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Advice from Gen X to Y: It does get better

Much has been made of the digital age and those who belong to it. While my generation has embraced the changes, the simple fact remains that we are not, as they say, children of it. To today's twentysomethings, technology is as essential as the air they breathe, but my generation could still get by with just a fax machine. And yet, my generation – X – and the Ys have more in common than we think.

I found this out when I talked to a small focus group of recent graduates who work with me. Their comments surprised me. They told me of a generation that is worried about their future – a generation that has looked at the current economic context and found causes for optimism wanting. They also told me that many in their cohort are questioning the value of their education, fearing that their time and money had been poorly invested. Grim is the word that I would use to describe the career prospects of my friends and me when we graduated in 1993.

We were called the McGeneration, GenX, or the Lost Generation – none of which immediately inspire a sense of confidence in one's prospects for the future. If economic cycles are characterized by peaks and valleys then we share the dubious distinction of being children of the valley. However, before any Ys feel tempted to hit the panic button, I can deliver good news. With a piece of our own future behind us, my friends and I can happily report that while our start was more than a little rocky, we have all left our part-time McJobs behind us – and our efforts in getting there have made success taste all the sweeter.

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Looking back on it now, I realize that our prospects were never as grim as they appeared. The same is true for Yers. While my Victoria College friends and I may not have appreciated it at the time, we were setting off on our travels from a very privileged point of departure. Our backpack contained four years of learning that many others did not have and a piece of paper that signalled to the world the extent of our achievement. You are starting out with a similar load, but in addition to your diploma and skills, I – as a member of the generation before you – am going to ask you to add a few other things to your backpack.

Challenge No. 1 – Be Open to Opportunity: While being a goal-oriented society has its strengths, I worry sometimes that we are so busy dashing to the finish line that we forget to ask ourselves what else might be out there. Some of my best experiences in life have come from places where I have least expected them. One of the members of my focus group was particularly adamant on this point. Her work with us started as a stop-gap measure while waiting to hear back from her law-school applications. However, over the course of her time in our office, she discovered that she had a real passion for public policy and this has opened up to her a whole new world of possibility.

Challenge No. 2 – Be Ready to Stare Down the Lows: Even the best laid-plans can go awry – and I guarantee that they sometimes will –but I can also promise that ultimately the bang-up will matter less than your response to it.

Challenge No. 3 – Always Put Your Best Foot Forward: When I was young, I was a Girl Guide and one of the mottos we were made to repeat each week was "I promise to do my best." While a certain element of brainwashing is to be regretted here, I have more than once appreciated the wisdom in this approach. Again, my focus group was quite vocal on this point. Meandering paths can be deceiving. One member took a job as an administrative assistant in our office and she made the most of the situation. Her talent, hard work, and eagerness to show that she could do more ultimately led to new and exciting opportunities within our organization.

Challenge No. 4 – Stand Up and Be Counted on Giving Back: I think it is important to remember that behind every student is a fan base that has provided the moral and financial support required to keep us on our path. We do not operate in isolation. Friends, family, and our communities have all played a role in our success. While tuition rates may seem high, they would be a whole lot higher if not for the collective commitment of our fellow Canadians to higher education. The reality is that for every dollar that an Ontario student invests in their education, it is matched and far exceeded by public funding. We should never forget that we are very fortunate to be seeking our degrees in Canada. Therefore, as JFK once famously suggested, I challenge you to think not only of what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

Challenge No. 5 – Follow Your Bliss: While canvassing opinion on what to say in my remarks tonight, almost everyone commented on the importance of speaking to what Joseph Campbell has so famously captured as: "Follow your bliss..." I have observed that the outlets for that which makes us most happy are as diverse as the passions themselves. Some people have found their bliss in their work, others have found it in their hobbies, and still others have found it in their volunteer efforts. Where they find it is of little import. What matters most is that they have found it.

This piece is adapted from a speech to a graduating class at the University of Toronto's Victoria College.

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Robbin Tourangeau is senior director of strategic initatives at the Council of Ontario Universities.

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