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India's changing social landscape

With legion numbers, India’s 300 million strong middle class has today emerged as the most powerful pacesetter of every key trend in the country. HT takes stock of the tectonic shift in India's social mores.

india Updated: Dec 31, 2007 04:16 IST

Family is still the cradle of our civilization. A wellspring of social and emotional security. But the numbers tell the story of a tectonic shift in India's social mores, led by a new middle class that unabashedly prefers the nuclear arrangement to the extended one. Parents and siblings, plus an aunt, uncle, or a cousin, and of course the grandparents, that's what the "traditional" Indian family used to be about.

Now, as the DINKS or the double-income-no-kids, best exemplify, the vulnerable institution is under threat. Or is it?

Sure, the middle class questions the rules of the game and rewrites these to suit new needs, but the family still remains the first line of defence in the struggle to provide nurture and socialization, health and education. The dramatic change may actually reflect a popular desire to modify traditional structures rather than abandon them, to make the customs lockstep with new demands on individuals' time & energy.

With legion numbers, India’s 300 million strong middle class has today emerged as the most powerful pacesetter of every key trend in the country, from halter neck blouses to citizen's activism. It tolerates inter-caste marriages, champions its career women, reinvents karva chauth and yet manages to make merry on Valentine's Day. The desires, hopes and values of this class will carve out the future of an Indian society that is imploding from within.

Neither short on aspirations nor chary of consumerism, raking in more moolah than their forefathers saw in their wildest dreams, they are going all to town with their newfound spending power. But other than keeping the economy impressively buoyant, their street-smart ways are also redesigning the Indian social structure to its very core.

Show me the money

India’s middle class is expected to grow from 5% in 2005 to 41% by 2025...

* An average Indian spends double of what he could in 1985; in the next 20 years, he will be able to spend four times what he does now
* India is the 12th largest consumer market in the world, but will move up to the 5th spot by 2025, behind only US, Japan, China and Britain

The average Indian household size has dropped from around six in 1981 to around four in 2001. Even as their size is shrinking, middle class households' incomes are growing at a fast pace with the economy inching towards a double-digit growth rate. As these families go to town with their newfound purchasing power, the booming Indian market is expected to add one Australia every year.

As far as what the new spender will purchase, plain old TVs are passé, ACs are affordable, mobiles are mandatory and cars are within the reach of the ambitious. No wonder all the international labels have been making a beeline for India, whether it is luxury brands like Gucci and Dior or retail outlets like Wal-Mart and Carrefour. Observers have also been noting that the joke that more bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label were sold in India than were distilled in Scotland may literally be coming true now.

Sources: Census 2001, Goldman Sachs, NCAER, KPMG

Proud young homeowner

58% of our population will be below 29 years in 2015...

* A house costs only 5 times one's annual salary today, as compared to 20 times a decade ago
* 30% young homebuyers are knowledge workers from banking, data processing and such sectors

At 60, India is a country of young people who are drawing higher and higher salaries, and seeing opportunities that their parents never did. And notwithstanding their weakness for foreign brands or other luxury items, the Indian youth are setting aside substantial chunks of their income for buying their own home. Whether as IT professionals, radio jockeys, designers, lawyers, chartered accountants, HR executives or as bartenders, many of them are even deferring marriage till they can set up a home of their own with a partner of their choice. Overall, the average houseowner's age has come down to 30-38, a drop of nearly 20 years in two decades.

Sources: Deutsche Bank, Knight Frank Global Network

Graying with grace

8 million Indians are over 80 years, 29 million over 70 and 77 million above 60...

* 33.1% of the elderly in India live without their spouses
* Only 30% of the Indian elderly are financially independent

India may be one of the youngest countries in the world, but it is also true that every 12th Indian is an elderly person and the proportion of people above 60 years in our population is expected to rise from 7.4% today to 12.5% by 2025. On the one hand, this will put increasing pressure on the traditional kinship and welfare systems that provide care to the elderly. On the other hand, parts of this population are seeking to become independent like never before, forcefully breaking down myths like: older workers have a hard time grasping new concepts or are less likely to stay abreast of new developments in their fields. In short, they are hell bent on turning gray into a new kind of gold. Big B’s recent releases give a popular face to this change, wherein the 65 years old superstar plays everything from the not too old to be a star chef in Cheeni Kum to a merry-making widower in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna.

Sources: Census 2001

Gender Bender Generation

Female literacy rate has risen from 8.86% in 1951 to 53.67% in 2001...

* 26% of the listed companies in India have a woman on their boards
* Middle-class women’s workforce participation has grown from less than 1% to 15% in the last decade

With a woman president and a woman solidly at the helm of the country's largest political party, the second sex has never had it so good in India. That's because Indian women have taken destiny in their own hands, whether this is by embracing family planning or by stepping out to work. The number of married women using some form of contraception has increased by 16% since 1992, and Indian women's workforce participation has increased by 17% since 2000.

But even as they have stepped on to the ladder of career success, brilliantly breaking new glass ceilings across the globe, the ladies haven't surrendered their role as the lynchpin of the family or as the caretaker of our traditions. More childcare facilities, modern employers’ willingness to give paternity leave alongside maternity leave and some new age husband’s willingness to take a backseat to their wives on the career drive is making it possible for the working mother to juggle the demands of tradition and modernity, and still retain her sanity.

Sources: Census 2001, BCG, NSS

Sexual revolution 2.0

One third of India’s young people indulge in premarital sex...

