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The brand new face of the Indian millennial – part 1

This newsletter carries the introduction and two segments of a 12-part series 

Born in the era of liberalization, youth in India are harnessing the forces of technology, communication and branding. These are also worldwide phenomenon. How is young Indian identity being shaped specific to this land’s culture?

 

Shaping identity for the times

Culture influences identity and identity gets shaped by ideas that strongly resonate with the culture of the times. Gandhiji remains an iconic image for our nation because he captured the essence of India in the early 20th century with inspirational beliefs: the idea that we could make hand-spun yarn and weave our own cloth; the idea that we were a nation with a history of non-violence from the time of Buddha and Asoka; the idea that non-violence can bring freedom; the very fundamental idea that we as a culture had an independent existence that did not fit into the British notion of India. He acted these beliefs out. He translated values etched from our sacred texts such as Satyam evam jayate (truth is victorious) demonstrating that these were ideals worth pursuing. His strong argument for a separate Indian identity through repeated use of symbolism created awareness and momentum for change. Making salt, spinning yarn, burning foreign goods and fasting in protest gave a common voice to the Independence struggle. These were certainly not the experiments of truth that every Indian could have imagined, but they sprung from deep roots, which people of India passionately struck a chord with. Gandhi’s overwhelming contribution was to make us conscious of our Indian identity.

Seventy years after Independence, reports predict an increase in the youth population to 464 million by 2021 and the lens turns towards the younger generation in India, especially those born after liberalization in 1991. What is the face of this Indian millennial plus some more who fall into the category of ‘youth’? What motivates them and what characterizes their identity?

Our team at Lopez Design studied a cross section of young people between the ages of 15 and 35 in the Delhi-Noida region and household income between a lac to 1.5 lacs. Here’s what we found. Young city-dwellers today are self-assured and confident. At times they are unsure but this does not hold them back in trying out new paths. They are independent decision makers and like to be in charge of their lives. They are not fearful of making mistakes. They make non-traditional career choices and are willing to do jobs at odd shifts. Trends are shifting towards flexible jobs and hours, which allow employees to work from home while juggling other activities in the workday. Well-informed about social and environment issues, many young people contribute time and/or money towards some worthy cause. Many are pro-animal care, stand up for animal rights and do voluntary work at shelters. They thrive on the energy of India and its people but simultaneously nurture broad-minded outlooks. They are proactive about finding the core of their identity.

Aside of investigating the persona of the average youth and general trends, we also collated variances and greater achievements of individuals or groups, especially those who push themselves to the edge to achieve. The question that became interesting to ask, however, is – with globalization, communication and technology advances, many youth trends are similar across the world. How is identity specific to India evolving that is different?

1: Youth as influencers

When Harish Anand’s laptop conked out, he asked his son for advice on what to buy. “Get a Mac. Nothing can beat its performance and ease of use”, insisted Anand’s 23-year old son. Anand went ahead a trifle gingerly and says he is now learning to navigate his Apple Macbook with four fingers. Normally someone like Anand would have settled for a Windows product but his son was quickly able to assure him that spending three times that amount was worth it. Advertisements now feature youth who are savvy – children helping their parents and grandparents buy gifts and make purchases online; a young boy and his sister in competition over a phone. In the MTS ad Born for the Internet, a new born baby is already phone savvy and taps to search “how to cut the umbilical cord” shocking his parents. The profile of “who knows best” is no longer the older figure: it’s the young ones.

Image source: Screenshot of Gionee S6 commercial

In a television commercial for Gionee’s S6 mobile phone, the setting is a photo shoot. A power cut interrupts the photo session and the set lights go off. Smoothly transiting, glowing model Alia Bhatt clicks her selfie using an S6 with its in-built flash, declaring, “Who needs light?” Mischievously dismissive of the professional photographic set up, the ad puts power in the hands of the everyday user. Shift to Pepper Fry, the fast expanding online furniture brand, which has reputedly raised 210 crore INR from existing investors. In a series of ads aired on TV, an older relative doubts each delivery from Pepperfry while the younger couple stands suitably self-assured that it is all going to work out just fine. REM dreamtime worries are all allayed: missing pieces of furniture – this does not happen; what to do if something does not fit the space – there’s a ready exchange. Do we tip? Not required. The fear factor of making online transactions is also addressed in the fashion label Myntra’s ad where Ira Dubey playing the young wife expresses her deep dislike of online buying. She is convinced happily otherwise, when a hamper of clothes bought by her husband played by Abhay Deol is to her taste, fancy and fit. Even better, same-day returns are accepted. We are all convinced happily as well.

India stands poised to be the youngest country in the world by 2020. The State of the Urban Youth, India 2012 report by IRIS Knowledge Foundation in collaboration with UN-HABITAT notes that by 2019 the median individual in India will be a 29-year old city-dweller. Aggressive marketing is directed towards this youth sector between 15 and 37, seen as a decisive force of the country spiking new trends and influencing the market. The ease of technology, online communications and virtual interfaces are part and parcel of these ubiquitous messages – from driving a car to operating a kitchen appliance. Navigating a fast track between marketplace and mind-set, brands respond quickly and overtly for consumers to have greater ownership, choices and power. The youth is the messenger and therefore the target.

2: Changing the code

After finishing school, Manasi Anand took up a course in engineering at a well-known university in Chennai, which had a resident women’s hostel. Manasi realized soon enough that neither the program nor the environment was her cup of tea. She confided with her parents, who readily agreed that she should do what makes her happy. Her academic advisors felt differently. “A girl should not be so independent,” was a terse comment by one academic head. It did not change Manasi’s determination to evolve her career path on her own terms. She went to Bengaluru where her parents live and joined Mount Carmel. With her mother passionately engaged in social work in remote villages and her father who devotes his weekends to planting trees in the outskirts of Bengaluru with a conservation group, it is not surprising that this young woman decided to pursue Environmental Sciences. For their final year project, Manasi and four others put out a proposal to clear up the frothy Bellandur Lake. Not merely stopping with a model plan, they went all out and made a realistic proposal to resolve the pollution, which grabbed the attention of several newspapers. The group of five also garnered support by getting out on the street and campaigning for their cause.

Image source: Screenshot from “Kodaikanal Won’t” by Sofia Ashraf

For others like the young and popular rapper Sofia Ashraf, deeply committed to making a change in society, families were harder to convince. In the TOI magazine story of October 5th 2016, Ashraf spoke about how she gave up the burka much to her family’s despair. Embracing her new persona was necessary for what Sofia identified with: freedom and accountability. Sofia first made headlines with her rap song Kodaikanal Won’t in collaboration with Chennai based social activists to bring Unilever to account for the mercury dumping in the Kodaikanal Lake. Ashraf chose a vocal path with rap, using an unconventional medium to make people pay attention. It worked. Ashraf moved on with another song to bring justice to the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Young Indians are out to change the way we think to solve problems.

To be continued. Next edition brings part 2 of this series

Anthony Lopez, Sujatha Shankar Kumar, Ruma Dhingra & Research team
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