Friday, January 28, 2005

The Call of the Call Centre Part 2

Freedom at midnight
A good metaphor for the call centre revolution is 'freedom at midnight'. There are two opertaive words here - 'freedom', and 'midnight' and first, I'll put their significance in context for you.

It's a big, bad world out there
In the Western world, eighteen is an age where one is considered - and treated - as a young adult. Of course there are two sides to this story - you get to live life your own way, but you're also expected to fend for yourself to a large extent, financially and otherwise.

In India, 'kids' never really grow up in the eyes of their parents. Well, maybe by the time they're in their late 30s and 40s :) But certainly not at 18! By and large Indian parents are afflicted by the 'main hoon na' syndrome (I am always there for you).

Most are keen to protect their offspring from the 'big bad world' out there, not believing in the 'let them stumble and fall, then figure out how to get up again' way of life that young people naturally prefer.

And nowhere is this attitude more evident than in boy-girl relationships. OK, things have progressed to the level where having 'friends' of the opposite sex and hanging out with them in a group is fine. But officially sanctioned 'dating' and sexual intimacy - na baba na. That's not our 'culture', our maryaada (tradition).

A steady relationship may perhaps be aceptable if both the guy and girl are 'of marriageable age' and 'well settled'. But the operative word is they must intend to marry. The idea that a young person may go through a series of relationships before finding the right person or feeling ready for commitment is still not acceptable to most in this country.

Night out? Watch it on TV!
While parents can't really keep track of dayime activities, going out at night has been and continues to be an issue. Especially for girls.

One of course is the safety angle - which is valid. But two is the (also valid) assumption that the disco and pub culture leads kids 'astray'. ie they will drink, smoke and also get physically intimate. So many girls will say they're 'go over to a friend's to study' and then go out to party (the slinky clothes concealed under jackets which are tossed off later).

Keep in mind that unlike other countries, most Indian college students are day scholars. They still live at home.

Love (or lust) finds a way...
But necessity is the mother of invention. So young people find ways around the obstacles and kissing/ making out up to a point commonly occurs. It used to be Bandstand and other beaches/ sea fronts/ parks/ corner seats of movie halls. But things are changing.
In Mumbai, AC buses are a current favourite :)

These days you can also see PDA (public display of affection) - at least in Mumbai - at coffee shops like Barista, CCD and Mocha in broad daylight.

Whether these young people are going all the way or not is difficult to tell. When surveys are conducted a shockingly hight figure claim they have had sex, but then asking someone point blank is practically begging them to lie! Let's look at it a little indirectly.

The key factor is not intent - but opportunity. Where do you do it?

90% of college goers don't live on residential campuses - so no room of your own. Even hostels come with curfews, watchmen, wardens -especially when they house girls.

A few may have access to their parents cars - but it's almost impossible to park and make out without the fear of a pandu havaldar (policeman) knocking.

So the decision to have sex can't really be spontaneous. It has to be planned. You wait for your parents (or a friend's) to go out of town and leave the house empty. Or you actually go to a hotel, or some bungalow in Madh island. For which you need money, and ample time.

For all these reasons, I can only conclude that even among the few young couples who do become sexually active, it's a once-in-a-while phenomenon.

If it weren't so, surely teenage pregnancies and abortions would be much more prevalent/ talked about. Young people all over the world are careless about contraception - the fact that we have less of these problems simply signals that we have less of the activity in the first place.

How call centres come into the equation
When the young person starts working, that's when things start changing. This is true as much of a regular job, as a night shift one like at a call centre. There are now legitimate reasons to stay out late - and work related travel, socialising. This is the point when parents finally give up their vigil (for some it's also the time to start looking in earnest for a 'suitable match').

Now take the specific example of call centres. First, one is working with a roomful of young people who are not only workmates but the ones you hang out with most often. (the rest of the world, you see, follows a different time schedule altogether!)

So, attractions happen - it's natural. Only, this time opportunity also exists. In the words of a BPO employee, a typical romance goes something like this ......

