Will middle Indian kids lose their edge as newly wealthy parents rush to remove all roadblocks?
The neighbourhood kid comes home to borrow a DVD. He’s home in transit. From Hyderabad, where he worked for the past two years, on his way overseas to study some more. He was bored of his job here and wanted to do something different. The hard-working, indulgent father paid up for a one-year gig. Of the old school, he thinks nothing of breaking a few fixed deposits to do what was till 10 years back impossible for a middle-class family—fund your child to go abroad to study. Kid is still bored. Already. Of the course he will go to. Of the whole overseas learning that is yet to come. Of the international class he will be a part of. Of the job he knows he will get. Of life. Yawn. Bored to death!
I’m talking to a financial sector CEO. He’s come up the tough way. A second-generation migrant to a metro, he began work on the sales team in mofussil Bharat (small-town India). Remembers the drudgery, the dust, the flies and seedy living spaces. Remembers the resolve to break out into the next level. His today has no shortages. Well, maybe time and health. Obsessive hard work, almost in a reaction to the fear of slipping back into the dull rhythm of average small-town India, allowed him to pull himself up to the top. And now that he has reached where he set out to go, he’s suddenly wondering if his kids will do equally well. Or get that warm glow of satisfaction that he says he feels when he looks back. “Where’s the challenge in their lives?” he asks. “I’ve made sure that our kids did not go through what I did as a child, but in doing that have I handicapped them by removing the biggest stimulant to growth—a challenging environment.”
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Worryingly, this is not an isolated conversation. My paediatrician had pointed me many years back in this direction when he diagnosed a tummy bug in my then four-year-old and said that middle-class urban Indian kids have immune systems as delicate as those of developed country kids. This sanitizing of the physical environment, of the food, the water, the living space, we carry over into other areas as well. We sanitize the environment around our kids, so that they don’t face what we did. We systematically remove all obstacles in front of our kids. We try and ensure that the kids don’t have to experience hard times. And in doing so, we may unwittingly remove the reasons to which some attribute their success. Middle-age urban mass affluent India has a new wrinkle: have we sanitized our kids so much that they are now unable to face challenges of life? There is broad agreement that the fire in the belly that burned out a way for the first and second generation migrant to the big city is largely extinguished by the third. Their inherent advantage of polished English and a base level of education and skill sets will allow survival. But will they excel? Will self-motivation be able to replace the crude prod of a scarce economy, with few opportunities and limited future? Or will they be just bored? Like the neighbourhood young adult.
The pursuit of, the acquisition of and then the waste of wealth has definite cycles that most traditions document. If “from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” is American, “wealth does not pass three generations” is Chinese. India is at the entry point of the first stage for a large mass of people. Will we find a new phrase that will show a conscious breaking of this cycle or will we import the Chinese or American experiences? No answers yet, just questions.
The government is giving away Rs12,000 a year to people who contribute up to Rs12,000 a year into their New Pension System (NPS) accounts. As a perk. As a duty to those who make our daily lives possible. As our contribution to urban development. We need to facilitate the opening of the pension accounts for our household help, the driver, the electrician, the plumber and anybody without an organized sector job. The NPS products are the least costly way to target a large corpus that will be used to generate an income after a person reaches 60 years of age. Even if the person contributes for three years, the full sum of Rs12,000 a year gets a matching contribution from the government. Thirty years later, at an average growth of 8%, she is looking at Rs6 lakh at least. It will be a good way to spend two hours one Saturday to give your household staff a financial leg-up.
Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy, and is a certified financial planner. She is consulting editor with Mint and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org