Why India’s most aspirational generation — its millennials — is quickly becoming its most anxious one

If you want to understand the precipice that India is at and where it might go from here, you have to understand its millennials

September 04, 2021 04:01 pm | Updated September 05, 2021 07:12 pm IST

A freedom run during the 75th Independence Day celebrations in Kozhikode.

A freedom run during the 75th Independence Day celebrations in Kozhikode.

It was November 2018 in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. I was at the city’s famous Russel Chowk, talking to young people gathered there in the evening. Cars were honking and young men in bright polyester shirts with elaborately coiffed hair and multicoloured sunglasses were racing on their two-wheelers. The air, quickly cooling down, smelled of diesel and dust.

The market could have been called ‘Chinese’ or ‘Electronics Chowk,’ given how nearly every storefront showcased two Chinese smartphone companies, Vivo and Oppo. One store was different. It was the only shop with people inside: Patanjali. A big outlet, it sold everything swadeshi, from cow ghee to fairness creams.

I was there to conduct interviews about the State Assembly elections. A high-pitched campaign between the BJP and the Congress was coming to a close. Both parties were aggressively chasing millennial voters, luring them with promises of a million new jobs, unemployment allowances and even a lump sum at the time of marriage.

As I was in the car on my way home, there were two kinds of advertisements on the radio. One encouraged voters to tap on the lotus in the ongoing elections, and the other promoted a seemingly endless list of features of a Chinese smartphone. There’s a reason I was seeing and hearing all of this: those young people — Indian millennials — are a key to the future of both technology and democracy in India. They are the future of India.

Diverse yet significant

The companies and parties knew that and knew how important it was to target these millennials, even if millennials themselves didn’t. I was in the market for a similar reason: If you want to understand the precipice that India is at and where it might go from here, you have to understand its millennials.

The queue outside a foreign recruitment agency in Mumbai.

The queue outside a foreign recruitment agency in Mumbai.

Born between 1981 and 1996, roughly numbering more than 440 million, they are, without any doubt, the largest millennial cohort on the planet. Like every other generation in India, millennials are incredibly diverse: with not just significant economic division, but also important linguistic, regional, caste, gender and religious differences, which make the generation difficult to understand as a cohesive group. Yet, millennials have the potential to be India’s most significant generation.

If you’re not convinced about why they could become the country’s most important — and potentially most disruptive — generation, consider some of these numbers. India’s median age, according to a 2021 estimate by the CIA World Factbook, is 28 years. This means that half of its population is under 28. By contrast, the median age in the world’s top three economies — namely, the U.S., China, and Japan — is 38, 37 and 47 years respectively. Among the top 10 economies in the world, India has the youngest population followed distantly by Brazil, which has a median age of 32 years. By the end of 2021, two-thirds of India’s population will be within the working age of 20 to 35 years.

These young Indians will be the world’s largest labour force and market for goods and services. This is what is referred to as India’s ‘demographic dividend’. This term was popularised by academics, journalists, and businesspersons keen on investing in India in the early 2000s; they saw the country’s youth as an asset in the longer run, particularly when compared to China, a country whose one-child policy was viewed as a demographic crisis in the making. It was believed that with the right education and investment in human capital, a growing middle-class, and an increase in foreign investment, India would not only enjoy high single-digit or even double-digit GDP growth, but its millennials and working-age population would power the country to transform itself like many East Asian success stories.

But are our millennials, the country’s demographic dividend, paying out for the country the way we hoped?

***

The answer is complicated. Before the pandemic, unemployment in India was at a 45-year high. We have all seen images of millions of migrants walking home during India’s first lockdown. The images of anguish and despair on the faces of daily wage earners who no longer had jobs is impossible to forget.

But perhaps even more scarring is the long-term damage to India’s economy and its youth. Government data, household surveys, and informal interviews told us that the country was not creating enough jobs for its youth before the pandemic began. And once COVID-19 came to the country’s shores, even the few who had stable jobs began to see them evaporate.

Unemployed youth wave their CVs at a protest in Mumbai.

Unemployed youth wave their CVs at a protest in Mumbai.

In 2018, 19 million people, including engineers and MBAs, applied for 63,000 peon-level positions in the railways. After the pandemic, many of these same people — engineers, bank employees, and MBAs — were now digging ditches in villages as part the MGNREGA programme. These are among India’s most educated generation on paper. After decades of government policies to prioritise education and literacy, millennials have stacked up multiple degrees in the hope of becoming more employable. And although many of these degrees lack quality or depth, they nonetheless reflect a generation desperate to get good jobs, but unable to do so.

