In one of many memorable scenes in Mike Nichols’ iconic film “The Graduate,” the worldly wise Mr. McGuire puts his arm around the shoulder of the young Dustin Hoffman’s character and whisks him from the bustle of a graduation party held primarily to entertain his parents’ friends. In a quiet spot, the knowing older man waxes oracular: “I just want to say one word to you, just one word.”

“Yes, sir,” says the innocent and anxious boy, looking up expectantly.

“Are you listening?”

“Yes I am.”

“Plastics.”

Today, the delicious irony of those words uttered with such assurance in that setting is entirely lost.

Few of us in the position to be a Mr. McGuire have either the knowledge or the confidence to utter anything oracular. Indeed, the greatest difference between today’s world and that of 1968 is the absence of confident leaders — not that we, the followers, have lost confidence in them (we didn’t have that in 1968 either), but that they have lost confidence in themselves.

No adult says anything with assurance today. Indeed, the most doctrinaire exude anger and fear more than wisdom. When things fall apart, as Yeats said, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Yet this adult confusion does not mean that today’s graduates yearn any less for words of wisdom than did Dustin Hoffman’s character 40 years ago. They do. Every week I hear from people asking, “How can I get a job in Maine?” “What is the profile of a successful job seeker in Maine?” “How can I know what skills will be needed in the future?”

And simultaneously, I hear from others who do have jobs and complain, “My boss is so dumb; he/she just doesn’t get it. I see such inefficiencies; I see so many ways we could do things better and make more money. But every time I suggest change I get shot down. I’m told, ‘We don’t do things that way here.’ “

In his book “The Global Achievement Gap,” Harvard education professor Tony Wagner highlights this discrepancy by noting that today’s young — the internet generation — are constantly connected (with friends, music, games, reading, shopping) everywhere except in school. The one place presumably dedicated to learning is the one place where the newest, most revolutionary, means for learning is least effectively utilized.

This has to change. And to effect that change, Wagner is whispering not “one word” but “the seven essential survival skills” — critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration across networks/leading by influence, agility/adaptability, initiative/entrepreneurialism, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and curiosity/imagination.

For my money, the most important thing for young people in (or hoping to come to) Maine today is number two — collaboration across networks and leading by influence. To fight the “we don’t do things that way here” attitude with a storm-the-barricades “oh yes, we will” response is to perpetuate the dynamic inaction that has characterized education reform and economic development efforts for generations.

If there is “one word” for today’s youth, I suggest that it is “network.” There is a great future in the network, both for receiving information but, more importantly, for expressing power. The real challenge for young people trying to make a life for themselves in Maine is not finding a job but creating one.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

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