In case you didn’t already know, half of India’s population is under the age of 28. Approximately one in every twelve people on the planet is a young Indian. Millennials – those aged between 18 to 35 – are estimated to number 400 million, a third of India’s total population, and 46% of its workforce.
But this generation is rarely spoken about. Or if it is, lazy generalizations are used to describe India’s millennials, with people calling them ‘social media obsessed’ hipsters who spend their time at cafes and coworking spaces. These mischaracterizations are harmful, and it is about time to set the record straight.
Indian millennials are the single largest generation in India today, and their sheer size makes them one of the world’s largest political and economic constituencies. Tapping their potential and recognizing them as an asset can truly unleash a new chapter in India’s growth story, and it is safe to say that the way India’s millennials behave will shape the country, and perhaps, Asia’s future.
Very different from previous generations, millennials grew up in India’s newly-liberalized economy. Their parents and grandparents lived in a socialist economy where people could not spend money even if they had it. Prior to the 1991 economic liberalization, the most coveted employment opportunity in the country was joining the government as a career bureaucrat or becoming a doctor. Today, millennials can work in information technology, financial services, the gig economy, or can create their own employment. However, a recent survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) found that two in every three (65%) young Indians would choose a government job or sarkari naukri if they had a choice, a truly staggering statistic for young people in the 21st-century economy. The survey also revealed that less than one-fifth wanted to start their own business and a mere seven percent wanted to work in the private sector. Contrary to popular perception, these people are not creating million-dollar startups.
This underscores a stark contrast between Indian millennials and the ‘typical’ millennial found in Western culture. Largely found to be more socially liberal and fiscally independent than their predecessors, data shows that Western millennials are more favorable towards women’s empowerment, human rights, and the freedom of expression. If they’re not happy with their job or aren’t being challenged enough, they’ll quit and find something else. If they don’t find something else, they’ll start something on their own.
At first glance, they are very different from the average Indian millennial. With high unemployment rates and the lack of formal jobs, Indian millennials (particularly men) are turning towards majoritarianism and social conservatism. Their lack of opportunities leads them to favor government jobs and state intervention, which offer job stability and a reliable basic income.
As ten million Indians enter the workforce every year, formal employment is available to a small fraction. The rest either work informally or don’t work at all, passing their time engaged in mundane activities. Prime Minister Modi came to power in 2014 due to unprecedented support among young and first-time voters, in large part due to his promises of providing jobs, skills, and training for young Indians. Unfortunately, these promises have not become reality. Skill development has been one of the biggest failures of the government and the flashy ‘Make in India’ and ‘Startup India’ campaigns have not been able to create large-scale employment.
What position with India’s millennials occupy in the 21st-century economy? How will the growth of technology and automation impact this generation? What do millennials feel about the culture wars taking place in the country today? How will they behave politically, particularly in the upcoming general elections?
These are all important questions with no clear answers. As this generation will inevitably grow older and begin its ascent into positions of social, economic, and political power, a clear examination of its views and behaviors is not just important, but necessary.
We need to start talking about Indian millennials because they matter. Their views matter politically, and their futures matter economically. India will not be able to transition to a modern, developed economy, without being able to provide good-paying, stable jobs for its youth. As the term ‘demographic dividend’ gets thrown around casually to describe the immense potential to be derived from such a large, young population, we must not forget the possibility of it descending into ‘demographic disaster’ if millennials are not employed and earning good wages. ‘Pakodanomics’ will not work. We must move beyond the culture wars to focus on enhancing and upgrading the country’s education system, from top to bottom; on creating the conditions for large-scale employment in the private sector, not on the factory floor, but in high-technology workspaces; on making Indian cities safer and more livable for young Indians; and most importantly, on capitalizing on the potential from this dynamic generation, instead of wasting it.
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