To the Class of 1991, with luck, sympathy - and hope:

An old gag has a commencement speaker reviewing all the challenges facing that year's graduating class and then, after reflecting on what he has said, concluding with the exhortation: "Don't go!"That's not my advice to the Class of 1991, even though it enters a clearly troubled economy, with job opportunities nowhere near what they were in the heady days of the 1980s. Not only is there usually no choice in such matters, but there may actually be an advantage in setting out in less than balmy seas.

Let's specify the advantage. It certainly doesn't lie, for most graduates, in either the quantity or the quality of jobs available; I would have wished you more of both. It resides, instead, in the firmer grasp on economic reality you are likely to develop as a result of this initial rough period. It can serve you well through a lifetime of productive work.

Perhaps the silliest era of recent American thought about economics occurred during the 1960s, when the prevailing view on most campuses was that one's parents were filthy fascist materialists - and, hey, where the heck was that check to pay for the stereo?

The assumption was that economic growth was a given, and that the only remaining problem was how, more "fairly," to distribute this non-stop largesse. Business was widely viewed as the enemy, exploiting workers and consumers, and in need of much more aggressive control from the central government.

Such attitudes had a profound influence on the less happy economy that ensued. We found that we could, indeed, hurt business, if that were our perverse goal, but that such policies would, in fact, injure consumers and workers, too. The pyramiding of regulations, taxes and other hostile and restrictive legislation contributed significantly to the repeated recessions and stag-flation of the 1970s.

The compensating benefit, however, was the beginnings of a return to rationality. As the 1970s ended and the 1980s began, sensible leaders of both parties stopped bashing business and started actively encouraging more freedom and opportunity in the private economy. What followed was a historic burst of sustained economic growth - and in jobs for graduates.

Accompanying this rebirth of hope, regrettably, was too much borrowing, for which we are paying in the 1990s. But, as bright students will recognize, the debt explosion did not occur spontaneously - or because of some newly nascent "greed" in the human soul. Government policies were again at the heart of the matter, both in recklessly excessive federal spending and in a fickle tax system that first encouraged, then torpedoed, private transactions built on debt.

Today's graduates, while sadder, should be wiser. Those who survive this harsh initiation into the jobs market are unlikely to be seduced by the thought that society owes them a living. When times improve, today's smart graduates will be tempered and toughened, and ready to claim a lifetime of earned success.

One final thought for the Class of 1991: Be wary of the fashionable chip on the shoulder, which politicians love to burnish. This is not to say that life is not often unfair. It is not "fair" that your older brothers and sisters got job offers that may not be waiting for you. It is not "fair" that we have not yet eliminated all forms of discrimination in American life. But it will not make your own life happier, or more prosperous, if you dwell on these inequities instead of resolutely building your own life and career.