Opinion: New normal facing college grads requires new approach

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

In a guest column, Noah Harris, the first Black male student body president in Harvard’s 386-year history, talks about the new world that awaits 2023 college graduates.

A native of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Harris graduated last year and delivered the 371st Harvard Commencement Address. In this guest piece, Harris describes what he would tell the students graduating this year.

Harris now is employed by the Office of Management and Budget at the White House where he works with federal agencies to help shape regulations. Previously, Harris served as legislative director in the office of U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. Harris is also author of the children’s book “Successville.”

By Noah Harris

Normal. For the last three years, that is all we have wanted. “I cannot wait until this pandemic is over, so everything can go back to normal,” I would think.

Now, here I am one year removed from being Harvard’s commencement speaker for the Class of 2022, and I am just now realizing that normal is never coming back. To the Class of 2023, as you embark on your journey, know the new normal is your canvas. Set out to define the new path to success. This is a once-in-a-century opportunity to shake things up. Do your part to establish the new normal.

Last May, I stood before more than 35,000 people in Harvard Yard as I delivered the prestigious school’s 371st Undergraduate English Address. In that speech, I encouraged my classmates to see themselves in those who are caged in our society and to use their talents to help them.

While I have similar advice for this year’s graduates, I assumed my class was entering a reality more resembling the pre-pandemic world. A year later, I wish I had known how much of our energy would be spent merely slogging through this new murky and uncharted occupational reality. It is going to take longer than just a year for our generation to change the world, and that’s okay. Finding yourself amidst uncertainty is a more measured first step.

Now as our generation descends upon the workplace, we enter without the same formative, in-person work experiences that were afforded to our predecessors. Because of this disadvantage, young people have been ill-equipped to weather the historic technology sector layoffs and white-collar job shortages tied to remote work.

For all working from home has done for millennials, it has stymied Gen Z’s growth and professional relationships. Only in this new normal reality do graduates from Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Georgetown, Howard and more struggle to find jobs.

Many classmates of mine went unemployed for months. Our situation is bleak in many ways, but there will always be light because we are the strongest and most resilient generation in decades. However, a new normal requires a new approach.

Today is our opportunity to chart a new path to success. The traditional route of working the same 9-to-5 job for 30 years and living a comfortable life is no longer an option for most people. The spectrum of what a successful person looks like is broader than it was just five years ago.

That is because Gen Z blazed a new trail that showed we can make more money than our parents did simply by filming entertaining videos on our smartphones. Our power is limitless, and yet our possibilities for prosperity have largely gone untapped.

Class of 2023, the essence of our being must be to bind our strengths with the unprecedented flexibility of this new era. You can do your part in your respective fields by crafting a new model for success that can help future college graduates thrive. From finance to government and from engineering to medicine, it is time for Gen Z to chart our own path because the strategies that worked just a decade ago are not achieving the same results. Innovation is our guiding light through the mist of uncertainty.

I am inspired every day by my peers who have used their talents to further the impact of our generation. A history major from Maryland did not want to take the traditional route into academia, so he built a career using social media to present compelling historical facts to younger generations. An economics major from Ohio accepted an elusive private equity job because he started an investment foundation, which earned him the credibility to bypass years of “required” Wall Street experience. These are success stories of Gen Z innovators who have seized this moment as the opportunity that it is.

As you graduate, know the experience you are entering is anything but normal. Regardless, we have no choice but to find our way and deliver dynamic solutions for this world. Although this new adventure will bring with it multiple bumps in the road, the journey will prepare you to see yourself in those who are changed in this new era. Because of your struggle, you will be willing to be proximate enough to hear their stories.

Most of all, you will be driven to be a part of the solution that sets them free. Class of 2023, join us in establishing the new normal for our generation. Let’s define the new path to success.