"Most times, attraction builds up during the training period and starts blooming once on the Operations floor. For some it starts with sharing a smoke and then builds up to sharing other things too. Then there's a lot of begging to the Team leader to put him/her in the sameshift as the other half. But when do people get time to together?
According to Rahul, who works at a call center in Malad (where else?), for stealing a passionate kiss, he along with his girlfriend, takes the lift to the top floor and back, which gives him approx. 30 seconds to finish the job. And I'll spare you the details, which I encounter whenever I take the stairs instead of the lift.

Many call centre workers are out of towners, so they live as PGs or in shared flats. Hence access to these pads exists. Plus, even if you do stay at home and claim to be working on the nightshift when it's actually your day off and u are in lovely Lonavla - who's the wiser?

Parents, when they occassionally read about this kind of things in the papers blissfully choose to believe "mera bachcha aisa nahin hai" (my kid isn't like that). The young person is perhaps betraying their trust but can you really blame them?

In a world where we are surrounded by sex (remix videos, movies, advertising, soap operas, details of celebrity lives) can young people expected to remain chaste and just watch? The expectation is unrealistic and hence the response is less than honest.

Still, I would say, most of these young people don't indulge in completely casual sex. There is usually a relationship, with emotional attachment - sex being one of the components of that relationship. But yes, it is casual to the extent that both parties are aware that this does not have to be forever. Maybe, maybe not. And this, in India, is a change in attitude.

Whether this is 'good' or 'bad' - that's not for me to judge. It's certainly difficult for parents, and will continue to be. I am someone who strongly believes young people should be allowed to experience life and make mistakes....

Yet when I think of how I'm going to face these issues when my 5 year old daughter is a teenager, the plain and naked truth is - I'm not sure. Maybe I won't be that cool with it either...

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Call of the Call Centre Part 1

Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired magazine, was in Mumbai recently and... I MET HIM! This was really cool because:
a) Wired is one of my favourite magazines (though unfortunately I get to read it only off their website)
b) Chris wanted to meet me because he is seeking fundas on Indian youth :) I was more than happy to contribute my two bits.

What Chris is essentially interested in learning about is call centres. Not surprising, huh? What did come as a surprise was the fact that he's trying to figure out the effect they're having on India. "We've done a lot on the effect outsourcing is having on the US," he says. What's just struck him is that call centres - and the young people working in them - are also impacting the fabric of Indian society in a big way. Which it certainly is, in more ways than one.

In a cover story I wrote for Businessworld magazine in June 2004 I observed that "India's latest tryst with destiny, BPO, is equally connected to the midnight hour. This tryst is also about independence: the independence of the Indian youth, whose time, talent and skills are suddenly valued in the employment marketplace".

The creation of over 250,000 white collar jobs is something to celebrate. For the first time in recent Indian history, the 'ordinary' graduate is in demand. If it took outsourcing to create this demand - so be it.

There are of course several associated 'issues'. These issues existed before call centres came into the picture, but the BPO boom has accelerated the pace of change and made this change more visible.

I'll take up the issues one by one, starting with the impact of call centres on education.

'We don't need no education?'
Parents and educators are a worried lot. Students are dropping out after class 12, or working at call centres while enrolled in college because BPO jobs are easily available.

Counter argument: Call the young person 'greedy' and 'short sighted' but isn't it also about the failure of our education system?

Unless I'm bright or well connected enough to join one of the top few colleges in the country (SRCC, Stephen's, Xavier's etc), my degree is worth hardly anything in the eyes of peers and employers. (B A Pass, Mungerilal college - big deal!)

'College' has become a euphemism for 3 years of timepass. The net value addition at college in India has become so low that it actually makes sense for an 18 year old to say: "instead of hanging out in the canteen I'd rather start working".

Even before call centres came into the picture students kept busy with parallel courses - computer programming, web designing, foreign languages. And part time jobs

The academic load at arts and commerce colleges is so light that even a full time job + college can be managed. After all 2 weeks of study are enough to pass those year end exams, and attendance problems can be handled by some discreet 'setting' with the office staff.

