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Gillian Tett – Commencement Address at Baruch College

‘The revolution in your pocket

Gillian Tett – Commencement Address at Baruch College

Citi Field, New York

Hello everyone and many thanks for those kind words of introduction. I am absolutely thrilled to be standing here today, in front of you all, receiving this honorary degree. Although, I must admit that the use of the word “honor” makes me wince. If anyone deserves to be honored here today it is not me, who has arrived for a day – but instead the students who have worked so hard to get this degree, over so many years; and the families who have supported them. You are the real honorees here today, and to each of you I offer my hearty, humble congratulations and my applause.

Now, I expect that some of you in the audience today might be wondering why it is that I am standing at this podium, here in Citi field. After all, I am not American. I did not go to Baruch, or any American college. I certainly never played for the Mets and do not aspire to run New York, like Christine Quinn, last year’s speaker. Instead, as you may have guessed from my accent, I am British – or, more accurately, I am a global citizen, since I have spent most of my life working outside the UK, first as an anthropologist and then as a journalist for the Financial Times, which is one of the world’s leading global news organizations.

But if there is one college in America where a global citizen like me is likely to feel at home, it is Baruch. After all, Baruch is one of the most ethnically diverse colleges in America. Your student body includes 170 nationalities who speak over 100 languages. Even if you grew up speaking English, many of you are the proud children of immigrants. So while most of you don’t talk like me with an English accent – or like someone of the cast of Downton Abbey – most of you know what it means to be a global citizen. Many of you, like me, have walked a complex path to reach this New York stadium today.

And that is a fantastically good thing. Let me say that again: the fact we are standing together today in this cradle of diversity is truly fabulous. That’s not because diversity is politically correct or part of the American dream – although it is. It is because you students are graduating at a time of extraordinary global flux, of the technological, economic and social kind. And while this flux is not easy to live with, your experience of handling diversity and breaking through boundaries, defying labels and expectations, will potentially be a powerful weapon, to help you to survive and thrive, as you face this new world.

What do I mean by flux? Well there are lots of ways that I could illustrate the big geopolitical, social and economic changes that have swept through the world recently. I could cite statistics that show how emerging markets countries, such as China and India, are now emerging as a powerhouse of global economic growth. I could talk about the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the creation of the Eurozone, the Arab Spring, the credit crisis and so on. I could cite some FT headlines which scream about change and a world in flux.

But I prefer to use a simpler example, close to home; or more accurately, in your pocket or purse. If there is one thing that virtually everyone in the stadium has in common today – aside from being a global citizen – it is that you arrived with some form of mobile device. Maybe a Blackberry, if you are old like me, or an iPhone, iPad, Android device or so on. Either way, it almost certainly links you to the world, via text, email and the internet.

Now these days, most of us take those devices so completely for granted that we only think about them when we lose them – and panic. But right now, I want to you to visualize your own gadget – and, for a moment, reflect. A mere two decades ago, or when most of you students in the so-called Millennium generation were being born, there were no smart phones in the world. Yes, mobiles have existed since 1973; but they used to weigh 2.5 pounds and only lasted 35 minutes. (Remember Michael Douglas in Wall Street?) Just a decade ago, when you students were at school, there were no smart phones. No Twitter. No Facebook. No snapchat. When you said the words “Apple” and “Blackberry”, people thought of fruit.

And yet, in a mere twenty years, we have become so addicted to these devices that our lives have been turned upside down. Current forecasts suggest that by next year there will be 7.4bn mobile devices in the world. That is more than the 7bn people who currently live on our planet. Over a 100 countries today have more mobile devices than people. And as those devices proliferate, they connected the world in a way that changes politics, business, cultures and the economy. Today farmers in Brazil can check the price of soybeans in Chicago instantly. Migrant workers in Africa can send money easily to their family, or save. For the first time ever, the world knows what Chinese citizens think in real time, via Twitter. Voters in America can pay bills, trade stocks, download tax data or read about Kim Kardashian’s latest fling. And the working environment has turned upside down.

Take my career. When I started as a journalist two decades ago I used payphones to dictate stories; in fact, when I first became a reporter, during the breakup of the Soviet Union, I had to give the staff at the local telephone exchange Marlboro cigarettes to get me a line to London. It was very, very laborious. But these days, journalists can call with stories or pictures at any time. So can citizens. We can all read news anywhere, anytime. That revolutionizes our access to information. Twenty years ago, I thought the only way to read the news was on paper; now over half of all FT subscribers read us on a digital device. The world has shrunk, since you can all connect across the globe instantly, but it has exploded with possibility.

Now some you might be sitting there thinking: “So what? It’s obvious.” But ask yourself a question: if this much change has happened in the last twenty years, what will happen in the next two decades? What other technologies will overturn our lives, our physical and mental maps, family lives, and our careers? How different again will it be?

Today, of course we can only guess. But I would guess that this flux and this technological revolution is not going to slow down. So think about it. And consider taking some steps to prepare for this flux. How? Firstly, as I said at the start, celebrate your diversity; in a world of global connection – and competition – it pays to be a true global citizen. Secondly, recognize that technology is disrupting entire industries – get ready to be flexible. Fifty years ago, people used to talk about climbing up a career ladder; these days, as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, likes to say, careers are more like a jungle gym – with plenty of unexpected lateral moves. That is scary. But it’s the reality. Accept and embrace it.

Thirdly, keep your mind open to new ideas. That sounds obvious. But it is not. For – perversely – the more information that swirls around in cyberspace, the more tempting it is to retreat into familiar niches. We stick with our Facebook friends, read websites that confirm our views, slide into intellectual echo chambers. But that is deadly. One thing that marks out successful people, in any sphere, is that that can break out of mental tunnels. So I beg you: when you next look at that mobile device try changing for a day who you follow on twitter, read a new website, explore a different academic discipline – heck, try reading the FT! Diversity of mind really matters; it is the best way to stop tribalism and tunnel vision.

And last but not least, when you leave the stadium today, pick up your mobile device and do two other things. Firstly, celebrate this amazing revolution in connectivity that we have seen in the last twenty years by calling somebody who could not be here today in Citi field, but who supported you on your life path. Maybe a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, a class teacher, a friend – whoever it is, and wherever in the world they sit, just call to say “thanks.” You will not regret it.

And then, before you put that little connector back into your pocket – look at it again and think about what it symbolizes. The last two decades have been remarkable. The next two decades could be even more so. And while we can’t all be a Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs – though some of you may be heading that way – we are all part of a world in extraordinary flux. You are global citizens, and the first generation to inhabit cyber space, with a piece of plastic connectivity in your pocket. So accept that change, celebrate it, own it, dream it – and act on it. I truly wish you the best of luck.

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