It’s commencement speech season, with all manner of inspiring addresses by business and cultural leaders inspiring freshly minted college and university graduates. This week, Mark Zuckerberg returned to Cambridge, Mass. to deliver a speech following the 366th Commencement Exercises at Harvard University, 12 years after he dropped out to create Facebook—and created a headache for parents and college registrars everyone to convince kids to stay in school and not drop out with a dream of creating the next breakthrough brand.
At 33, he’s the youngest person to deliver a Harvard commencement speech, and he picked up an honorary doctor of laws degree while he was there. His address touched on climate change, charity, volunteering, education, universal basic income, and combating authoritarianism and nationalism (“the struggle of our time”) while championing globalism. His speech echoed the high-level themes he has been championing at Facebook.
As he commented after on his personal Facebook page, “Today I delivered the commencement address at Harvard. This speech was personally important to me, and I’ve been writing it for a long time. My message was about purpose. As millennials, finding our purpose isn’t enough. The challenge for our generation is to create a world where every single person has a sense of purpose. That’s the key to true happiness, and the only way we’ll keep our society moving forward.”
Zuckerberg’s speech called on the 2017 graduates to take on ambitious “public works” projects for the general benefit of society, noting how new technologies, including some developed at Facebook, are fundamentally changing the world.
“You’re graduating at a time when this is especially important,” Zuckerberg said. “When our parents graduated, purpose reliably came from your job, your church, your community. But today, technology and automation are eliminating many jobs. Membership in communities is declining. Many people feel disconnected and depressed, and are trying to fill a void.”
“I’m not here to give you the standard commencement about finding your purpose,” he continued in prepared remarks. “We’re millennials. We’ll try to do that instinctively. Instead, I’m here to tell you finding your purpose isn’t enough.”
Noting that society will likely see “tens of millions of jobs replaced by automation like self-driving cars and trucks” in the near future, he referenced previous generations defining projects for social good like the Hoover Dam, the space program and the fight against polio.
“To keep our society moving forward, we have a generational challenge—to not only create new jobs, but create a renewed sense of purpose,” he said. “So what are we waiting for? It’s time for our generation-defining public works. Let’s do big things, not only to create progress, but to create purpose.”
He also spoke of building communities and cited his social network as “connecting one community at a time, and keeping at it until one day we connect the whole world.”
Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan pledged in 2015 to give away 99 percent of their shares in Facebook, worth about $45 million at the time, over the course of their lives.
He and other tech leaders are promoting the idea of paying everybody a guaranteed basic income from the government, and many see the billionaire Facebook CEO as the “anti-Trump” — perhaps positioning himself for a presidential run in the future.
Zuckerberg started Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2004, and as he joked at commencement, “If I get through this speech today, it’ll be the first time I actually finish something here at Harvard.” Who knew that the kid who greeted his Harvard offer with a tepid “Yay” and promptly deleted the email would become the driving force behind the planet’s biggest social network, with more than 1.9 billion monthly users and a market capitalization of more than half a trillion dollars.
With his parents watching, Zuckerberg did acknowledge that he couldn’t have risked dropping out of Harvard had his family not been there as a fallback.
“There is something wrong with our system when I can leave here and make billions of dollars in ten years when millions of students can’t afford to pay off their loans, let alone start a business,” Zuckerberg, who has been on a listening tour with Priscilla to meet with students, told the Harvard class of 2017. “When you don’t have the freedom to take your idea and turn it into a historic enterprise, we all lose.”