India’s young are fretting about their futures


India’s young are fretting about their futures

India’s young people are the focus of many optimistic projections. Policymakers see them as a “demographic dividend” propelling India to superpower status. In boardrooms, young Indians are seen as the last big untapped market for everything from western fast fashion to alcoholic beverages.

With two-thirds of its 1.2bn people under the age of 35, India seems like it could be on the cusp of a transformative youth revolution aided by the proliferation of low-cost smartphones. Yet the country is also witnessing intensifying contestation over the kind of society it should aspire to be: a liberal, tolerant place, or an illiberal Hindu state, where individual freedoms are curbed in deference to the moral sensibilities of the majority. 

This tussle will inevitably be affected by the attitudes of the young, given their electoral weight. So it is relevant to ask whether young Indians are optimistic about the future — and what kind of future they aspire to.  That is what New Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies set out to discover in a survey of 6,122 Indian youths, aged 15-34, in cities, towns and villages in 19 states. The findings, just released, make sobering reading. 

The country’s youths are an anxious lot. Their top concerns are their parents’ health and their own — perhaps not surprising given the exorbitant cost of private hospitals and the appalling state of public healthcare.  Economic concerns weigh heavily too. Asked to identify India’s biggest problem, 18 per cent of respondents cited unemployment, while 12 per cent mentioned poverty and inequality. More than 70 per cent acknowledged they are anxious — 46 per cent, highly so — about their job situation.  In fact, few actually have paid jobs, or jobs they want. Nearly 33 per cent gave their profession as “student”, more than twice the level of a decade ago. While this may suggest young people skilling up for better jobs, the report offers a grimmer prospectus: young Indians “are studying further to delay entry into the workforce or perhaps as a means of ‘timepass’.”  The reason for this pessimism? Self-reported unemployment rates are higher among graduates than among those with less education, suggesting the biggest absorber of youthful labour, employing 18 per cent of India’s young workforce, up from 14 per cent a decade ago. Government jobs are as coveted as ever, though just 3 per cent are on the public rolls. 

When it comes to lifestyle and belief, about two-fifths of Indian youth are style-conscious, spending money on fashionable clothes and shoes, the latest mobile phones, and modern leisure pursuits such as films and eating out. Yet this rising consumerism is coupled with deep social conservatism.  Patriarchy remains deep-rooted. Despite women’s strides in education, more than half of youths believe women should always listen to their husbands. Nearly two-fifths feel it is inappropriate for a woman to work after marriage, while a significant 38 per cent feel women should not wear jeans. 

In personal relationships, 53 per cent of Indian youths oppose dating before marriage; 45 per cent oppose inter-religious marriages, 36 per cent oppose inter-caste marriages, and 75 per cent consider homosexuality wrong.  About 47 per cent would be uneasy with a neighbour who drinks alcohol, and 33 per cent would be anxious living next to an unmarried couple. Sixty-five per cent of youths live with their parents; 31 per cent reside with spouses, and just 4 per cent live alone, with friends, or in hostels. 

Religion retains a powerful grip. Nearly half give religion precedence over science when they clash, while just a third would privilege science over religion; 60 per cent support banning films that hurt religious sentiments; and almost half reject the notion that eating beef — taboo in Hindu culture — should be a matter of personal choice. 

All in all, despite superficial changes, “Indian youth is not as modern as somebody might think simply seeing the life in the metros,” says Sanjay Kumar, the study’s principal investigator. India’s liberal youth revolution doesn’t seem like it will be coming any time soon.

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