The young, anxious Indian millennial
In 2018, I started conducting research for my book on the economic aspirations, social views, and political attitudes of Indian millennials. My mission was simple. I wanted to understand the views of those we didn’t hear much from. How do young Indians in the country’s small towns and cities view their place in India’s future?
Indians are an incredibly diverse people, and millennials are no different. Although significant linguistic, cultural, religious, and regional differences can make the generation hard to study as a cohesive group, one common thread unites India’s millennials — anxiety about their future.
While writing my book, I spoke to more than 900 millennials across 13 Indian states, and though I often heard conflicting views and experiences, I was struck by the unique sense of anxiety that connected my respondents with each other, which is causing a generation to seek stability, instead of ambitious upward mobility, in their economic, social, and political choices.
Economic anxiety, due to the lack of stable, well-paying private sector jobs, is the biggest roadblock for the success of not just Indian millennials, but the future of the entire country. Unemployed youth will not be the nation-builders India needs to become a five or 10 trillion-dollar economy. Before Covid-19, unemployment in the country was at a 45-year high, and we saw almost weekly headlines about millions of overqualified Indians applying for peon-level jobs in the railways or messenger positions in obscure government offices. Many of these individuals had PhDs, MBAs, or BTech degrees, and were applying for positions that required tenth standard graduation.
According to a youth survey conducted the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), two out of every three young Indians would choose a government job as their occupation. And during my research, I met countless young Indians who had devoted years of their lives to studying for the Union Public Services Commission exams, state-level services, or running from pillar to post trying to find any employment in the government, simply because it is stable.
India’s economy isn’t creating enough secure, private sector jobs, forcing many of these individuals to turn to government employment for stability. India’s 1991 liberalisation created a powerful services sector, but the reality is that it cannot absorb even a fraction of the millions joining the country’s workforce every year. It is also somewhat remarkable that the manufacturing sector’s contribution as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has remained unchanged in the last three decades.
Due to economic instability, young Indians crave stability in their personal lives. This is seen clearly in the enduring strength of arranged marriage as an institution in the 21st century. The CSDS youth survey found that more than eight in 10 — 84% — married Indian youth had an arranged marriage, while only 6% reported a love marriage. Although Bollywood films tell a different tale, most young Indians are not finding their partners. Some of this is due to social pressure, but a lot of it is because the lack of a good-paying, stable job economic instability often renders many incapable of supporting themselves on their own, and, therefore, the price — and consequently the consequence — of finding love is too high for many to afford.
This desire for stability is ultimately manifested at the ballot box. Voting data show that Indian millennials are the most supportive voters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many would find this counterintuitive due to the prevalent economic climate in India, but after camping out in the small towns and villages where elections are won and lost, it becomes clear that leaders who promise a strong India which stands up to foes, foreign and domestic, are those who will win elections.
The 2019 general election, conducted amid a debate on employment numbers and a border skirmish with Pakistan, is a case study to understand this desire for protection and stability. The lack of jobs took a backseat in a campaign focused on telling young Indians who would better protect them and guard them from the world outside. A post-poll survey found that the BJP alone got the support of approximately 40% of voters aged 18-35, roughly four points higher than its national vote share.
In my interviews, I found that many of these young voters were drawn by Modi’s personality, speaking of him in almost reverential father-like terms, as their guardian who would personally take care of them in an otherwise volatile world. Actual economic performance, which can often take many years to show results, did not seem as important as the semblance of stability.
Indian millennials are currently on the defensive, trying to find their footing in an economy which is not creating enough jobs but with constant increases in the cost of living. As a result, they are fighting from the backfoot, instead of taking advantage of the 21st century economy and world order. This is a vicious cycle, where precious time is being spent on trying to secure basic necessities instead of unlocking maximum potential and seizing the future.
If these conditions persist, it will become difficult for India to capitalise on its youthful demographic, called its demographic dividend, and become a $10-trillion economy. Economic anxiety has outsized consequences which can stifle the growth and potential of an entire generation. We must not allow that to happen.
Vivan Marwaha is the author of the just-released, What Millennials WantThe views expressed are personal
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