In a week's time the car population of Mumbai will increase by one. I will be responsible for it. Yes I know I recently wrote about the merits of car pooling but guess what - I have been car pooling for several years now. With my husband.
Times have changed and so have our schedules. After spending a small fortune on travelling in sadly maintained taxis driven by people who never ever have change, I decided to spend a bigger fortune and just buy another car.
Anyways, this post is not about justifying why I am buying a car but about a surreal experience I had at the Ford showroom while buying it. There I am, furrowing my brow over finance discount, dealer discount and all that jazz when I hear the salesman tell a prospective customer:
"Sir, if you drive everyday then go for Fiesta - it's more comfortable. If you drive once a week take Ikon..."
The 'customer' is this stringy 18 year old kid. Actually there are 3 of them - 1 boy and 2 girls, all pretty grungy and look like they've just escaped from college.
I ask the lady who's assisting me,"Do kids like this come in often?" I mean sure they probably do - but for the dealership to take them so seriously is kind of a shocker.
"Yeah," she replies,"Some just come for timepass but others come back with their parents and actually buy the car.." I'm guessing officially it's for 'family' use but in all cases with generous rights for the kid who's taken the trouble of doing so much R & D.
I don't know why this should shock me, really. Many of my college-age cousins in Delhi get to use the car - but beat up Maruti 800s or at best a Santro. But times are changing and more and more parents want their kids to have 'the best'. Whether it's a car or education abroad...
For me, buying a car that costs over six lakhs is a big deal - even today. I wonder what will be a big deal for the kid I saw in the showroom today, who gets it at age 19. Not that all Indian teens are like him. But there are enough now to wonder, "What will be this generation have to strive for... sweat for... look forward to?"
In this context I think we can draw a parallel with Japan.
What lies ahead
There is a large body of work which has studied the changing consumption and behaviour patterns of Japanese youth - and although circumstances are not exactly same in India, I feel they are quite close. Japan was a country with a strong traditional and family culture. And it went through a phase of rapid economic growth. A paper by Ana M Guy-Yamamoto notes:
The first distinctly 'different' set of Japanese youth were the Shinjinrui which means specifically "New human breed". This term was coined in the 1980s when this generation, at the time in their early twenties, were showing a different set of values in their work and leisure behaviour..."
The shinjinrui rebelled against the culture of being a ‘salaryman’ ie being employed in one company for one’s lifetime. They expressed an image consciousness – leading to the rise of luxury brands. And they indulged in more leisure. These new attitides were fuelled by the fact that Japan was going through a buyoant period, now known as the 'bubble economy'..
A UCLA study concluded that the shinjinrui are characterised by:
1. Individualism, and particularly selfish behavior patterns, in which youth tend to place highest priority on individual benefit or values;
2. A strong predilection toward consumer behavior; and
3. Expressionism, the tendency to insist on presenting oneself and the individual's attachment to such presentations.
To place the shinjinrui in a favorable light, they were the first generation to be fully brought up in an affluent consumer society.
India is currently experiencing a 'shinrinjui' of its own. A whole new generation which has not experienced a world without satellite TV, SMS and shopping malls is now entering the workforce. Those born around 1980 and who are around 25 today still have some memory of the pre-liberalisation India. Those born post 1985 have none at all.
So we are seeing all of the above attitudes - and they are impacting the work culture and life in general. Going by the Japanese experience, the trend would continue for about a decade. Shinjinrui were followed by a 'dankai jr' generation with similar characteristics ("collectivist, trend leaders, preference for known brands"). Why give them a different name at all? Because that's what journalists and consultants are paid to do!
But what happens next is interesting. In the 90s Japan went through an economic slowdown but as the New Yorker notes in a 2002 article: "You wouldn't know that the country is in recession from the way young people spend money".
Because of the recession and the inflation of real-estate prices, many young Japanese continue to live at home well into their twenties; buying clothes is one of the things that living rent-free in a small apartment with your parents permits you to do. One young Japanese curator, Koji Yoshida, explained to me that the phenomenon of the free-spending Japanese youth is a product of paternal guilt.
This kind of indulgence from parents has resulted in new kinds of youth attitudes. For example, the otaku. Otaku originally referred to a category of young Japanese men who were fixated on manga but now means "being focussed and almost obsessed with something you like." The word is often used to describe someone with a fanatical interest in computers or fashion.
