College graduates have received a lot of attention this spring, as they so often do. But this year, attention has been particularly focused on their futures, given the tough economic conditions putting pressure on the first major steps they take into the professional world. The nearly 2 million college students that graduated this year will flow into a labor market that may just not have room for many of them; approximately 11.7 million people remain unemployed in the United States and research indicates that their peers, who graduated between 2009 and 2012, are not seeing their full potential realized. While data shows a positive correlation between college education and levels of individual and national well-being, nearly half of the students who received degrees in that time frame work jobs that do not require a four-year degree.
But Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke had some words of encouragement for the graduating students of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, an “early college” designed for students to enroll immediately after completing the tenth or eleventh grade. Speaking at the commencement ceremony Saturday, Bernanke told the new graduates that “during your working lives, you will have to reinvent yourselves many times.”
While his comments were short on fiscal policy, he gave a positive prognosis for the future. He even remained optimistic about the United States’ economic prospects in the decades to come, based on his belief that the power of technological and scientific developments will fuel significant economic growth and change over time.
He spoke of the remarkable improvements in living standards that technological changes have brought over the past three centuries. Bernanke gave a minor critique of the current IT revolution, noting that some economists have concluded that “the sustainable pace of economic growth and change and the associated improvement in living standards will likely slow further, as our most recent technological revolution, in computers and IT, will not transform our lives as dramatically as previous revolutions have. “
Still, he urged the graduates not to be pessimistic. “Well, that’s sort of depressing. Is it true, then, as baseball player Yogi Berra said, that the future ain’t what it used to be? Nobody really knows; as Berra also astutely observed, it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. But there are some good arguments on the other side of this debate,” Bernanke said.
Although he acknowledged that technological innovation may not be the fast track to economic prosperity, he emphasized that humanity’s capacity to innovate as well as the incentives to innovate are greater now than at any other time in history, because trade and globalization have increased both the size and potential for new products — and the economic rewards are growing. In his opinion, pessimists pay far too little attention to the strength of the underlying economic and social forces that generate innovation in today’s world. Invention, he noted, was once only the province of the “isolated scientist or tinker,” and technology kept the transmission of new ideas slow, but that has now changed.
“We live on a planet that is becoming richer and more populous, and in which not only the most advanced economies but also large emerging market nations like China and India increasingly see their economic futures as tied to technological innovation,” Bernanke said. “In that context, the number of trained scientists and engineers is increasing rapidly, as are the resources for research being provided by universities, governments, and the private sector.”
And this is where personal reinvention ties in to Bernanke’s conception of success. “Success and satisfaction will not come from mastering a fixed body of knowledge, but from constant adaptation and creativity in a rapidly changing world,” he said in conclusion.
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