Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Divided Decade

So, you’re graduating into a financial crisis …

Carrie Barber May 21, 2018
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Back in 2009 and 2010, college students were graduating into the worst economy since the Great Depression. Unemployment had risen from 5 percent in December 2007 to 9.5 percent in June 2009, when the recession technically ended, and was 9.6 percent for 2010. So what do you say to students facing a labor market full of cutbacks and uncertainty? You inspire, give some historical perspective, offer personal anecdotes or issue a call to action. Or you just make them laugh. The following are excerpts of what some notable speakers had to say.

President Barack Obama told Arizona State University graduates that they’ll “need to continuously adapt to a continuously changing economy.

“Keep on taking risks”

President Barack Obama, speaking at Arizona State University in 2009.

It may be tempting to fall back on the formulas for success that have been pedaled so frequently in recent years. It goes something like this: You’re taught to chase after all the usual brass rings; you try to be on this “who’s who” list or that top 100 list; you chase after the big money and you figure out how big your corner office is; you worry about whether you have a fancy enough title or a fancy enough car. That’s the message that’s sent each and every day, or has been in our culture for far too long — that through material possessions, through a ruthless competition pursued only on your own behalf — that’s how you will measure success.

Now, you can take that road — and it may work for some. But at this critical juncture in our nation’s history, at this difficult time, let me suggest that such an approach won’t get you where you want to go; it displays a poverty of ambition — that in fact, the elevation of appearance over substance, of celebrity over character, of short-term gain over lasting achievement is precisely what your generation needs to help end.

Now, ASU, I want to highlight — I want to highlight two main problems with that old, tired, me-first approach. First, it distracts you from what’s truly important, and may lead you to compromise your values and your principles and commitments. Think about it. It’s in chasing titles and status — in worrying about the next election rather than the national interest and the interests of those who you’re supposed to represent — that politicians so often lose their ways in Washington. …

But the second problem with the old approach to success is that a relentless focus on the outward markers of success can lead to complacency. It can make you lazy. We too often let the external, the material things, serve as indicators that we’re doing well, even though something inside us tells us that we’re not doing our best; that we’re avoiding that which is hard, but also necessary; that we’re shrinking from, rather than rising to, the challenges of the age. And the thing is, in this new, hyper-competitive age, none of us — none of us — can afford to be complacent. …

So graduates, it’s now abundantly clear that we need to start doing things a little bit different. In your own lives, you’ll need to continuously adapt to a continuously changing economy. You’ll end up having more than one job and more than one career over the course of your life; to keep gaining new skills — possibly even new degrees; and you’ll have to keep on taking risks as new opportunities arise.

Going through a period of unemployment? “Enjoy it,” John Patrick Shanley said.

There’s always poetry …

John Patrick Shanley, playwright and screenwriter, speaking at College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York in 2009.

When you leave here today, you may go through a period of unemployment. My suggestion is this: Enjoy it. Have a second cup of coffee. Go to the park. Read Walt Whitman.

Walt Whitman loved being an unemployed. I don’t believe he ever did an honest day’s work in his life. As you may know, he was a poet. If a lot of time goes by and you continue to be unemployed, you may want to consider announcing to all appropriate parties you have become a poet.

Next, be nice to your parents or guardians. They are exhausted. They don’t even know why anymore. They’re too tired and too poor to figure it out.


“You’ve already survived a hurricane, what else can happen to you?” Ellen DeGeneres asked Tulane graduates. 

“It’s going to be great”

Comedian Ellen DeGeneres, speaking at Tulane University in New Orleans in 2009 to the Katrina class, students whose freshman year in 2005 was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina.

Follow your passion. Stay true to yourself. Never follow someone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, then by all means you should follow that. Don’t give advice. It’ll come back and bite you in the ass. Don’t take anyone’s advice. So my advice to you is to be true to yourself, and everything will be fine.

And I know that a lot of you are concerned about your future, but there’s no need to worry. The economy’s booming. The job market is wide open. [laughter] The planet is just fine. It’s going to be great. You’ve already survived a hurricane, what else can happen to you? And as I mentioned before, some of the most devastating things that happen to you will teach you the most. And now you know the right questions to ask for your first job interview, like “Is it above sea level?”