The reason all this matters is because India’s youth is meant to be its biggest asset. Its demographic dividend will only pay if its youth are productively engaged in high-wage employment that will allow them to buy goods and services, essentially becoming the next generation of nation builders.

***

Alth ough the purpose of my visit to Jabalpur was to investigate how millennials intended to vote, I was more arrested by the lack of employment that seemed to prevail everywhere.

One evening, I had a few minutes before attending a jansabha organised by a Congress candidate, so I found myself at a nashta ka dukaan , or snack stall. It was around 6 p.m., and the sun was about to set. I ordered myself a cup of chai and looked around at the people gathered outside. A group of friends, mostly men, had arrived, and I started talking to them. They were all graduates of Rani Durgavati Vishwavidyalaya, also known as the University of Jabalpur, considered among the better institutions in town.

Strikingly, not a single one of them was formally employed. “We all graduated in engineering but there are no engineering jobs here for us. We will have to move elsewhere to find jobs,” one of the men said.

Fewer than three decades ago, many of the families of these young people did not have a stable income or access to 24-hour electricity. Some didn’t even have pukka houses. Today, they have most of these, but employment opportunities are still scarce. Gauging from their responses, it was clear that many of them were just about surviving, far from thriving.

Disguised unemployment

A 25-year-old in the group told me he had to ask his parents for permission to travel to Bhopal, five hours by train. “I only have money to buy snacks. I can watch movies at the cinema hall occasionally. For most other things, I have to ask my parents for cash,” he said. A man of his age and qualification should not just have a stable job and enough financial liquidity to buy his own train ticket, but also the agency to make his own decisions, which comes with economic security.

He is just one of many who define an urgent challenge facing the Indian economy today: ‘educated unemployment,’ where educated young Indians are struggling to find good jobs commensurate with their education. Madhya Pradesh’s labour ministry data put the unemployment rate in the State at 43% in 2015–16, and a 2017 State economic survey found that more than 1.4 million local youth (aged 20–29 years) were unemployed; of them, 1.29 million were educated. Azim Premji University’s 2018 State of Working India report found that the rate of unemployment among the educated had reached 16% in India. These numbers likely underestimate the actual unemployment rate, given the prevalence of large-scale disguised unemployment across the economy and how most economic activity takes place in the informal sector.

A group of first-time voters in Bengaluru, 2018

A group of first-time voters in Bengaluru, 2018

***

During the course of researching and writing my book on Indian millennials, I camped out in small towns and cities across India, talking to young people. From Jabalpur and Jhansi in Madhya Pradesh to Kozhikode and Kannur in Kerala, I found one unifying thread that cut across India’s diverse people, cultures, and climates: economic insecurity. A combination of jobless growth, sharp annual increases in the cost of living, a rapidly globalising world, and global economic trends that favour robots and algorithms over real people has consigned India’s millennials to severe economic insecurity and anxiety. Unfortunately, Indian millennials today are fighting from the back foot, always on the defensive. Many external and internal challenges are keeping the generation stuck in a vicious cycle, binding them from embracing their ambitions and potential and making the most of the 21st century.

Crippling roadblock

It is this economic insecurity that could become a crippling roadblock that will define India’s millennials unless big and bold measures are undertaken soon. Job creation and economic growth must become a national obsession and take priority over everything else.

In my travels, I was struck by the lack of commerce and high-productivity economic activity in the places I was visiting. Indore, for instance, is one of India’s fastest-growing cities. But instead of encountering young Indians in professional clothing commuting to offices or factories, I met students enrolled in their second or third degrees, desperate to become employable for any job that might emerge. The biggest driver of economic growth in Indore is its education industry, and finishing schools and coaching centres have become the engines of growth , churning out diplomas and degrees. Rural and urban middle-class families spent their savings to fund this education, seeing it as an investment for their children’s future. However, those investments are yet to pay dividends and India’s most aspirational generation is quickly becoming its most anxious one.

We need an urgent conversation and national consensus on prioritising the economic security and financial stability of India’s millennials if the country aims to become a five or ten trillion-dollar economy. India’s greatest assets and resources are not minerals or crops, but its young people, and its millennials in particular. But for them to truly generate returns and become nation builders, they need economic empowerment, which comes in the form of stable private sector employment.

The writer is the author of the book What Millennials Want: Decoding the Largest Generation in the World. He tweets @VivanMarwaha

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