Indian youth moving ahead

Indian youth haven’t fully embraced Western ways. Tradition still dictates much of daily life. But progressive influences are everywhere. Take the tradition of arranged marriages, where parents chose children’s spouses, often without their consent. Now young people want to marry for love–but also want parents’ approval.

Ten years ago, few girls in India would have dared to be independent, today girls of New India are ambitious, technology-oriented, and confident. This generation is the product of the incredible sociological change wrought by eight years of economic liberalization in India, a period of painful transition from one-party, socialist rule to an economy where free markets play a much bigger role. Indian society also has been transformed by the Internet and cable television — forces young people are best equipped to exploit.

India’s youth are already having an enormous impact: on the economy, on companies hoping to sell them products, on the media, and on the culture. Unlike previous generations, today’s youth are not obsessed with the ins and outs of politics. ‘’It has little relevance for them.’’ Liberalization’s children also differ from their conservative, insular parents in that they proudly mix Indian values with Western packaging.

This generational shift in attitudes is all the more important because this group is growing so rapidly. Some 47 percent of India’s current 1 billion populations are under the age of 20, and teenagers among them number about 160 million. Already, they wield $2.8 billion worth of discretionary income, and their families spend an additional $3.7 billion on them every year. By 2015, Indians under 20 will make up 55 percent of the population — and wield proportionately higher spending power.

As this group, with its more materialists, more globally informed opinions, comes into its own, sociologists predict India will gradually abandon the austere ways and restricted markets that have kept it an economic backwater. These youth will demand a more cosmopolitan society that is a full-fledged member of the global economy. They will start their own businesses and contribute to a more vibrant economy. They also are likely to demand more accountability from their politicians. ‘’This is India’s ‘found’ generation.’’

First taste: Obviously, many millions in this group remain locked in a struggle with poverty. But out of the teenage population, some 22 million belong to the urban middle class and are in a position to influence the economy dramatically as they grow older. Another 100 million or so live in rural India. Even here, many young people are having their first taste of rising prosperity and expectations.

One result is that computer literacy and education are eradicating caste barriers. While caste and social position still dominates Indian politics, sociologists predict the rigid lines of the system will continue to ease. Already, urban youth are more concerned with their professional ambition than their caste. ‘’We are only aware of caste while filling out government forms.

Cocky attitude: Another driving force of change is TV. Just one year after the 1991 election of former Premier P.V. Narasimha Rao ushered in a program of economic liberalization, cable and satellite television became available in 50 million Indian homes. Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV, with its news footage from around the globe and soap operas like Santa Barbara gave many Indians their first real look at other worlds. Viacom’s MTV and Murdoch’s music channel, Channel V, changed the aspirations and values of Indians forever. With its cocky attitude, MTV embodied a take-it-or-leave-it style that appealed to the young. ‘’The old Brahmanical code of ‘lofty thinking and simple living’ went out of style, to be replaced by the MTV culture of youth anywhere in the world,’’ says Vibha Rishi, marketing director of PepsiCo Inc. India.

The cultural impact has been revolutionary. The previous generation, born in the decade following India’s independence from British rule on August 15, 1947, grew up shy, obedient, and socialist in the 1960s and 1970s. Bombay-born author Salman Rushdie dubbed them Midnight’s Children in his famous book. They came of age during hard times: three wars, several famines, rigid protectionism. Consumer choice meant one state-run TV channel, three brands of bath soap, and car models that changed little through the decades. One political party, Congress, was voted into office again and again.
What the new generation does like is money. According to a survey conducted by Coca-Cola (KO), the primary ambition of young Indians from the smallest villages to the largest cities is to ‘’become rich.’’ Young people hope to achieve this goal through enterprise and education.

That’s a big change. For years, the most highly regarded careers were in civil service, engineering, and medicine. Now, high-paying jobs in high tech and the media are where it’s at. Liberalization has created a ‘’new social contract in which making money is respectable,’’ says author Das.

Already, high-tech startups are taking off in India. Industry experts put the number at almost two per week over the past two years. Pradeep Kar, 40, founder of two high-tech operations, e-commerce company and portal in Bangalore, says he has been receiving e-mails from engineering students chafing to be entrepreneurs and seeking his advice. ‘’That spirit of enterprise will change the face of the Indian economy,’’ says Kar. Kiran Nadkarni, managing director of the $55 million Draper India Fund, says the entrepreneurs he observes are getting younger — from an average age of about 40 previously to about 25 now.

Liberalization has created new career models and heroes for India’s young. Microsoft Chairman William H. Gates III is especially popular, and so are successful home-grown entrepreneurs like N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys Technologies Ltd. (INFY), India’s premier software company. Other culture heroes: Indian national cricket team captain Sachin Tendulkar, 38, who is known for his clean image, and MTV video jockey Cyrus Broacha, 28, popular among urban Indian youth for his confidence and self-deprecating humor. ‘’Cyrus Broacha’s our man:’’ says Vinod Makhija, a high school student in Pune. ‘’He’s humble, and he’s wacko.’’

Icons like Broacha embody this generation’s ability to adapt Western influences. ‘’We are a hybrid,’’ says Broacha, who sometimes wears a Gandhi topi, a traditional cap, as well as blue jeans. Embracing globalization has given Indians a new confidence. In fact, Indians feel being Indian is now a badge of honor in world music, fashion, literary, and intellectual circles. ‘’Even Madonna thinks India is cool,’’ says Singh, the Pune law student. ‘’No one asks us any more if elephants walk the streets. Liberalization has changed all that and given India more exposure internationally.’’

Indian youth haven’t fully embraced Western ways. Tradition still dictates much of daily life. But progressive influences are everywhere. Take the tradition of arranged marriages, where parents chose children’s spouses, often without their consent. Now young people want to marry for love–but also want parents’ approval.

The younger generation is nationalistic. In a recent survey by ad agency McCann-Erickson Asia-Pacific, Asian youth around the region voted Paris, London, and New York as the ‘’coolest’’ cities. But young Indians voted for Bombay, along with New York. ‘’India has the best mix of people and cultures you can find, “We should take the best of both worlds.’’

Private computer training institutes are working to fill the demand. Just in the past three years, the New Del
hi-based National Institute of Information Technology (NIIT) and Bombay-based Aptech have expanded their franchises to 2,500 training centers in 300 cities and towns in India. ‘’These kids have a deep desire to uplift themselves and their families,’’ says Rajendra Pawar, who co-founded NIIT in 1981.

Companies are reaching out to the computer-literate young. Koshika, the cellular phone service provider in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, India’s poorest states, is using young people to develop an e-mail service. The company approached people who operate cellular phones as public services for their villages. It then sold them computers at a hefty discount and taught their children to use the Internet. For a fee, they offer e-mail services. Since most village families have members working in Persian Gulf states, they are starting to use e-mail to communicate, since it is cheaper than a telephone and faster than sending a letter.

The danger for India is, of course, that the potent mixture of aspirations created by TV, computers, and marketers in the hearts of India’s young could overheat, and the social cauldron could boil over. Some researchers also worry about rising aspirations colliding with the realities of Indian poverty. ‘’The young generation may want more, ‘But how to get more when there ain’t more?’’ Indeed, almost 60 percent of rural Indian households have no electricity. ‘’How will they run computers?

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