“Things usually have a way of working out,” Ben Bernanke told students at Boston College School of Law.

“Stay optimistic. … Be flexible”

Ben Bernanke, then-chairman of the Federal Reserve, speaking at Boston College School of Law in 2009.

Our lack of control over what happens to us might be grounds for an attitude of resignation or fatalism, but I would urge you to take a very different lesson. You may have limited control over the challenges and opportunities you will face, or the good fortune and trials that you will experience. You have considerably more control, however, over how well prepared and open you are, personally and professionally, to make the most of the opportunities that life provides you. Any time that you challenge yourself to undertake something worthwhile but difficult, a little out of your comfort zone — or any time that you put yourself in a position that challenges your preconceived sense of your own limits — you increase your capacity to make the most of the unexpected opportunities with which you will inevitably be presented. Or, to borrow another aphorism, this one from Louis Pasteur: Chance favors the prepared mind. …

So, my advice to you is to stay optimistic.Things usually have a way of working out. My second piece of advice is to be flexible, even adventurous as you begin your careers. As I have tried to illustrate today, you are much less able than you think to foresee how your life, both professional and personal, will play out. The world changes too fast, and too many accidents and unpredictable events occur. It will pay, therefore, to be creative and open-minded as you search for and consider professional opportunities. Look most carefully at those options that will give you a chance to learn new things, explore new areas, and grow as a person. Think of every job as a potential investment in yourself. Will it prepare your mind for the opportunities that chance will provide?


“Have the fortitude to do the right thing, not the easy thing,” Jamie Dimon said to Syracuse’s class of 2010.

“Don’t be somebody’s lapdog”

Jamie Dimon, then JPMorgan Chase chairman and CEO, speaking at Syracuse University in 2010.

I want to point out that in sharing my views with you, I do not mean to imply that I did it all right; I did not. Many of the lessons I’ve learned I’ve learned by making mistakes. It takes courage to be accountable. Throughout my life, throughout this crisis in the past three years, I’ve seen many people embarrass themselves by failing to stand up, being mealy-mouthed and acting like lemmings by simply going along with the pack. I also saw plenty of people under enormous pressure who always did the right thing. Graduates, you will soon leave this wonderful community and venture into a new world to get ready for new jobs, new opportunities and new lives. Along the way, you’re going to face a lot of pressure. Pressure to go along, to get along, to toe the line, to look the other way when you see things that aren’t right, and pressure to do things simply because everybody else is doing them. Never give in to that pressure. Have the fortitude to do the right thing, not the easy thing. Don’t be somebody’s lapdog or sycophant. Have the courage to speak the truth, even when it is unpopular, and have the courage to put yourself on the line, to strive for something meaningful, and even to risk what would be an embarrassing failure. …

As you all know, over the past two years we’ve gone through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. A lot of attention has been paid to the mistakes made by those who helped bring on the crisis. The first step to dealing with mistakes is to actually acknowledge them, and it is true that many in this crisis have denied any responsibility. But in this crisis, there are also many who take responsibility and do something about it. At the darkest moments when it seemed like the whole system was unraveling, I saw men and women in my company, and in many other companies and in the governments around the world who took extraordinary action. They didn’t whine or complain, and when they got knocked down they got up and tried to do something about it. They worked for days and weeks on end without sleep, sacrificing time with family and friends, so they could try to contain the crisis, all the while knowing that they could actually fail at what they were trying to do. They weren’t driving themselves for money, or to score points with the boss— they understood that the well-being of millions of people depending on getting the situation under control. They didn’t lose their nerve when things seemed bleak, they showed the fortitude that’s necessary to handle a tough situation and to deal with life’s inevitable setbacks.


“A business exists to serve its customers and the communities in which it operates,” Kenneth Chenault told Northeastern students.


“You can’t just look at the bottom line”

Kenneth Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express, speaking at Northeastern University in Boston in 2010.

