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Photo: Kumar/Mint
Photo: Kumar/Mint

Opinion | Why Indian millennials are a generation unto themselves

Millennial concerns are both broad and socially inclusive though this generation often comes across as highly self-absorbed

Normally, the labels used to describe different generations—Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y—are meaningless when applied globally. Every country and culture has its own context, and applying descriptors developed in the West unthinkingly to a culture like India is silly.

But there is something about millennials that stands apart. There is a clear divergence that can be seen between this generation and the earlier ones, a distinctness of priorities and world view that begs a name.

Perhaps because the primary driver of this shift is global in nature—the arrival of digital technology—and since it happened roughly at the same time as the millennium that gave this generation its name, the label tends to have some merit.

In India, in particular, it is the mobile phone that has given millennials a distinct character. More than any other generation in the past, millennials have a deeply embedded sense of themselves as individuals. This sense is an outcome of the way in which they experience the world. The mobile phone is, by its very nature, making its user aware of being not only an individual entity, but places her at the centre of the world.

Every little gesture—the swipe, pinch, scroll—and every act of liking, sharing, replying, disliking, rejecting, un-friending, all wordlessly affirm the control that every individual has over her or his digital environment.

A sharper sense of self is rapidly prototyped using a range of digital devices. The selfie implicitly frames the world as a stage prop, and acts as a perpetual document of an evolving self. On Instagram, one fashions and crafts a persona bit by visual bit. On TikTok, one can playfully narrativize any trivial aspect of one’s life and find an impressively large audience for it.

One can become a social media influencer or follow one, and learn to assemble a desirable self. Be it fashion, food, make-up tips, career and personality advice, the ability to learn from one’s peers and to keep augmenting one’s self is a defining characteristic of this generation.

This is also the first generation that has the ability to choose between many equally good options, and this realization leads to a great need to try out things, to float from one experience to another without crystallizing any firm view on what works. Whether it is the field of education, personal relationships, consumption or personal identity, the desire is to keep things open.

The millennial craves individuality and independence, but is happy to use whatever resources are available.

The family is there to rely on, and no great awkwardness is felt in taking their support for granted. It is not unusual to find millennials leaning on the family for all kinds of assistance—financial, physical and emotional. No contradiction is seen between a desire for independence and an unthinking reliance on family.

While family continues to be a valued support system, friends are very clearly central to the journey of identity formation. Friends allow for the collection of experiences that might have not been possible without the safety net of numbers. Unlike an earlier era where “hanging out" without actually doing much was the primary past time of the young, today there is a greater activity-orientation, a lot of it involving acts of consumption.

Consumption is more than just a pursuit, it is a medium of self-expression, language, in which the young have acquired some fluency. Consumption becomes both a way of experiencing the world, as well as expressing oneself to it. The millennial takes consumption choices seriously, and invests a considerable amount of time and effort in getting it right.

The boundary between creators and consumers is blurring as virtually everyone is simultaneously both, in one way or another. For millennials, consumption and wider social concerns are not necessarily opposites; in fact, the attempt is to consume more mindfully and use it to make larger statements about their belief system.

Overall, this generation believes in its own power to make a difference, and plays a much more active role in expressing itself. A wide array of social concerns are embraced, and any number of “projects" that seek to do something concrete get traction with this group.

The combination of a strong sense of individuality, access to a range of options, a more multiple and fluid sense of identity, and a more diverse set of priorities makes the millennial a source of some discomfort to older generations.

There is an easy sense of entitlement that is resented, and much commented upon. An apparent lack of interest in following linear goals perplexes the older generation, which cannot grasp how the millennial can prioritize a personal higher-order goal over what seems to be a more rational option.

Employers are particularly bewildered by the millennial tendency to put themselves above the job, particularly if what it requires is not of great interest. On the flip side, the millennial can bring an enormous amount of intensity and passion to work that is of interest.

The other big challenge that this generation faces is that of mental health. A surprisingly large number struggle with the ecosystem that surrounds them.

The combination of too many choices too early, an exacting set of demands from the self, a broader set of concerns well beyond one’s immediate context, the need to perform consistently well on what is thought of as the world stage, the perpetual quest for validation from others—all of these serve to put enormous pressure of a kind that is difficult to deal with.

This is a generation that is searching. For perhaps far too much, far too soon. But it is an active quest, an impatient one that is full of creative possibilities, just as it has the potential for self-destruction.

Millennial concerns are both broad and socially inclusive, while simultaneously being highly self-absorbed. Meanwhile, the next generation, bred on smartphones, algorithms and machine learning, is on its way.

Santosh Desai is managing director and chief executive officer at Futurebrands India

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