Business Times - 30 May 2009
LETTER FROM NEW YORK
Graduating into uncertainty
Graduate of New York University's
Business and Economic Reporting programme
A SEA of purple spread before me, as I weaved through the crowds looking for my friends. It was commencement day as graduates in their purple gowns posed for pictures with family and friends. There they were, waving balloons and clutching flowers. As I rushed over, my heel got caught in a pothole and I fell. But as I learnt during my time at New York University, you ignore the snide remarks, continue doing what you have to do, and push on.
Earlier during the ceremony at the new Yankee baseball stadium, the theme of the day seemed to be defiant optimism despite graduating in one of the worst job markets in recent history. In a highly anticipated speech, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said: 'I know it is fashionable in commencement speeches to be idealistic, but at the root of my conviction is a strong sense of reality. I don't think we have a choice.'
Speaking on a bright sun-filled day, Mrs Clinton told the 6,000 graduates: 'We can sit on the sidelines, we can wring our hands, we can retreat into cynicism, and we know what the result will be.'
These are uplifting words to buoy one's spirits amid the turbulent economic waters. The US unemployment rate hit 8.9 per cent in April, and economists predict that it may approach 10.8 per cent, a level not seen since the early 1980s. Indeed, a graduate looking for a job nowadays is not unlike an unpopular girl looking for a date at the prom. The odds are stacked against you that someone will say yes. Chances are you may have given up hope of ending up with Prince Charming. And if you did snare the prize, there is a sense of ephemeral achievement, that this could all be snatched away. Your hopes crest and crash.
Of the group of Singaporeans who had just graduated with business degrees, the boys had landed jobs at Citigroup and Barclays, and were just thankful their offers weren't rescinded amid the financial turmoil. In my graduate business journalism class, my classmates who have already secured jobs gripe about the low pay - US$15 (S$22.50) an hour, for one - and about doing work far beneath their talents. 'I understand derivatives and can crunch a balance sheet, but here I am writing a story on a small furniture shop?'
This is the new reality. The Wall Street Journal ran a story last week that graduates who land jobs today are likely to suffer lower wages for a decade or more, compared to those who graduated in better times. It quoted studies which showed that for each percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate, those who graduated during the recession earned 7 to 8 per cent less in their first year at work compared to those who graduated in better times.
President Barack Obama tried to put a new perspective on these bleak prospects in his commencement speech at Arizona State University: 'Many of our current challenges are unprecedented. There are no standard remedies, no go-to fixes this time around ... it's moments like these that force us to try harder, to dig deeper, and to discover gifts we never knew we had - to find the greatness that lies within each of us.'
I could dismiss Mr Obama's words as his usual soaring rhetoric, but I'd rather not. Coming to New York was a leap into the unknown for me, having worked hard at building a good career for four years. But I wanted to chase my passion in journalism. As the Frank Sinatra song goes, if you can make it here, you can make it, anywhere. You've made it to the big league, baby.
Like every well brought-up Singaporean, I want the usual trappings and appearance of success, eventually. Yet in such times, I, like many others, am pushed to re-evaluate what it means to be successful, and to have the conviction of what I want to do tested.
Near the close of her speech, Mrs Clinton quoted a line from the movie A League of Their Own: 'If it were easy, anybody could do it.' And indeed, what's the challenge and satisfaction if that was the case?