Then of course, there is the option of getting a degree by correspondence. That's something many students in Delhi are doing simply because of the unbelievably high cut offs for admission to colleges of their choice.

So like the long term solution to Mumbai slums is not simply 'wishing them away' the response of educators to call centres must be to look within and create more meaningful education.

Modern curriculum, committed faculty, a choice of subjects (not the current water tight compartments between arts, science, commerce, engineering) and above all, a sense of pride in being so called 'ordinary' graduates of a particular college.

On the other hand, parents and society in general will have to accept that every young person is not academically inclined. Call centres are one option. Learning some kind of trade or skill (whether baking cakes or styling hair) could be another - yet most middle class parents still shudder at the thought.

The way I look at it is 'Glabourisation' or the glamorisation of jobs involving manual labour. As I elaborated in my Businessworld piece

"Yesterday's cooks, tailors and barbers are today's chefs, fashion designers and hairdressing artists. Jobs that were formerly for People Like Them, are now OK for People Like Us."

Not enough people buy into that, yet. The medicine-engineering hangover continues and with it, the perception that only certain kinds of jobs are worthy of respect. ie jobs which supposedly use 'brains'. But can any society provide intellectually stimulating jobs for everyone? And does everyone need that stimulation?

As Wired's Chris Anderson observed after visiting the Wipro call centre and observing the work there in the wee hours,"I've been to many Chinese factories and this is a lot better than sitting for 10 hours and painting toys."

I'll end this post here with the promise parts 2, 3 and 4 of my call centre observations are yet to come. So flame me if you will, but if you can be a little patient, we might generate a more meaningful discussion.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Mobile phones: The not-so-silent revolution

A cellphone rings in a Cafe Coffee Day, and a dozen hands reach out for the hip pocket. Hard to believe, but it wasn't always like this.

Just three short years ago, cellphones were still objects of desire for the young. Now, just about every 16 year old seems to have one. What happened?

Several things. Phone companies realised that latching onto the youth was the key to growing the subscriber base. Affordable prepaid cards were pushed aggressively, no thanks to competition from Reliance CDMA.

Rs 330 ($7.50) - which is the minimum monthly prepaid card- is no big deal for a working young adult. Or even the student with a part time job. But there's still a large population of teens entirely funded by parents. And Rs 7000 or $ 160 a year (taking into account airtime charges + a basic Rs 3000 handset) is money a middle class Indian householder usually thinks twice about.

So, how did a non essential expense suddenly become so much a part of life?

A conversation between parent and teen a couple of years ago would go something like this:
Teen: Mom, I need a cellphone.
Mom: I don't think so.
Teen: But Aparna has one
Mom: Aparna is a spoilt brat.
Teen: You have an excuse for everything.
Mom: Look I'll think about it, maybe next year.

Then, parent bumps into Aparna's mother at kitty party and there is a conversation about how there is 'so much peace of mind' now that beti (daughter) has a cellphone. "You know, it's so essential these days in case of an emergency. And so many times children get late from tuitions..."

Aha. There is now a perfectly rational reason to buy your kid a cellphone - without seeming like an over-indulgent parent or one who succumbed to peer pressure. It's not a luxury but a necessity.

The paradox of technology
Parents may feel a sense of security in knowing 'where their kids are', but the truth is - they have less idea than ever before. In simpler times, when you went to a friend's house for a sleepover you left your friend's telephone number behind.

In the cellphone era there's no way to tell where you really are. And when you don't want to be reached, you can always claim the signal was weak or you are out of network coverage. I'm not saying all teens use the cellphone to deceive their parents but many sure do.

Further, there is unprecedented privacy for the young person - especially girls from less liberal backgrounds. No longer can paranoid pappas vet all incoming calls and ask to know why such and such boy keeps calling.

The balance of power has shifted. Calls can be received after midnight on silent mode, with nobody the wiser for it.

It's happened before
Remember computers? Every parent thought he was investing in an important educational tool for his kid. The 'education' bit is true to the extent that merely being habituated to using a computer is an important skill in the job market today. But beyond that, were kids using the computer for essential school projects? Or was it primarily for internet surfing, email, chat, gaming - even accessing porn.

