Tuesday, October 23, 2007

'The Odyssey Generation'

David Brooks, coined a new term for 20-45 year olds in a recent Op Ed piece in the New York Times: the Odyssey Generation

There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.

During this decade, 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.

Hmm - reminds you of the characters on 'Friends'.

Their parents grow increasingly anxious. These parents understand that there's bound to be a transition phase between student life and adult life. But when they look at their own grown children, they see the transition stretching five years, seven and beyond. The parents don't even detect a clear sense of direction in their children's lives. They look at them and see the things that are being delayed.

They see that people in this age bracket are delaying marriage. They're delaying having children. They're delaying permanent employment...In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.

Brroks believes this trend will become more pronounced because that's how it is in Europe. He quotes William Galston of the Brookings Institute who notes that Europeans delay marriage even longer than Americans and spend even more years shifting around jobs, careers, degrees.

And of course, we're seeing all this happening in India also - although in small pockets. Social pressures in India are far stronger but young men and women who are economically independent and strong-willed are deferring marriage, for starters. Quitting your job to go 'back to studies' is acceptable (especially for MBAs), even with spouse and kid in tow. Even drastic career switches are not shocking and unheard of.

And kids from affluent families with liberal-minded parents are living very experimentally in their 20s. Taking up one job after the other merely to 'try it out'. Going abroad for esoteric courses with little or no employment value. Living without a real plan or idea of 'where I will be 5 years from now'.

All things considered however, I see more scope in India for odyssey in careers, education and search for overall meaning than odyssey in personal relationships. There are a few, very few young people who 'live in' but generally even they formalise the arrangement in due course. As one close friend who is getting married put it,"Nothing will change after marriage... but at least we can attend the Society dinner without having to answer awkward questions."

And overall sab log kitne khush hain. Both sides of the family are busy shopping and planning and plotting the various ceremonies and simply for the sake of the smiles on your grandmother's face you say, "Heck, kar lete hain."

Aur uske baad ek-do bachche wachche bhi.

So we in India will see the modified odyssey. The thodyssey. The urge to paraglide at 35. Get six pack abs at 40. Wear jeans - perhaps forever.

The warm cocoon of the Great Indian Family is hard to resist. We're a tropical species... Beyond may lie great adventures, but it can be lonely and cold.


  1. Really liked this post. Thanks!
    Specially the part where you stop quoting and start writing :)

    ~another odyssey gen-er

  2. wow, wow, wow. Really liked this post. Like any artist, be it writer, painter or cricketer for that matter, you just know when you 'hit' the right spot. Straight out of your heart...excellent article.

  3. liked the post. But, what are you trying to say when you say in India you see more scope of odyssey in careers, research etc than personal life? Do you think its good or bad?

  4. hmm...that's an interesting take on things...seeing as I am one of those who chose to explore...still not settled and happy with it. Keep writing!

  5. I think I am going to print this and show it to my parents :)

  6. There are socio-economic reasons for this. Most of these twenty-somethings cannot imagine themselves settling down because of the high cost of home ownership, and the severe dent it puts on lifestyle choices.

    I think it applies to a lot of Indians too.

  7. This is an interesting piece. I haven't read the NYT article you quote but there is already a theory about this new transition phase in scholarly literature. My current research project focuses on this generation. Would love to know more thoughts you might have on the subject.

  8. Dear Rashmi. I am struggling with the question “Why MBA?”

    The question as far as I think is should not be understood as for one who is thinking of doing MBA and is asked “Why MBA?”

    But on a more fundamental level as “Why MBA at all?”

    Why not live life instead.

    Or do we intend that without MBA life is not worth living or, conversely (though not that exactly) with MBA the life is more worth living.

    The fundamental reason for us to be on this earth is (scientifically speaking) to survive and procreate.

    Rest of the reasons are invented one and keep on changing with time and age. For instance having a FERRARI is secondary reason which may be desirable in 21st Century for an Indian but may be passé in 22nd Century. Same is true for MBA. In 20th Century India (without BPO & KPO) having an MBA was not that significant. Even in the last decade of 20th Century in India being a software professional was a better option .But now MBA is. In future it may not be.

    But the fundamental reasons remain everlasting – were true for hunter-gatherers, nomads as they are for present day Homo sapiens.

    Now should we not test all our aspirations/actions on the question as to how it helps us in furthering the fundamental reasons for which we are here.

    Why is it that in India (or for that matter in large (so called) developing countries) most of the economic progress ends up in serving the developed world e.g. US and Europe? And consequently most of the labour force (yes MBA or Engineers are also part of the labour force) is trained to meet that goal. The goal of satisfying consumers in Developed world.

    Thus they (the consumers in Developed world) are having all the fun while we in developing countries are doing all those jobs which they thing beneath their dignity to do. If after doing engineering in top end colleges in India and then getting MBA tag from top end B Schools in India we end up thus, isn’t something wrong somewhere? Are we not being made suckers? And on top of that we are supposed to be happy and contended doing all that.
    Are we not in our endeavor for the so called “good life” {which is supposed to be at our feet after we end up being Engineers in top end colleges in India and then becoming MBAs from top end B Schools} giving away “life” itself? And all the time the strings are in the hands of someone sitting in US or Europe.

    And what are those westerns doing when we are slogging for them? Studying history, culture, sociology, philosophy, military war games, so as to understand how to perpetuate the stranglehold that they have on us. For us study of history, society, politics, culture, military war games is strict “no no”. Why? Because it does not give you good job. But should we care for a mere job when our life and the life of our future generations is at stake?

    I think it deserves a discussion and demands an answer.

  9. nice post!!! identify with it so much ..n i guess this odyssey syndrome is here to stay n gather more appeal :)

  10. this post touched a chord. I am another one of the "Odyssey Generation" and can identify with most of the things written here - delaying marriage, leaving job to study, mba etc.
    Definitely missing the comfort of home....

  11. Perfect post...m glad its a syndrome...nd m not alone!!


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