By Sanjoy Narayan
It can only be one of these two: that a) I must have certainly fallen in with a bunch of depraved deviants in my youth, most of which was spent in the 1970s, or, b) compared to their rebellious and iconoclastic counterparts in earlier generations, today’s urban middle-class youth are die-hard conformists, steeped in conservatism. Last week, when Raghu Roy, who heads MaRS, a research firm that partners with Hindustan Times to do a large youth survey every year, texted me to say that this year’s findings were in and that there was “far more orthodoxy among today’s youth, coffee shop and denim culture notwithstanding”, I wasn’t quite prepared for what was to follow in the actual findings of our fourth annual Indian Youth Survey (to be published from Monday).
Every generation shares a pet peeve that theirs is in some way superior to the subsequent ones. Secretly or otherwise, mine, for instance, feels that the urban middle-class youth of the 1970s was far more questioning of established convention and much less driven by materialism and a sense of entitlement. Many of my generation think today’s youth are limp milquetoasts and not the toughened adventurers that they themselves were. But that’s the way it is: every generation thinks the ones that come after it are lesser in many ways. It’s a sociological thing and there’s nothing more to it.
But perhaps there is. In this year’s HT-MaRS Indian Youth Survey, conducted among 5,214 middle and upper middle class youth (equal numbers men and women; ages 18-25) in 15 top Indian cities, the conservatives outweigh the deviants — by a big margin. We asked those surveyed whether they preferred joint families to nuclear ones and more than 67% said yes; 68% said they’d always listen to their elders and 70% said smoking in front of them was a no-no; just 4% said they’d marry a person selected by themselves over-ruling any parental objection; and an overwhelming number — 88% — preferred to get married in traditional style with elaborate rituals and not formalise it in court.
Our survey throws up other things, of course, and many of them come as no surprise: Narendra Modi is the biggest icon for the youth in Indian politics; Arvind Kejriwal, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi follow, in that order; and, Salman Khan is voted by our respondents as being, ahem, the ‘sexiest man alive’. In sports, the usual suspects win as youth icons (yes, Sachin Tendulkar is on top and there’s also MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli rubbing shoulders with him up there).
India’s urban youth have ‘aspirations’ (a word that has become a wantonly used cliché) and very strong attitudes of entitlement—most of them have huge expectations from their future and believe that the country “owes” that to them; and around half of those we polled say they want to get rich quickly. Predictably, they are quite swept up by a consumerist wave, fretting about not having money to buy what they want (more than half the women we polled said they bought something last year that they couldn’t afford); and, logically, the young in the richer cities have more money to spend every month.
All that is fine. What is of concern are some of the survey’s other findings. India’s youth is tradition-bound and conservative. Sadly, that could also imply that they can be regressive. Nearly seven out of 10 men and women felt the onus was on women and not men to save marriages from divorce; less than four out of 10 men felt that they should share housework with women; and, alarmingly, more than six out of 10 middle-class youth in Indian cities are all right if dowry is involved.
You could say that a survey of this sort has its limitations (although its methodology is robust) but some of its findings can make you want to pray for the future of our young. Praying, incidentally, comes naturally to our youth — nearly 60% of those we polled say they do that regularly.