When you start off in life or any great pursuit as you do today you can’t always know exactly what those challenges will be. That was true for my generation, for many of the people who fill the stands today, your parents. More importantly, it’s true for you today now amidst economic uncertainty and in the aftermath of the greatest recession in our lifetime. But you must confront the challenges, because you don’t just leave Northeastern with memories, you leave with a mission. It’s to take what you’ve learned here, and because this is Northeastern, it’s to take what you’ve experienced here and apply it. You have the opportunity to do that. But you also have an obligation. With the education and achievement this day recognizes, you have an obligation to lead, an obligation to be leaders and to help shape society and shape the future.    

Now that might sound simple or profoundly difficult. Maybe even surprising coming from a CEO in the financial services industry. Now you don’t need a poll to know that very few people believe corporations always deliver on their social responsibilities. But the challenge that I describe should not be all that surprising. My generation, that of many of your parents, came of age at a time when even amidst vicious hatred, Dr. King was reminding us that the battle for our God-given rights should be civil. We came of age at a time when women were hard at work washing away old stereotypes. We came of age when a book called “Silent Spring” led to a clarion call to protect our environment. In the wake of Watergate and the divisiveness of Vietnam, we came of age demanding institutions become more open and transparent.

These events did not leave us unaffected. As individuals and as a generation, they defined us. And for some of us who went into the corporate world, that meant fundamentally rejecting the Milton Friedman argument that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business, and that is to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” Instead, some of us believed, and still do, that business exists because society allows us to exist, and in exchange for that permission to pursue profits, business must behave and act in ways that protect and enhance the world we live in.

In other words, a business exists to serve its customers and the communities in which it operates. You can’t just look at the bottom line. There is an impact on society that goes far beyond the products or jobs it creates. The notion of businesses needing to be involved is only increasing. More and more people just don’t accept this, they expect it.

Christina Romer compared the Great Recession to the Great Depression at the College of William & Mary’s graduation. 

“From studying the Great Depression to helping to prevent a second one”

Christina Romer, chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, speaking at the College of William & Mary in Virginia in 2010.

Whoever would have thought that this specialty [in the economic history of the Great Depression] would turn out to be so relevant to public policy? But, in the fall of 2008 as our financial markets were rocked by a crisis reminiscent of the 1930s, that knowledge became frighteningly useful. My very first conversation with the president-elect was about the role of monetary policy in the Great Depression. Almost before I knew it, I moved from studying the Great Depression to helping to prevent a second one. Serving as one of President Obama’s economic advisers during this difficult time has been an honor and a challenge above any I could have imagined on the day of my William & Mary graduation. …

The economic situation facing the new administration was unlike any we had seen since the Depression. In January 2009, the economy was losing more than three-quarters of a million jobs per month. Output was plummeting and businesses were closing their doors at an alarming rate. The financial system was seized with fear and key flows of credit, the lifeblood of our economy, virtually evaporated. Though not a depression, this truly was a Great Recession.

Like Roosevelt before him, President Obama realized that what we were facing was an all-out crisis that demanded an all-out policy response. In that response, ordinary families had to be the focus of our efforts. No matter where the recession began or what its causes, it quickly ended up on Main Streets throughout the country. Millions of Americans were losing their jobs, their savings, and their homes. We had to formulate policies that would restore their economic security. Like Roosevelt, the new administration did not have time for ideological battles. The only question about a policy was whether it would put people back to work. That pragmatism and concern for American workers are the defining elements of President Obama’s approach to the economy, just as they were of Roosevelt’s economic policies.

Although at a philosophical level there are crucial parallels in the responses to the Great Recession and to the Great Depression, at a practical level they are very different. Ours is not the New Deal repeated, but new policies for a new century. Economic analysis has improved markedly in the decades since the Great Depression. In our policies, we sought to learn from past mistakes and apply new thinking. Perhaps most fundamentally, President Obama’s economic policies were more market-oriented than Roosevelt’s. In area after area, we sought to strengthen and build on the market system, not replace it. Equally important, this time around policymakers resisted pressures to take misguided steps that could ultimately slow the recovery and make the economy more vulnerable.

This story is part of Divided Decade, a year-long series examining how the financial crisis changed America.

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