12 May 2018, Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California, USA
Good afternoon! Daniel, let me thank you for that very kind introduction.
In my career I have spoken after Presidents, Prime Ministers, and even some celebrities. But I do not believe I have ever followed a Jeopardy! contestant — so this is a true honor for me!
To President Chodosh, to the trustees, to the faculty and administration, thank you for inviting me.
To the class of 2018 — congratulations! Each of you has completed a remarkable journey to get here. No one goes on that journey alone, however. So, to your parents, your entire family, your teachers and your professors, congratulations as well. Your sacrifice, support, engagement, and passion have made this day possible.
And if I may, since tomorrow is Mother’s Day, can we take a moment to give special recognition to all our mothers and thank them for the love they have given us?
A few years ago, I watched my own son graduate from college — so I know the pride and joy you feel this morning.
Part I: A New Odyssey
Now, there is one more group I would like to acknowledge — your very own national champion women’s volleyball team: The Athenas.
As a daughter of classics teachers, I was intrigued to learn of your team name. And I was even more fascinated when I read that in order to motivate the team, your coach developed an “Athena inspired journey” for the season. Borrowing from the Parthenon, the team created “pillars” that represented your values: focus, passion, and resilience.
I am a bit jealous. When I was your age I was on the French national synchronized swimming team, but no coach ever proposed something so clever.
When I read about this plan, I immediately thought of another famous journey involving Athena: The Odyssey. In Homer’s epic poem, Odysseus, guided by the goddess of wisdom Athena, spends ten years trying to find his way home. Ten years! This is after Odysseus had already spent a decade fighting in the Trojan war. Clearly ten years seems to be a time period of some significance.
Today, I thought I would take a page from Homer, and borrow his idea of “ten years.” Ten years backward, ten years forward:
So let us take a look back at the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis on the students who sat in your chairs ten years ago. And then, let us take a look forward. What will the world be like in 2028, when today’s middle schoolers graduate from college? And, most importantly, how will each of you make a difference in shaping that future?
Part II: The Class of 2008
In May 2008, what was happening in the world? The global economy was rattled. Bear Stearns had just folded and Lehman Brothers was about to go under.
As the French Finance Minister, I was in constant contact with European and US leaders. There was a very real sense that the entire financial system could collapse. The global economy turned negative, international trade came to a halt, unemployment skyrocketed and people lost their homes.
During this turmoil the institution I now lead, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), sprang into action. The IMF deployed its firepower and supported its member countries, committing hundreds of billions of dollars to help secure the global financial system, to make sure that people would not lose their deposits in the bank, and to kickstart the global economy.
Through international cooperation, we avoided a global depression. But the consequences of the recession were felt by hundreds of millions all over the world, including right here in California.
In May 2008, what was happening at Claremont? The class of 2008 prepared to graduate and faced a job market in crisis. Research shows that students who graduated in the US in 2008 and 2009 faced higher rates of unemployment and lower salaries than their peers who graduated before and after.
By 2013, the average college graduate who finished school during the recession earned 36 percent less than peers who graduated a few years earlier. To put it in Homer’s terms, the class of 2008, possibly distracted by the voices of the financial sirens, faced a near shipwreck.
Many of you have studied the economic consequences of the great recession. How do I know? I looked at your thesis topics! One of you wrote about quantitative easing in the US and the UK. Another wrote about the large infrastructure gaps remaining in advanced economies. One of the most impressive topics was covered by Tim De Silva. Where is Tim? Can I read the title of your thesis?
Ok, here it is:
“Are volatility expectations in different countries interdependent? A data-driven solution to structural VAR identification for implied equity volatility indices.”
Wow, Tim, this is quite a relevant topic, and I understand an award-winning one too. Congratulations. This is the kind of work anyone who has been tracking the recent ups and downs in the stock market might want to read.
Now, like Odysseus, the class of 2008 turned adversity into an advantage. Homer tells us that Odysseus used the narrow escape from the Cyclops to convince his crew that they could survive any future test on their journey. Soon after, when Poseidon sends a tempest, Odysseus’ men remain confident that they will find a way through.
In the midst of an economic storm, the class of 2008 also found new paths they may not have imagined during their years in college. In fact, a few Claremont students who lost their finance jobs in New York moved to Silicon Valley and developed start-ups that turned into successful businesses.
Others embarked on careers in law, public service, and education.
These young men and women were part of rebuilding the American economy. The international students who returned home were part of rebuilding their respective economies. The IMF was part of rebuilding the global economy — we all cooperated in the same endeavor: Rescue the system.
That system was severely tested at the beginning of 2008. And that system was rescued and improved thanks to international cooperation, thanks to the belief that we could be stronger together.