It took a combination of peer pressure ('everyone has one so my Raju should too') and rational argument (after all it is educational) which led to the computer becoming a fixture in every upper middle class household. And of course the drop in prices of computers/ availability of financing was another welcome factor.

I think this is a pattern now being seen in digicams. The average home user shoots 3-4 rolls a year which costs about Rs 1000 in film and processing charges. It will take a decade to recover the Rs 10,000 invested in the digital camera.

Yet, the purchase is usually justified by saying digicams are 'economical' to use - instead of outright admitting I-want-to-have-it-coz-its-so-cool.

Conclusion: If you're looking at the teen market - don't forget the parent. The right mix of (perceived) utility and value pricing is key to a new technology taking off in a big way.

Once the teen is a young adult with an independent income you can hope to sell the feature-rich, status-heavy stuff. But don't bet on it. There's a calculator of cost vs benefit still ticking away in the average Indian brain...

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

I was waiting for a voice to thunder down from the heavens saying "get started" and it came in the form of a report on Indian youth published in today's Brand Equity titled Say bye to GenY and hi to iGen (marketing supplement of The Economic Times, India's largest selling pink paper).

The article speaks exuberantly of how "Gen Y is passe, say hello to the iGeneration or as they prefer to be known, iGen. Chanting the mantra of individuality, acquiring bite size chunks of knowledge from the internet and flashing their iPods, they are the new consuming class"

Ignore them at your own risk, advise the authors. To which I would like to add - believe everything you read about them at your own risk. The piece covers all the usual territory, in a predictably breathless manner. Here's a reality check.

"Flashing their iPods?" iPods may be objects of curiosity - even desire - but at a price band of Rs 19-25,00 ($430-550) the Ipod is still a a tech toy for Pajero puppies (rich kids) and celebs who need something to talk about in interviews. Although young India wants to buy into cool, it is unwilling to pay the kind of premium for it that's acceptable in other countries.

Note:Recognising this, IPod is apparently releasing a 512 mb version called the "shuffle" for Rs 7000. But in my view, unless it adds on a phone capability (like the Palm has done in response to PDA enabled phones) most young people in India will go for Mp3 cellphones.

Getting back to the article in question, the basic premise is that the current crop of youth is completely different from previous generations because it hasn't ever seen a typewriter or experienced the waiting list for a Bajaj scooter. Prof Jagdish Sheth has gone so far as to say "what all of us need to understand is that there's no "continuity" in this age group from before, no baggage."

Much as I respect Prof Sheth, I completely disagree with this statement. The continuity exists in the form of family - primarily parents - who in India play a huge role in a young person's life. The amorphous element called "values" - which form the basis for all human decisions, consumption and otherwise - is something we get from the family and can't be wished away.

Here's my assessment, excerpted from a June 2004 article I wrote for Businessworld magazine.

On some fronts, parents have yielded. They are more tolerant of fashion - be it long hair for boys or girls in low-waist jeans... In matters of consumerism parents and young people are partners in crime. "Let our children not face the same hardships we did," is a common sentiment.

Want a computer? Done. Broadband Internet connection? OK. What's more, we won't be peeking over your shoulder. There is far greater personal space. But these are the side dishes on the family menu. In 'core' areas, like choice of careers, parents remain convinced they know what's best for their offspring...

The bottomline is: we can make your life more comfortable but only so you focus on what's truly important - 'succeeding in life'.... The Indian family has moved from being completely autocratic to a benevolent dictatorship, but is yet to attain a fuller form of democracy.

Parents and teens/ young adults are playing out a delicate dance where parents are voluntarily giving in on some issues and young people are not completely unhappy with the limits imposed. They too can see the wisdom in choosing a 'safe' career like engineering or MBA. After all, this is a country where the basics of a decent life - house, car and some spare cash - are not easy to come by. A fact one is unconsciously conscious of - all the time.

And, the fact is young people are not about to rock the boat until they can buy or build a boat of their own. An ACNielsen ORG-MARG's survey on attitudes to life among youth showed the dominant attitude to be 'balancing' ie young people who identified with statements like "responsibility towards family and my freedom both are important."

