“Plastics, Benjamin”: A Letter to the Class of 2020
Mike Nichols’ 1967 iconic and classic film, for which he received the Best Director Award among four other Academy Awards, was The Graduate. The film is a masterful exploration of the malaise of college graduation at a time of great social turmoil. A promotional poster captured the tension brilliantly: “This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future.” How incredibly appropriate for the times our recent graduates are experiencing. “What are you going to do now?” Benjamin is asked, to which he replies, “Well, that’s a little hard to say.”
In the film, 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman), has just returned from his college graduation to his parents’ home in Pasadena. He has no clue about what could possibly come next, even as the psychedelic ‘60s were ramping up and a crack in our collective American culture created such a wide divide that nothing the prior generation ever envisioned was relevant anymore. Graduating seniors’ expectations that year were “up in the air.” At the opening of the film, a friend of Benjamin’s father assures him that it is ok to not know for sure. Just get into a growth opportunity for your career, he says, by exhorting that “there is a great future in plastics.” Plastics!
The reference to plastics was a way of saying “industry of the future” in code. And, despite the destruction that industry has unleashed upon the biosphere and all sentient beings, it was the industry of the future for about four decades, until we collectively realized the destruction caused by a product that won’t biodegrade for centuries.
Like Benjamin, unfortunately, today’s college graduates have no idea what to do, and see their job prospects as close to non-existent. Even the temporary job has disappeared, where one could become a waiter over the summer while figuring out one’s future in terms of graduate school, or a permanent job, or whatever. This year’s graduation literally occurred in the middle of a war zone with a pandemic raging, a Great Depression in full swing with upwards of 25 percent unemployment (over 40 million unemployed not including recent graduates as I write this), and the climate crisis bearing down on us all with maybe ten years before massive, irreversible, catastrophic consequences become unavoidable. Dear Graduates of 2020, things couldn’t get much worse than this in the worst possible dystopian science fiction novel ever conceived. You have my profound sympathy. And, you carry with you our most profound hopes.
“We stepped into the world as it was starting to fall apart,” observed Simone Williams, a Florida A&M University 2020 graduate. You were in daycare or kindergarten for 9/11. Your childhood has been punctuated by mass school shootings. Your freshman year began with Donald Trump’s election and only 8 percent of you between the ages of 18 and 29 believe that the government is functioning appropriately. Your graduation shares the “stage” of public opinion with the statistic that over 100,000 Americans have died and there is no end in sight for the pandemic or for the downward spiraling economy.
You already know the bad news: there are no jobs, the one you thought you had was an offer that has now been rescinded; you are mired in student debt; the Greatest Depression is getting worse daily; there is no way you can afford to rent an apartment, let alone try to start a family; you are literally staring into the abyss of unknowing. You have my profound sympathy. This is the worst year to graduate since Harvard opened its doors in 1636. That’s quite a statement, and it’s absolutely accurate.
Historically, we know that massive societal breakthroughs occur in times of greatest crisis for a very simple reason: if you have zero investment in the current system, you have 100 percent incentive to create a new system. You literally have nothing to lose. This is a great gift. Having nothing to lose means you can co-create a 100 percent positive future. But where to start?
Start with using all your free time to turn the political system upside down. Vote! Vote in massive numbers. Use your spare time to organize that vote so that up and down the ballot you co-create a more just, more compassionate, and more caring society that is sustainable. Organize and vote as if your life depends upon it, because it does! You and everyone alive on the planet at this time needs your energy and your focus to co-create the world that should have been waiting for you at graduation but wasn’t. Vote so that Senator Elizabeth Warren can get her bill passed that would provide $2,000 per month to everyone over 18 in this country until these twin pandemic and economic crises are past. Demand at the voting booth that we restore the balance in our biosphere. Demand we finally heal the original sins of Native American genocide and slavery as a pre-condition for creating the more just society we collectively long for, need, and deserve. Demand that we actively close the gap between the top one to two percent and the bottom 90 percent. Demand infrastructure repair and transportation systems deserving of a first world country rather than the decaying mess you have inherited. Demand that every person who wants a job can find one. Demand student debt be cancelled and all tuition from now on be free at state schools. Demand a 35-hour work week so we can immediately begin to re-employ the tens of millions who have no work but could “share” the jobs being recreated. Demand that no person is allowed to be homeless in this once great Nation that could be great again. Vote to ensure that everyone has medical insurance coverage. Demand that we re-purpose the tens of thousands of vacant hotel rooms that are unlikely to soon re-fill, and the shopping centers that will never exit bankruptcy are used creatively. Yes, you have nothing to lose, but you have everything to gain. So, go vote and co-create the society we should have given you this Graduation Day. Make that humanely glowing, shining society be your graduation gift to yourself. Vote and co-create your sustainable future.
If Mr. Maguire was advising Benjamin in 2020, he would have said that the future opportunity was to get into sustainability. It will last longer than plastics and give you great joy every day on your journey.