A lot was done over the past decade. A great depression was prevented. More resilient economies and safer financial systems were built. And because of this work, you, the class of 2018, have more freedom to chart your own course.
To graduate at this moment, in this time of prosperity and technological revolution, is an extraordinary gift. But it does come with strings attached.
To quote from a modern-day writer of epic stories, J.K. Rowling, “You have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently.”
This is your challenge. What kind of country, what kind of world, will you help build? What values will you respect? What will drive your life and the lives of others? Ten years from now, when the class of 2028 stands here and prepares to graduate, what will you have done to help them?
Part III: The Class of 2028
Right now, the class of 2028 is about twelve years old. So they are not looking for a job just yet.
But imagine the nature of the global economy when they finish college.
You might walk into a meeting and sit next to someone who looks a lot like you, makes a joke, and then offers to help you with a project. An hour later, that same “someone” — who in reality is a robot — will walk outside to recharge its solar battery.
When you buy a cup of coffee a quick retinal scan may automatically deduct money from your bank account — or maybe even your crypto-currency account. Cash may seem quaint.
Here at Claremont, think of the experience future students will have:
The Athenaeum could become a digital speaker’s forum — where playwrights and poets interact with students via a hologram.
Your professors will be available around the clock. Office hours may only happen twice a week, but through artificial intelligence you could soon debate Aristotle with your philosophy teacher anytime day or night.
Some things will not change of course. It will still be impossible to get into Econ 50. You think they would make an exception for the head of the IMF but apparently not.
So yes, our lives will be more efficient, but there will be a cost. We may be increasingly connected to each other or possibly disconnected from one another at the very same time as many of us need to find new jobs and learn new skills. The fourth industrial revolution may well have morphed into the fifth industrial revolution that will owe much to services and data.
How this all happens — who benefits from these changes and who is left behind — is a story that you will help write.
You arrive on the scene at an inflection point. The decisions you help make, through careers in government, finance, the tech sector and academia, will change the course of this narrative.
Will the technology companies become regulated like public utilities? Will they be expected to respect your privacy and seek your consent prior to sharing your data?
What will happen to those who lose jobs due to automation?
Will excessive inequality continue to fracture our society?
Shall we control our carbon emissions and find a way to tackle climate change?
Will we invest in our human capital more than in tangible assets?
These questions cannot wait for the class of 2028. We need your help in finding answers today. As of now, you become the writers of your own epic poem.
The truth is that every class, every student, faces a unique set of challenges. History judges whether they meet the moment.
For me, one of those challenges has been gender empowerment.
I finished high school in France in 1973 and came to America as an American Field Service Scholar. I worked on the Hill, just as some of you will do next year. Later, in France, I went to law school and initially had trouble finding a job as a lawyer. Why? When I interviewed it was clear that a few firms would not treat me the same way they treated the male associates. As a young working mother, I raced from meetings to get back home and take care of my two sons.
My generation confronted unequal pay for equal work, and gender discriminations that would prevent women from finding jobs and rising to the top of their fields.
The reality is that we have not fully resolved these issues.
Progress has been made, yes, but not enough. Today, women in the United States make 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. The percentage of women in the workforce in the US has stagnated — it is at the same level it was in the mid-1980s. Less than seven percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. In fact, a recent report showed that there are more Fortune 500 CEOs named James than Fortune 500 CEOs who are women. And around the world millions of women face legal barriers that prevent them from working at all. Think of places where women cannot hold title to property, control their own bank accounts, let alone travel by themselves.
The job is not finished.
I am committed to helping solve these problems and today I am reenergized. Why? Because of you, the new wave of young leaders, sitting right here, who I know will take on this challenge along with the others facing your generation.
My hope is that when the Claremont McKenna Commencement speaker addresses the class of 2028 she will be able to say with confidence, “Thanks to the class of 2018, the world is a better place. One where there are better choices than just between Charybdis and Scylla.”
Now, I started with Athena, goddess of wisdom, so let me end with her.
At the conclusion of Homer’s story, when Odysseus finally comes home, he discovers all is not well.
His island, Ithaca, is consumed by conflict. His wife, Penelope, is harassed by suitors and his son, Telemachus, is suffering. He has found his way home, only to confront new questions and hurdles. You might think he would be dejected. Instead he is determined. He is determined because he receives help and love. Athena comes to him, in disguise, and gives him the encouragement he needs to face the next challenge. He also encounters his wet nurse, Eurycleia, who recognizes him, embraces him, and gives him all the love he needs.
You too will face setbacks and unanswered questions in your life and your career.
But remember you also have a goddess of wisdom in your corner.
It is your education, your experience, and the incredible lessons you have learned right here at Claremont McKenna.
And there will always be someone to give you the love that generates confidence that will help you move on and face the next hurdle.
Thank you and congratulations class of 2018!