Why nobody’s holding out for a hero

Is there any space for a hero in a generation whose favoured image is a selfie?


Elon Musk. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters
Elon Musk. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters

Ask young urban Indians—not the ones who voted in Uttar Pradesh last week—who their hero is and they’ll scratch their heads and likely reply: “Hero? I don’t have a hero. Never really given it a thought.”

I first got a whiff of this mystery when I was at the salon reading an issue of Hello magazine with a feature on millennials from “India’s most influential families”. Of the 15 hipsters profiled, most named family members as their real-life heroes. Mother, father, parents, grandparents were the answers in order of frequency. “My aunt Maneka Gandhi” and “my dogs” got one mention each.

“My mother, my father and Nawazuddin Siddiqui,” said Ahaan Panday, actor Chunky Pandey’s nephew. His Instagram followers numbering over 97,000 seem to enjoy his love for selfies.

Even the bearded kid wearing aviators on the Harley-Davidson and trying his best to look lean and rebellious said his parents were his inspiration.

Most of the reasons for citing parents were cliché—mothers were “beautiful inside out” and dads were “my best critic”.

In the West, millennials are upset with their baby-boomer parents for spending what could have been their inheritance and leaving the young adults to fend mostly for themselves, but here everyone’s putting their parents on the pedestal that previous generations reserved for freedom fighters, rags-to-riches industrialists, cricket icons and Mother Teresa.

I decided to conduct my own youth survey (millennials are born between 1981 and 1997, but I asked mainly 18- to 29-year-olds) of students and young professionals who didn’t have as hefty a family inheritance to look forward to as the youngsters featured in Hello. The oldest person I asked was 29 years.

Of the 25 I surveyed, not one said Sachin Tendulkar, Mukesh Ambani, Shah Rukh Khan or Mahatma Gandhi—all popular names until a few years ago. Nobody said Narendra Modi—they may vote for him and believe he’s the best option we have but he’s not their hero.

Does this mean millennials are increasingly inward-looking creatures who live alternate lives on clogged social networks where heroes are only as good as their last update? Is there any space for a hero in a generation whose favoured image is a selfie?

In 2013, Time magazine said studies showed millennials were narcissistic, entitled, cocky, peer influenced, deeply anxious, fame and technology obsessed. The news magazine said they are “the most threatening and exciting generation since the baby boomers brought about social revolution, not because they’re trying to take over the Establishment but because they’re growing up without one”. Who needs an Establishment when you have followers, right?

The article also described them as nice, earnest and optimistic. “Their world is so flat that they have no leaders…” Make that no leaders and no heroes.

Only one of the girls I surveyed came up with a short list of three women with “amazing stories”: Louisa May Alcott, Maya Angelou and Rosalind Franklin. One young artist said Gerard Way.

One person named a political figure, but she had to be cajoled. I looked up from the Hello article and asked my 29-year-old hairdresser from Manipur about her heroes. “Ellen DeGeneres and Steve Harvey,” she said after some hesitation. “What? No one from the North-East? I have so many heroes just from your state,” I replied. “Thuingaleng Muivah,” she said, referring to one of the founders of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, a popular Naga nationalist insurgent group (he now heads the NSCN-IM faction).

Many picked their parents and grandparents. Others were vexed by this question. I suspect the ones who picked family members didn’t want to confess that they couldn’t come up with a hero.

A friend’s 18-year-old daughter who loves bleak poetry and is a voracious reader thought for an entire day, then sent me an agitated message: “I don’t think I have any heroes. I admire a lot of people. But I think everyone is very human inside and full of flaws. According to my definition, a hero wouldn’t be flawed. Nobody I know is that courageous or strong or perfect. Nobody in this world,” she said.

Maybe that’s what it is. This generation has higher hero standards. Or maybe unlike us, they know that, more often than not, heroes have a shelf-life. At least they won’t have any Irom Sharmila moments.

My MO has always been to gloss out all flaws, and focus on the reasons I admire my heroes. Every social entrepreneur who is trying to change the way India works is my hero. Every woman who fights sexual assault is my hero. Every film director who depicts the modern Indian women accurately is my hero (Masaan, Sairat, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Udta Punjab). The three African-American Nasa scientists in Hidden Figures are my heroes. The non-fiction writer who authored the book that the film was based on is my hero.

When my millennials were pushed to name heroes, two names stood out: Michelle Obama (she’s every girl’s hero) and Elon Musk.

In a connected world, heroes are competing with a global pool of icons, so it’s not surprising that the most popular names were not Indian. But Musk’s popularity took me by surprise. I asked a friend who spends most of his time figuring out how technology influences our lives, to explain why Musk’s name kept cropping up.

“He combines practical business (Tesla) with world-changing (SpaceX) higher sense of purpose like no one else,” he said, referring to two of the businesses of this South African entrepreneur. Then he sent me a link to a four-part article on the blog Wait But Why titled Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man. How can any traditional hero compete with that?

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