Golis: Dear graduates, sorry for the mess we’re leaving

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The Sacramento Bee reported last week that tuition and fees at the University of California have increased sixfold in the past 40 years. That would be six times more after adjusting for inflation.

In 2018 dollars, annual tuition at UC campuses increased from $2,200 in 1979 to $14,400 in 2018, and tuition and fees at California State University campuses increased even more, from $500 to $7,300.

Amy Rose, a policy analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center, suggested the increases might be instructive to Californians who tell stories about the difficulties of student life “back in the day.”

Once upon a time, a world-class education at the state’s public universities was the functional equivalent of free.

Over the past 40 years, however, state government has systematically shifted the costs on to students and their families. If you want to know why student debt has become a major issue, now you know.

In a world defined by change, students who graduate this spring will have to deal with it, but it may be time for their parents and grandparents to acknowledge they haven’t always paid forward the advantages available to them “back in the day.”

Perhaps it’s human nature to assume that every generation of young people inherits the same circumstances that welcomed previous generations.

Unfortunately, it’s not true. While there is much to like about our time and place, this year’s graduates also inherit changes that won’t be familiar to people who came before. Like it or not, the world is being transformed at breakneck speed, and life is more complicated. Consider what has changed:

— Lifetime jobs with health care and pensions? Gone.

— Affordable housing? Nope.

— A stable political system? Be serious.

— Manageable debt? Hey, the wealthy need a tax break.

— Roads and other public works in good condition? We were too busy.

— Affordable health care? It’s so complicated.

— Middle-class jobs that don’t require a college education? Moved away.

So, welcome to our world, Class of 2019.

We have a college graduation in our family this week. It becomes a time to think about what we would wish for our favorite graduate. My list would go like this:

— Don’t bother with feeling sorry for yourself. Your elders won’t apologize for the world you inherit, and unless they’re going to also volunteer to pay off the national debt, it wouldn’t matter if they did apologize.

— Participate in the life of your community and the life of your country. In a nation divided, this is a disquieting time. Apathy has brought us to this place, and it will only get worse if you tune out.

— Celebrate your differences. Some want to pretend that we can turn back the clock, but your generation knows better than most that the world is getting smaller. You will make friends and work side by side with people of different ethnicities, religions and love interests. Be grateful for it.

— Figure out how to manage the devices in your life. In the beginning, we were entertained by the novelty, but now we’re coming to understand that technology can distract us from our capacity to remain aware of the world around us — and to pursue love and friendship.

— Don’t be seduced by greed. Too many people are being left behind because a few think more money and more stuff will make them happier. They won’t. The evidence is all around us: Selfishness robs us of our ability to look out for each other.

— Seek work that is satisfying. You will hold down many jobs in a lifetime. There’s no use pretending that you’re holding down a job because there won’t be another one coming along. Take risks, and pursue what matters to you.

— Learn to recognize the difference between sources that mean to inform and sources that aim to manipulate you. If we lose track of reality, self-government will be among the first casualties.

Thinking about today’s graduates, the same word — change — keeps returning. So much of this time is defined by change — technological change, economic change, demographic change, climate change.

Some want to believe that change can be outlawed, or postponed, or ignored. We don’t get that choice, anymore than we can choose to abolish the laws of motion and gravity.

It’s happening, and it will continue to happen. Learn to live with it. Better yet, learn to make it work for you.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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