A generation caught at the cusp of India’s transformation

Akshaya Chandrasekaran | Updated on October 30, 2021

What Millennials Want is a surprisingly pessimistic reminder of how little India has changed

Millennials, the generation born between 1981 and 1996, arrived at a time of opportunity and hope. The Indian economy was at the cusp of opening itself to the outside world, a plethora of jobs in sunrise industries were unfolding, the effects of capitalism were taking hold, technology was advancing at a dizzying rate, and there was the shared experience of witnessing India transform. To investigate the aspirations and anxieties of this generation is important because it gives you a sense of this nation’s trajectory and changing sensibilities.


But India has frozen in time. Vivan Marwaha’s book What millennials want is a painful reminder of that. Too many young Indians still compete for too few good jobs. The deep employment crisis and skilling gaps continue to exist. Millions still believe in the lure of stability a government job offers. The standards of education haven’t drastically improved. Arranged marriages are still preferred, keeping intact the caste system. The consequence is this: millennials are crumbling under the weight of these foundational issues, which have only deepened and compounded into more complex problems, and they are justifiably anxious about all of it. What’s significant is not how much has changed, but how little.

The book is divided into five sections – education, economic aspirations, technology and social media, marriage and social views, and political attitudes. Looming large over the book and the lives of Indian millennials are the zeitgeist of economic insecurity and its direct and indirect consequences. Education is no longer a guaranteed one-way ticket to upward mobility. A giant millennial cohort estimated to be 1.3 million joins the workforce every month and there aren’t enough jobs for all of them. “Young Indians are engaged in a never-ending cycle of education, not because they want to learn more but because they are desperate to increase their employability,” writes Marwaha.

The promise of the gig economy, which many believed would create jobs, is not vibrant and large enough to be a solution. Marwaha acknowledges the success of certain start-ups and the millennials who were unafraid to take risks, but he strongly establishes that the app economy does not do enough for the people at the bottom of the pyramid, simply because they were not structured to provide lifetime employment. The gig economy took off in the US to help young adults with additional part-time income, or temporary work. It is not an economically viable business model for lifetime employment, which is what it is for many in India. Which is why we hear of many Uber drivers and Swiggy delivery executives, also illustrated by personal stories in the book, complain about the exploitative nature of work, and low employee benefits.

“India’s 1991 liberalisation did not immediately transform the economy in the way many thought it would. It most significantly benefited those who were best positioned to take advantage of capital and new opportunities: the urban, well-educated elite. The children of these elite now dominate India’s private sector, having benefited from crucial networks of caste and class, to help them take advantage of new opportunities.”

The nagging threat of unemployment at every stage deprives Indian millennials of the crucial social and economic agency to explore and adventure into new territories, which their counterparts in developed economies enjoy and often take for granted, points out Marwaha.

The access to information and the ability to interact with the world renders this generation a unique identity. But the lack of economic agency also informs the values that millennials hold and their ways of life. This inconsistency in the moralities, progressive in some aspects, and conservative in some others, is captured accurately in Marwaha’s documentation of the millennials.

While they define themselves on their own terms on social media, breaking age-old bonds of patriarchy, they hesitate to make the same leaps with, say, inter-religious marriage. Only 2 per cent of the married youth surveyed had an inter-religious marriage. While arranged marriages are still widely popular, millennials have greater autonomy to reject or accept a match, but not the entire system itself. Many young adults still rely on family support in the early stages of building a family, given the low incomes and high cost of home ownership. They simply cannot afford to fall in love and pay the price of losing family contact and financial help, explains Marwaha.

A very different picture of millennials emerges from Marwaha’s book when it comes to political attitudes. He says, since a majority of India still lives in smaller cities and towns, millennials identify with a leader like Modi who speaks, prays, and looks like them. They are relying on Modi’s personality and have found the 'strongman' leadership style he embodies to be more suitable to solve India’s long-standing problems. Despite economic concerns before the 2019 elections, millennials prioritised India's improving standing on the global stage over rising unemployment. They also do not vote any differently from their previous generation as more than 95 per cent of the time they named the same party their parents voted for.

The author has camped out across 14 Indian states, rural and urban, talking to more than 900 millennials, and the book is interspersed with personal anecdotes and datasets from numerous research studies. Marwaha’s work is important in combining the information silos, piecing together diverse trends, and seeing the patterns behind the data points. The sheen of demographic advantage for India is fading, according to Marwaha, and “we must urgently focus on removing the roadblocks that keep this generation on the defensive.”A lot of what millennials want, they don’t get.

About the Book

What Millennials Want: Decoding the Largest Generation in the World

Vivan Marwaha

288 pages; Rs 462

Penguin Books

Check out the book on Amazon here

Published on October 24, 2021

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