. Have patience with those who seek to challenge you. Understand the causes of their fear and how our societies and decisions have often created it. And then be honest about the mistakes you’ll make.

Your openness, your optimism, and your unparalleled ability to communicate will, I am convinced, ensure that thirty years from now if you are given the honour of speaking at your children’s ‘Commencement’, you will be able to say as I do today – we wrestled our generation’s challenges to the ground, far from perfectly. But we tried. Now – it’s over to you.

I thank you for your patience, and on behalf of your parents I thank you for sharing the first years of your lives with us. I can’t wait to discover what each of you will become. Whatever you Commence, I leave you with this quote from someone of your great-grandparents generation: Ralph Waldo Emerson. When he gave a Commencement speech a century ago he suggested:

“Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”.

If you do, I am convinced it will be as honourable a trail as any generation before you.

Thank you and good luck!