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Any student who has learned anything at all in their time at university will be able to spot the hogwash spouted in most commencement addresses. (GETTY IMAGES)
Any student who has learned anything at all in their time at university will be able to spot the hogwash spouted in most commencement addresses. (GETTY IMAGES)

LUCY KELLAWAY

Commencement speeches: Can all graduates really change the world? Add to ...

It is that time of year when famous people put on baggy black capes and peculiar hats in order to hold forth on university lawns to thousands of students and their parents.

But this time, something strange has happened. Each of the big-name speakers seems to have hit on the identical homily for their commencement addresses: They are all telling graduates to make the world a better place.

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So there was Arianna Huffington at Smith College, saying: “What I urge you to do is not just take your place at the top of the world, but to change the world.”

The actress Kerry Washington told students at her alma mater George Washington University (after telling them she loved them, twice): “The world needs your voice. Every single one of you.”

And then this, from Jeff Immelt, head of General Electric, at the University of Connecticut: “Graduates should be optimistic; believe in better. The world awaits your leadership.”

Any student who has learned anything at all in their time at university will be able to spot the hogwash. The world has seven billion voices to listen to already – it won’t be bothered about one more or less. Neither is it clear why graduates should be especially optimistic, especially at the moment. The world doesn’t await their leadership; only a tiny minority will get the chance to lead anything, apart, perhaps, from themselves.

Far better – and much snappier – advice was given by Stephen Colbert to students at the University of Virginia. The satirist started by ordering everyone to make sure their cellphones were turned on: “Take a moment to follow my Twitter feed in case I tweet anything during my speech.” I hope the graduates took heed: I felt chastened when I just watched it on YouTube.

Alas, he then went and spoiled it all by telling the students to “Choose the hard path that leads to the life and the world that you want.” But who says the hard path is a better bet than the easy one? And as to the world that we want – that isn’t on offer. So the trick for graduates is surely to make do with the world we have.

Only Barack Obama in his address at Morehouse College refrained from urging anyone to change the world. That may be because he feels the world is his prerogative. Or it may be because he alone knows how hard it is to change it – even if you happen to be the President of the United States. Not only has he failed to change the world, he can’t even get people to give up guns or fix the budget in his own country.

Instead of aiming so impossibly high, the graduates of 2013 would do better to start a bit lower. When they leave their campuses it will not be “Hello, world!” but “Hello again, Mum and Dad!”

This is the boomerang generation, and where most of them will be heading is straight back to their childhood bedrooms. What Ms. Huffington, Mr. Obama and Mr. Immelt ought to have said was: Change the world if you must, but it would be nice if you could help out by changing the bag in the vacuum cleaner first.

They should then have followed up with stern words on the virtue of hard work. This sort of thing has fallen sadly out of fashion.

When I had just graduated, my then boyfriend – who had been hired by investment bank Salomon Brothers – was instructed by the chief executive, John Gutfruend, to arrive every day “ready to bite the ass off of a bear.” The fact that I can remember his words three decades later is partly because I love the way Americans say “off of” but it’s also because the advice was so good.

As well as changing their work ethic, graduates also need to change their employment status. They need jobs. What no one ever tells them in commencement addresses is that even a bad job is better than none at all.

I know a young graduate who has just been hired to hand out licences to taxi cabs in deepest south London. It’s dull, but it’s better than being unemployed, which is what she was before. Graduates should be told not to lose heart: As their working lives will last 50 or 60 years, a slow start is not a disaster.

Mr. Obama urged the Morehouse students to strive to become finer people and said he was himself trying to be a better father and a better husband. For a minute, I thought this was quite sweet. But if you are President, you should never say such an irresponsible thing to people just starting out. They need to know the truth: that you can either do a big job and try to change the world, or you can be a good father and husband. Each on its own is quite tricky. But both at the same time? Can’t be done.

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