These are typically upper and upper-middle-class males and females for whom self-expression and freedom are important, but so are family values and social norms. However the media typically does not focus on this segment, preferring to highlight the more exciting "cool dudes" who, in reality, form a miniscule proportion of the youth consumer population.

This just doesn't ring true
Many observations made in the piece are more trendy than actual 'trends'

"In every city you find young people upward of 21 moving out for different reasons"
Even if the commute's bad, rarely do young people take up their own pads if they have a parental home in the same city.

53% claim to have had premarital sex, half of them below 21, according to an MTV youth survey
Claim is the operative word here. I seriously doubt that 53% of those under 21 have a steady boyfriend or girlfriend which in the Indian scheme of things is pretty much a pre requisite for premarital sex.

Most young people are college educated here, unlike in the US where bulk of them tend to be high school dropouts
True - but only for middle class India and above. What about the teeming millions of young people who fall outside that. Obviously the article doesn't aim to cover them but such sweeping generalisations are clearly avoidable!

Uh huh.. don't we already know this
"They want to 'unbelong', stand apart and not merge or blend in"
Isn't that what being a teenager has always been about? Although in a perverse sort of way the need to 'unbelong' itself makes you part of a herd.

The technobabies angle
I do agree with the authors that "comfortable with choice and dabbling with technology". Consuming class teens and young adults in India are addicted to electronic communication - whether email, IM, SMS, broadband. And access to these technologies is changing the way they think and behave. (refer "IMHO, IM rules" - a piece I wrote on the impact of instant messenger technologies on young Indians.)

But the important thing to note is that technology is not an end in itself - it is merely a tool to connect with the real world and with real people. What IM and SMS do especially well is give you an 'always-on' P2P or peer to peer network, which means your peer group influences you more than ever. So the decision of whether to see a movie or buy a product will very often be based not on the film critic's review or product advertising but a friend's opinion. This is something marketers really need to take note of.

The article is very gung ho on gaming and here again I beg to differ.

Firstly - will a large no of Indians ever be willing to pay Rs 999 ($ 20) to buy original game CDs when pirated copies are available for Rs 99 (or, even for free thanks to CD writers or rogue sites on the net)?

Secondly - PC or console gaming will not achieve the kind of widespread popularity with 10-20 year olds it has in other countries, given the continuing pressure on young Indians to perform academically. Mobile gaming has a brighter better future, being a personal device less prone to parental supervision.

Although developers of mobile games claim to have a large volume of downloads most college going people surveyed by JAM (the youth magazine I publish) seem happy to play pre loaded games like Snake and Bounce. No doubt models like Nokia's Ngage are appealing to a niche audience but can that niche be grown to engage more than a few thousand?

The real revolution
The one statement in the article I would fully agree with is this:
"The tipping point or age at which the consumer turns into a purchaser has come down dramatically".

The twenty something Indian in his or her first or second job has the maximum "pure disposable income". This is the crowd that is picking up branded goods at malls as well as personal gadgets. It's the segment which regularly visits coffee shops (and spends there - unlike teens who often just hang out).

This is what I call "middle youth" , where there is truly individual driven consumption. . It's a brief window of opportunity of 3-5 years because there are pressures to 'settle down' and become responsible. Once marriage and especially kids come into the picture, the focus once again shifts back to the family.

Is IGen something they prefer to be known as?
Hardly. It's a convenient catch phrase invented by marketing types to boil down and stereotype a few hundred million people. Just like Gen X and Gen Y - both terms invented to describe a specific demographic phenomenon in the US - but popularly used in the Indian media as a trendy short-form for youth in general.

Still, I would say the fact that "youth" is now garnering so much mainstream media attention is a good thing. The fact that "54% of India's population is under 25 years of age" seems to have provoked this frenzy.

It would be nice, however, to see journalists and other experts go beyond the superficial level and get under the skin of the young Indian.

Or maybe not - that's what this blog is supposed to do :)

Disqus for Youth Curry - Insight on Indian Youth