Born in socialist times, a generation of Indians lived the ideas and values of middle class for a lifetime. Middle class was an aspirational place to be for this generation, at a time when a large majority of people were still struggling to get a permanent roof over their heads and jobs that could assure them of some level of security. Many Indians took pride in belonging to this group and class. It provided stability, a basic means of life and living, and guaranteed return on hard work. Education, a doctor, lawyer or engineer’s degree or a government job, were passports to this class and respect among the tribe. Wealth and consumption were scorned, looked at with suspicion. It was often assumed that wealth had been gained through corrupt means or at the cost of the masses.
The middle class represented not just a socioeconomic group but also a mindset. A much celebrated mindset, where the present was lived in the memories of the past and with efforts to conserve for the future. Celebrating constraints and restraining aspirations marked the middle class. Consumption, then, was largely centred on festivities and occasions such as childbirth and marriage. Indian society celebrated this mindset; predictability and stability were rewarded. So the middle class was an aspirational place to be both in mindset and as an economic force.
Gradually, however, India changed. Liberalization opened up the country and brought in a degree of ease and comfort in accessing goods and services. Economic policies and the opening up of the private sector provided better prospects. Mobile phones revolutionized the country and their penetration can be understood perhaps as the beginning of un-middle-classing in India. The nation got connected in an uninhibited way; the individual began to develop an identity outside of the family and community. The idea of private space emerged. A democratic force, a mobile phone was aspirational, irrespective of class.
Modern retail created new consumption festivals, unveiled many new categories and created aspirations. The new meccas created by modern retailers helped millennial Indians converge, spend weekends, celebrate their achievements and discover the small joys of life. Malls became the new public spaces and community centres. Here, India discovered modernity, new categories and newer reasons to consume. Smaller towns and cities emerged and demographically India became one of the youngest nations in the world. This young India possessed confidence and a fresh perspective to conquer the world. The romance of constraints did not appeal to this generation.
This un-middle-classing mindset is at the forefront today. Our aspirations have grown. Time is a valuable currency. Convenience and access are essential pillars of these times. Owning white goods, cars and homes on equated monthly instalments, the mushrooming of beauty parlours and gyms in big and large towns, the increasing dependence on household help in urban centres, the emergence of new categories—from diapers for infants to jeans for women, from packaged rice to men’s grooming products—overall attitudes towards saving and spending have much to suggest. The rate of savings in India today is around 31%.
The middle class has a new view of itself. We no longer struggle with life stages and roles, we embrace them and shape them. Everyday lives are not engulfed in the chores of living, we view life as a spectacle. With Indians taking selfies at every chance possible, pouting and posing at the camera, life is lived in the now. Adoption of new festivals and amplification of existing ones makes consumption a part of everyday life.
Shifts are visible. Inter-caste marriages are more acceptable, wearing high heels is an aspiration for women across socioeconomic classes. We no longer scorn the wealthy, the Hindi speakers or business owners. Fluency in English, education or wealth is not seen as the only marker of success. Enough role models have proven that despite all the odds, success is possible. Parenting too is not a one-way stream; often, reverse parenting is at play. Here, the young induct parents into the fold of technology and ensure that they remain relevant.
For modern retail to thrive, a healthy middle-class force is a prerequisite. Today guilt has been replaced by aspirations and society is leaping towards a new future.
With the onset of the un-middle-classing mindset and behaviour, the best years for a consumption-led economy in India are yet to come. And we feel nothing can stop India from becoming the land of Sone ki chidiya once again!
Ashni Biyani is chief ideator, Future Ideas, a Future Group company
This is part of a series of articles in Mint’s 10th anniversary special issue that look at India 10 years from now. The entire list of articles can be found here