* 10 to 12% of the married couples in the age group of 18 to 30 have extramarital affairs
* Indians lose their virginity at an average age of 19.8 years, as compared to a world average of 17.3 years

It was not too long ago that getting a divorce would brand one an obvious misfit at social gatherings but, while India's divorce rate still remains respectably below 5%, marriage is becoming less sacrosanct by the day. Divorce rates have doubled in Mumbai and Bangalore in the last decade and the number of divorced peoples' profiles on have increased two-fold in the last year.

Pre-marital sex, casual sex, adultery et al are no longer frowned upon. Speed dating, vibrating condoms, live-in arrangements and same-sex relationships, Indians are experimenting with equanimity. Every once a while, the traditionalists raise a ruckus over deteriorating moral values, usually ascribing this to corrupt "Western" influences. But popular culture, whether in the shape of "out" celebrities like Karan Johar or the many Hindi soaps showcasing rocky marriages in their many aftermaths, provides a more accurate picture of how alternative lifestyles are here to stay.


: Avishkar, CRB, Durex, NIHFW

24/7 Mind Grind

60% of our national income is generated by self-employed people...

* One out of every 10 Indians is an entrepreneur
* For a fresh college graduate, a call center job pays 2.5 times more than other jobs

All across the BPOscape and the IT terrain, young workers are picking up a completely new work culture along with their new accents, putting in long hours in office while everyone else is off to sleep in the family crib. When it comes to dealing with the early morning blues, they would rather bypass the stodgy counselor for a Chief Fun Officer who appreciates that they like to party as hard as they work, even if this means buying the latest gizmo on credit.

Impatient for success, they are willing to pursue it to any part of the world, whether Chennai or California. To keep them from moving to greener pastures, employers are trying to set up a home away from home with offices that come equipped with gyms, canteens, entertainment centers and badminton courts.

But there is a downside, with an unrelenting job stress driving some employees to drug abuse and alcoholism, while lifestyle diseases swell up among others. So an increasing number of workers have woken up to the fact that the future of work is at home where, with the help of new technologies, they can leave behind the nine-to-five rat race to pursue success at their own pace.


Fast life, Faster food

Indians are amongst the top 10 most frequent consumers of fast food in the world...

* India's fast-food industry is growing by 40% a year
* Ready-to-eat packed food market has grown from $20 million in 2004 to $50 million in 2006

As work pressures take an increasing toll on parents' schedules, and working moms multiply, the homecooked tiffin is becoming rather a relic. Instead, Indians and their children are becoming progressively dependent on fast foods, with rural and urban India now spending 10 and 20 % of their respective household budgets on processed food and beverages.

Ubiquitously dominant on the take-out menus are french fries, onion rings, sodas, burgers and pizzas. But when going out to eat, the middle class is also experimenting with everything from Mexican and Japanese to Russian cuisines. And for those who still like to serve up homecooked fare, the local grocers are helpfully stocking up on readymade rotis and packaged chutneys, while side dishes ranging from sambhar to keema matar are available around every city corner. And coming to the rescue of the ultimate couch potato, Maggi is always a dependable option.

Sources: ACNielson, UNIDO

Stocking it up, smartly

Household savings jumped from 7% of our GDP in 1950 to 22% in 2006...

* Households saving in financial instruments like life insurance and provident funds increased from 25% in 1950 to 47% in 2006
* In the last 25 years, return on gold was 54 times whereas the equity market gave 129 times return

In a glowing endorsement of the Indian entrepreneurs of the 90s, Gurcharan Das has said that not since the industrial revolution has any group added so much value to their customers as information technology professionals. As the value adding passion of these entrepreneurs disseminates across the country, more and more people are finding investment alternatives to postal savings and fixed deposit schemes.

Mutual funds and equities are emerging as the hot new options and one study finds that about 20%Indians are now investing in these instruments. Indians are also learning to become more comfortable with playing the stock market. No shocker this, given that a Rs 1 lakh invested in the Sensex in 1984 as against a five-year fixed deposit made at the same time would today yield Rs 50 and 15 lakh respectively.

Sources: RBI, PFRDA

Carry on Superkid

Indian students in the US have increased from 4,234 in 1990 to 76,503 in 2006; in Australia from 126 to 37,150 during the same period...

* Disbursement of education loans by public sector banks increased from Rs 668 crore in 2000 to Rs 2249 crore in 2005
* The Indian coaching industry rakes in around Rs 5,000 crore in tuition fees every year, and is growing at 20% per year

When Bollywood picks up on how parental expectations are taking a toll on today's kids a la Taare Zameen Par, one knows that the problem has truly become socially significant. We seem to be pushing our schoolchildren to burn more midnight oil than ever, making them sacrifice their wonder years at the altar of entrance examinations of institutions extending from MIT to the Manipal Institute of Technology.

On the flip side, the spirit of the times is such that children are also setting themselves higher goals. Just consider how Indian students are now the largest and second largest section of the international student body in the US and Australia. Then consider how the booming "hobby" market is no longer confined to language and computer courses, but extends across courses in design and the performing arts, and includes going to the gym as much as to grooming classes.

Sources: IIE,

Urban explosion

50% of our population will live in urban areas by 2025, up from 28.83% today...

* Urban areas contribute 60% of India’s GDP
* Megacities Mumbai and Delhi will be the world's 2nd and 3rd largest cities by 2015

Poverty rates are dropping faster in the villages than in the cities and India's burgeoning middle class is coming from more than 200 urban centers like Bhatinda, Sonbhadra, Guwahati and Trivandrum, rather than just metropolises like Mumbai.

Tier II cities have been grabbing most of the real estate action as well as 20% of the job openings in IT, education and financial services in the last 4 months.