And fashion for many means 'pursuing right T-shirt or cap ... with a kind of dogged intensity'. Young people are willing to pay 400 dollars for a limited edition sweatshirt which is 'in' at the moment. The money? Comes from parents or from temp jobs which have become popular for two reasons
a) because they choose to remain independent
b) because companies aren't hiring permanent workers.
The Indian context
So are we looking at a future when Indian kids will spend their time and their parent's money obsessing about buying the new bling thing even as they hop from one job to the next in search of enough excitement to make attending office seem like bungee jumping?
Well yes and no. Unlike Japan where 'poverty' is non existent, India has many social strata. The underprivileged and the middle class will continue to have fire in the belly - they will aim to work hard, crack exams, get good jobs. This lot will remain slightly conservative in its consumption pattern - be label conscious but not price-blind.
However in their approach to work they are already (and will continue to be) very demanding, individualistic and restless. Tolerance to criticism or work not upto their liking is low - that's already clear as companies struggle with attrition. These folks don't have the luxury of not working, but there are so many jobs available that they have no incentive to suppress their true nature. Which is to 'do what I want to do, no compromises.'
But there is also a growing number of young affluents into their 20s who are not sure what they want to do. And parents are indulgent enough to allow them this luxury. In Japan they are referred to as 'parasite singles' as they continue to remain dependent on their parents for sustenance, and live in their home.
The emergence of 'parasite singles' can be seen as casting a shadow over the Japanese labour market for young people as well. Since parasite singles do not face financial difficulties, they do not look for jobs with high wages, treating work as something akin to a “hobby.” Because of this attitude, if they find their job uncongenial, they immediately give it up. The resulting unemployment of young people is a “luxury unemployment” that does not involve real financial necessity. To them, work is a discretionary pastime, or a means of earning pocket money.
In India, I think it’s slightly different. We would never label someone who stayed at home as a parasite single… But there is an attitude of ‘hobby employment’ among those who can afford it. A group of young people who is constantly looking for 'experiences'. Six months here, 1 year there - collecting bits and
pieces to stick on a resume to make it look eclectic and interesting.
When the parent starts wondering where this will all lead, the kid buys a litle more time by going abroad to study. Or finally agrees to join the family business - which is why he/ she could fool around in the first place.
Ultimately this would lead to a few geniuses like Farhan Akhtar - he just sat home watching videos for two whole years after college. And then went on to make Dil Chahta Hai. But there will also be a bunch of confused souls who will ping pong between extremes of hedonism and spirituality in a desperate search for some meaning in life.
As Japanese novelist Ryu Murakami noted in Time magazine in the year 2000.
By the 1970s, we had already achieved the national goal. We had worked hard to restore the country from the ruins of World War II, develop the economy and build a modern technological state. When that great goal was attained, we lost much of the motivating force that had knit the nation so tightly together. Affluent Japanese do not know what kind of lifestyle to take up now. That uncertainty has pulled people further apart and caused a whole raft of social problems...
In India we do have a balancing factor. We have the motivating force of making this country a great one. Previous generations were cynical and felt helpless. The current one is aware, interested but mostly self obsessed.
I expect that the next generation – those born after 1995 will be far less enamoured by the materialism which fascinates this one. We are seeing some signs of young people already meandering into the path of nation building. Like the folks at Bharat Uday Mission. With the right kind of impetus and leadership we will see many more.
Of course someone needs to coin cool names for all these groups of people - like the Japanese have. Offhand I though of one - 'aaraamkhor' for the parasite single. Nah, sounds good - not descriptive enough. But you get the idea - and can probably come up with better ones :)
Bottomline: Individualism is a natural human trait. We suppress it out of economic or emotional necessity. But when those needs are taken care of - especially the economic ones - it rears its hard nosed head and disrupts the carefully woven fabric of society.
It takes time while the old fabric is torn up and fashioned into a new garment. And for a while, people will walk around looking like they have no clothes at all... but the human race is adaptable and eventually we adjust.
Just like I am adjusting to a 19 year old driving around in a Ford Fiesta. And the realisation that my daughter may someday expect me to buy her one...