SAN FRANCISCO — Mark Zuckerberg, Harvard’s most famous dropout, returned to the leafy college campus he left behind nearly 12 years ago for Facebook to make an urgent appeal to his generation, millennial to millennial: Don’t just seek out your own sense of purpose. Create a world in which everyone can.
“To keep our society moving forward, we have a generational challenge — to not only create new jobs, but create a renewed sense of purpose,” Zuckerberg told Harvard graduates on Thursday. “It’s not enough to have purpose yourself. You also have to create a sense of purpose for others.”
The commencement address, for which he prepared for weeks, was delivered in the pouring rain. It nodded to growing disillusionment by everyday Americans who have watched the gains of the economic recovery pass them by.
“When our parents graduated, purpose reliably came from your job, your church, your community,” Zuckerberg said. “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.
“As I’ve traveled around, I’ve sat with children in juvenile detention and opioid addicts, who told me their lives could have turned out differently if they just had something to do, an after school program or somewhere to go. I’ve met factory workers who know their old jobs aren’t coming back and are trying to find their place.”
The remarks, delivered in suit and tie, not his customary gray T-shirt and jeans and at a podium without a teleprompter, focused heavily on harnessing this generation’s entrepreneurial spirit to push for big ideas and big projects, equal economic opportunity for all and a global community that crosses borders and ideologies.
That’s an idea, the power of entrepreneurship and innovation to change lives, that’s deeply personal for the 33-year-old Facebook founder and chief executive who has pledged to give away most of his wealth in his lifetime to address some of the most pressing problems of the planet, from climate change and curing diseases to income inequality and criminal justice reform, while running the multibillion-dollar corporation he started in his college dorm room.
While he denies he’s aiming for a stint in politics or for the West Wing, and he takes great pains to avoid the appearance of partisanship, Zuckerberg was clearly sending a political message, not just to the sea of graduates gathered in cap and gown in Cambridge, Mass., but to the much larger audience that tuned into the livestream on his Facebook page. And that message, which included a call for affordable health care and childcare, immigrant rights, personalized education, sharing our genomes to advance scientific research, allowing everyone to vote online and testing out new concepts such as universal basic income, will undoubtedly again raise questions about his political ambitions.
The commencement address is the latest illustration of the hybrid role Zuckerberg is carving out for himself in public life, not just as a leader of a global company but as a global voice whose influence is being felt beyond Silicon Valley in the spheres of politics and the economy. That’s much like the political entrepreneurs and philanthropic chieftains from the tech world who came before him such as Dave Packard and Bill Gates, says Margaret O’Mara, professor of history at the University of Washington.
Zuckerberg this year has embarked on a multi-state tour to put him back in touch with Americans and Facebook users at the farm dinner table, NASCAR track and on the factory floor, worlds from which he’s been isolated since moving to Silicon Valley, if not before.
“Mark Zuckerberg is a face and voice of the millennial generation that expresses and acts upon a very strong sense of social consciousness,” O’Mara said. “He’s both a product of history and someone who’s reflecting a current moment.”