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Workforce expert Christensen ’73 shares wisdom as May 2012 commencement speaker

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Commencement speaker Kathleen Christensen
A distinguished UW-Green Bay graduate who is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the American workforce delivered the commencement address to an attentive audience of about 5,000 at the University’s Kress Events Center on Saturday, May 12.

Kathleen Christensen directs the Working Longer program at the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, based in New York City. She is a summa cum laude graduate of UW-Green Bay, having received her bachelor’s degree in Urban Analysis in 1973.

In his introduction, UW-Green Bay Chancellor noted that Christensen has been a pioneer in promoting research and public policy aimed at issues related to working women, a field she helped found more than 30 years ago. He predicted that her Working Longer project — charged with assessing the economic consequences for individuals and the federal budget of an aging workforce that is working longer — will have similar impact.

Christensen told a story or two about her career and offered four (or five) main take-aways for the 700 or so 2012 graduates who took part in the ceremony:

• Balance your short- and long-term goals — You need to earn a living and might not be able to tackle your biggest hopes and dreams right away;

• Choose an important problem to work on — Even if your current job seems unrelated, don’t lose contact with your core interests and concerns;

• Life is not linear — “I know my own career path looks weird from the outside. But I can tell you – from the inside – it feels just right”;

• Work is not your life — “If our research shows anything it shows that a majority of parents experience a real time famine – they feel they do not have enough time to be a good parent and a good worker. Hard as it is, don’t shortchange your family.”;

• Microwave those cleaning sponges — “The kitchen sink is one of the filthiest places in the house.”

* * * * *

The prepared text of Christensen’s address is as follows:

Chancellor Harden, members of the Council of Trustees, devoted parents, restless siblings, dear spouses, grandparents and friends, congratulations. But most of all, congratulations to you, the Class of 2012.

You have made it! Each of you has worked hard and achieved much in order to be here today. You deserve to be very proud of your accomplishments.

I gave a lot of thought about what to say today, because I know that hardly anyone ever remembers what their commencement speakers says. I have been to four graduations in my life and remember only one of them and that was because I laughed. Unfortunately, however, humor in the laugh-out-loud kind of way is not my strength, so you will likely not laugh, which leads me to conclude that you will not likely remember anything I say.

Nevertheless, I want to tell you a story. While the details of it may seem of little relevance, I want to draw from it key lessons I have learned about life, work, and family.

It was 1979. I was in my fourth year of graduate school and six years out from Green Bay.

I was completing my doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of science, using hermeneutic phenomenology. This is a philosophical tradition focused on illuminating the meaning of taken-for-granted life experiences and opposed to the application of natural science methods to the social sciences. Okay, I know: It is an obscure subject matter, but it fascinated me.

On one particularly crisp fall morning, I stumbled upon a New York Times article about this woman, Felice Schwartz, who had started an organization, Catalyst. Its goal was to help working mothers launch and advance their careers. This may seem like old news now, but at the time it was pretty ground breaking. Keep in mind this was the late 1970s, a time in which it was unusual for mothers to work – for pay. The notion of balancing work and family did not exist, because most women still left the workforce when they had children. But the nation was seeing a new pattern – women were having babies and continuing to work. In that moment, I saw a very different future, and I was seized by wanting to understand how working mothers, particularly professional ones, could advance their careers and raise a family.

So I roared into the office of my advisor, a proper Dutch philosopher who was very formal in his attire and demeanor. I was almost breathless and I blurted out that I wanted to switch the topic of my dissertation. No more hermeneutic phenomenology for me. I wanted to study corporate women and how the workplace could be restructured so they could better balance the demands of work and family.

He pulled himself up, drew back, looked me in the eye and said, “That is stupid. Really, really stupid.” I was stunned. What was he saying? Women didn’t matter? Two earner couples didn’t matter? Changing the workplace didn’t’ matter? I didn’t matter?

He went on calmly to say, that if, at this point, I switched to topics, it could delay me up to four years. He concluded saying, “This dissertation is not your life’s work. Finish it. And then you can make working mothers and work-family issues your life work.“

And I did just that — while it was not always easy or effortless — I finished my dissertation, got my Ph.D. in geography, became a professor of psychology, and wrote seven books about work and family. And then I moved to the foundation world where we funded over $125 million worth of research on working families and launched a national campaign to make workplaces more flexible. Over the last several years, I have worked with CEOs, U.S. senators, and the White House to create a workplace that allows American men and women to have full lives and not to have to choose between being a good parent and a good worker. This became and continues to be my life’s work.

But in that moment with my advisor in 1979, I learned several things and I want to share these insights with you.

Balance your short and long term goals. While we may all have grand ambitions that can carry us through our lives, in reality most of what we do is found in the immediacy of the day, the month the year. We must have a paycheck to cover housing, food and family. But we must also keep our eye on our long term dreams and goals. Everything cannot be done at once. So I learned that it often is most expedient not to take the simple direct route, but to do short term things as best I can, even when they are frustrating and I feel I have better things to do. I finished that dissertation, even though I had lost significant interest in it, but that Ph.D. degree took me a step further in pursuing my life’s work.

Choose an important problem to work on. I cannot overemphasize this. We all have choices to make as to what problems to focus on. In this economy, while many of you may feel that you just have to take what is available, keep focused on what is most important to you. Find little ways on a daily basis so that you can sustain your focus. If your most pressing concern, for example, is the environment, figure out how best with your talents you can work on it. Even if your job seems entirely unrelated — think creatively about to how to address the important problems that can make a difference.

There is no magic way. If you cannot focus on the problem in your job, work on it as a volunteer. But whatever you do, pick an important problem that will make a difference and approach it in the way that you best can.

I worry when young people are told to “find your passion.” I realize from my daughters that this “find your passion” command is a terrible burden and often feels to be an impossible task. Few of us know what our passion is as we look to the future. Most of us discover our passion by looking backwards. So, follow your interests and concerns. What makes you want to wake up in the morning? And then — and only then — for the lucky ones — will you find your passion.

Life is not linear. While our lives can have purpose, rarely can they be planned in any detail.

I have a Ph.D. in geography, but did a dissertation in philosophy of science and went onto be a tenured professor in psychology. At each juncture, I had to make choices and decide to pursue what I cared most deeply about in light of what opportunities presented themselves.

I am reminded of a book that anthropologist Mary Catharine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead, wrote entitled Composing a Life. Bateson shows us that life itself is an art form, not a linear, predictable process. In many cases life is improvisational art. We do the best we can at each potential turning point, given the information and the self-knowledge we possess. Losing a job, having a child at an unexpected time, changing careers, getting a divorce — these are all creative opportunities for us to stop, decide which way to go at each of these critical moments in time and then move on. As you will likely hear many times, life is what happens when you planning other things. I know my career path looks weird from the outside. But I can tell you — from the inside — it feels just right.

If you are lucky enough to find your life’s work, do not forget that work is not your life. Your life is your life and work fits into it, but should not exhaust it. Most of you will end up at some point being a working parent, whether as part of a couple or on your own. If our research shows anything it shows that a majority of parents experience a real time famine — they feel they do not have enough time to be a good parent and a good worker. Hard as it is, don’t shortchange your family. On your deathbed, no one ever says, I wish I had spent more time in the office.

You have great adventures ahead of you. Make sure that you compose your lives in ways that are meaningful to you and your families.

And, in closing, I will share one life message from the one graduation speech I remember — Always microwave your sponges. The kitchen sink is one of the filthiest places in the house.

Congratulations Class of 2012!

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