Why the millennial man is chucking the rat race

The new Indian male is happy looking for meaning in life and in the process, redefining malehood and the breadwinner role

July 20, 2019 04:30 pm | Updated July 21, 2019 12:25 pm IST

Men, who have always had more choices, are opting out of traditional ‘secure’ workplaces, supported by their families in the decision. (Image for representation only.)

Men, who have always had more choices, are opting out of traditional ‘secure’ workplaces, supported by their families in the decision. (Image for representation only.)

Anand Chowdhary, 21, is on the millennial cusp. He established a company in 2014 while still in school, and then moved to Finland after Class XII to pursue a degree in design technology, while continuing to work in his start-up. “Over the last 30 years, work has become a larger part of life,” he says. So, it’s important to “do what you like to do versus just a job.” Chowdhary likes to travel and is happy to spend on it. “Our generation doesn’t have savings, we don’t own homes, and we live in the moment.” He says a lot of his friends live and work out of their parents’ homes, and, “It doesn’t matter that they don’t bring significant money in; it’s about doing what makes you happy.”

In 2013, Time magazine ran a cover article that said: “The Me Me Me Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists, who still live with their parents; why they’ll save us all.” The article summarised the generation as people who are growing up with tech and abundance, have high self-esteem to the point of being cocky about their place in the world, and measure their success “with ‘friend’ and ‘follower’ tallies that serve as sales figures”.

The article didn’t make a difference between men and women, but Sujata Sriram, a professor at the School of Human Ecology, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, says there is. “Millennial women are performing better and better at both school and college, and if you look at the toppers, they are often women,” she says. So while more women are taking on corporate jobs, and choosing the swipe-in-swipe-out system, horrible bosses and traditional ‘secure’ workplaces, men, who have always had more choices, are opting out, supported by their families in their decision.

Building the business

Sumit Sharan, 31.
Oyster mushroom farmer.

Sumit Sharan, 31.Oyster mushroom farmer.

Take Sumit Sharan, 31, who worked with Airbnb and quit to grow oyster mushrooms at a farm on the outskirts of Gurugram. He has always been a bit of an entrepreneur, starting a solar energy plant right after college. And he has always had the support of his parents and doctor wife (he wasn’t married when he began the venture) and his parents. Right now, he’s building the business, talking to chefs, stabilising output, and speaking to customers, “looking for a sweet spot between people appreciating what I’m doing and giving me the price I want.” The burden of expectation on men seems to have gone down, at least in some parts of urban, upper-middle-class society.

In that sense, the millennial man is quite unlike his father, even if you put aside cultural crutches like bean bags, tech toys and coffee shops. For starters, he doesn’t resent his father, because he’s not rebelling. In fact, he’s almost sympathetic towards him: parenting is about “paying to have another human being grow up; and then you die,” as Chowdhary puts it, talking of the linear graduate-work-marry-children life that his parents’ generation followed.

It’s a reshaping of opportunity, feels Anjali Raina, Executive Director, Harvard Business School India Research Centre. She believes the change is gender agnostic, with a wider safety net today.

“People are willing to hire you again if you fail. There’s no social stigma in changing jobs,” she says.

Anand Chowdhary, 21.
Student and founder, Oswald Labs, Finland.

Anand Chowdhary, 21.Student and founder, Oswald Labs, Finland.

Sriram disagrees, however, saying androgyny, when it comes to work, is more acceptable coming from men. She also sees the phenomenon of men moving out of high-paying MBA-centric jobs and into more flexible options as a good thing for women. “It is increasing the market value of that job,” she says. Women have been ‘steered’ towards part-time and freelance work, or options that offered ‘easier’ work hours (education, therapy, NGOs), so that they could care for families on their next shift; but it’s also true that these jobs paid much less. This move that men are making, she hopes, will increase salaries in jobs that were traditionally held by women.

In a sense then, there is a redefinition of malehood, a relinquishing of the power that comes from being the breadwinner. There has to be, says Harjant Gill, a documentary filmmaker and Associate Professor of Anthropology at Towson University, Maryland. He’s studied populations in Punjab and says that the lack of jobs is a major factor in this shift in attitude. Also affecting the sense of manhood is upward class mobility, where “being a bureaucrat, the epitome of masculinity, available to only a few castes and classes,” is no longer the ‘gold standard’. Now, there are more opportunities.

21st century skills

Tarang Tripathi, 26, is a part of this shift. He originally thought of going abroad for higher studies after a degree from Hindu College in Delhi. Both his parents, at the time media professionals who had reached senior positions in their companies, supported him. Before he left, however, he thought he would do a fellowship with Teach For India. “I thought it would look good on my CV,” he says frankly. After that stint, however, he decided not to go overseas after all.

Finding a gap in the existing school curriculum, he piloted an organisation called Awaaz under the Teach For India mentorship (a word and concept millennials love). His organisation imparts what are called 21st-century skills (critical thinking, problem solving, public speaking) to students, both in government and private schools.

Tarang, who lives with his parents, says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m extremely active. I have classes all over the city, and it never gets boring,” he says, echoing the thoughts of the generation. “It gives me an opportunity to do things I like.” Today, he and his co-founder employ 10 people, five full-time and five part-time. “Everybody does everything,” he says, in a sense overturning generations of class and role superiority.

Tarang Tripathi, 26.
Founder, Awaaz.

Tarang Tripathi, 26.Founder, Awaaz.

He derives the most pleasure when he sees an immediate response to his work, with children as young as 8 or 10. “They have a deep understanding of things, even of ideas like caste. They just need the right environment to express themselves,” he says.

This desire and ability to carry a project from start to finish is unique to this generation — they don’t see themselves as part of an assembly line, but as people changing the world, a little at a time. In a sense, it’s a new start-up culture of moving fast, but being careful not to break things. “Success is about having an impact,” Tarang says, adding that it’s about being socially and economically responsible. Emotional intelligence and ethics are not concepts that were commonly articulated by men of previous generations.

This need both validates and veers from the findings of the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019, which finds that the biggest driver for millennials (born between January 1983 and December 1994) and Gen Zs (born between January 1995 and December 2002) is to travel the world, with 57% aspiring to this, while the second is the need to be wealthy (52% millennials, 56% Gen Zs).

Living the life

This might be why they’re okay with opting out of the rat race of the previous generation, which continues with its stressful demanding jobs, with pollution and commuting adding to ill-health. Abhishek Mishra, 35, who graduated with an engineering degree, went on to do his MBA and work for several years, until at 29, he decided to quit and start a company that specialises in taking running to small-town India.

His father was a government employee, and Mishra, from Varanasi, didn’t have the English-as-native-language advantage or parents who understood what he was doing. “When I quit my job, my father didn’t ask me what my plan was; he asked me what people would say,” says Mishra, understanding of where his father was coming from. “The risk appetite was zero in their generation. Once you know why you’re living, you’ll find out how to live. They didn’t know why they were living.”

Abhishek Mishra, 35.
Founder, Tabono Sports & Events.

Abhishek Mishra, 35.Founder, Tabono Sports & Events.

There is a definite shift from respectability to respect, and Mishra feels it’s about knowing yourself better first, and then following a path — respect will follow. He talks of the son of the pujari from his family temple who moved to Gurugram, learnt Chinese, and is now on a path very different from what his father would have imagined.

He remembers how he took to running at a time when the country’s top business heads were passionately doing marathon after marathon. He began to meet them informally, at the start and finish lines, and soon realised that his passion and profession could intersect.

Dominating ideas

A study by Michael Baas and Julien Cayla, published earlier this year in Consumption Markets & Culture , recorded interviews of 85 new-service professions (baristas, gym trainers), about 70% of these of men. They found that even in lower socio-economic classes, the idea of speed, of fast progression, dominated. “I remember this interview with a barista, who talked about how his brother was a driver and had a stable job. But it came with the idea of being stuck. It felt like he wanted to be in a profession that followed India’s idea of progression,” says Cayla. Ironically, it mirrors what Tarang, who comes from a relatively privileged family set-up, says — of wanting to see results immediately.

As men follow their dreams, connect with their passions, and look at transforming themselves and their realities, women still have fewer choices, people still expect more from them, mobility remains an issue, and financial decisions are still not in their hands. “There is a tacit barrier,” says Sairee Chahal, CEO of Sheroes, a community platform for women. Even in the most well-to-do, liberal homes, women “should do things that are containable, that don’t impact marriage choices; the degree of audacity must be low,” she says. But within the marriage, things are changing, and relationships are being co-managed, with women abandoning permission-seeking behaviours, even in small towns.

Is the millennial man stuck in Guyland, refusing to grow up, or is he really transitioning to work fluidity? We’ll only know a few generations on.


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