Friday, March 12, 2010

The Age Curve: Shifted

The term Generation Y was introduced to my life when someone, reading some of my writings, wrote back to me that I am old and Gen X, and do not understand the new, Indian Generation Y at all. I am of course guilty as charged - I do find today's college-going young adults a world removed from my own time - and therefore, promptly accepted the labelling on the basis of the face value.

Further exposition to the concept allowed me to accept this as a fair claim - that people born after 1980s was exposed to a different world of opportunities and affluence in India than my generation, those born in late-60s and 70s, and also grew up with a different value set. I went to Senior School in early 80s, and I recall most of my friends in my school days had parents who worked for the government - I went to an average, inner city, vernacular-medium school - and everyone had a fairly straightforward view of life. Our rebellion extended up to smoking cigarettes, our girls made us sweat for holding hands, and when they showed 1970's Bollywood blockbusters on our monochrome TV, a sort of an unofficial national holiday would have been declared. This is as different as it can be from the life at the Senior School twenty years later. By now, we have arrived in the world of multi-channel TV, Internet chat, professional parents, personal mobile phones, flings and affairs, Holly-Bollywood and Coalition government.

And, it is not just the things around us. I remember when I held hand with a girl first time, we both naturally assumed that we shall marry each other. If anyone asked me my plans for life, I could recite, with absolute certainty, what would happen: the names of the civil service exams I would appear in, the kind of job I should get, the periodical table of promotions, and with a little effort, even how much pension I should be able to get. In twenty years, all that has changed. The more aspiring nowadays read Career Magazines; doing own business is no longer a sign of wrongheadedness. Indeed, it is okay to experiment - know before you leap - in relationships, and except landlords, everyone seems to have caught on with live-in relationships by college time.

The generational shift is indeed very real.

Before you say it is all too obvious, I have to say that's half the point though. The other half is that our generational labelling, and hence, expectations, isn't. We imported the Gen X/ Gen Y labelling straight from America, and heaped the role expectations onto various age groups. This is one of the conceptual imports of our English Language media, which had lasting effect and the terms entered the popular lexicon. I am, however, arguing that the case isn't as straightforward as it would appear to be, and we may need to rejig our conceptions of the Age Curve to fit the ground realities of modern India.


To illustrate this point, I must quickly recap the Generational Thinking and how it affects business or social strategy in America. I am taking this summary out of Ken Gronbach's highly readable 'The Age Curve', which presented these details with ease and made a persuasive point about factoring in such demographics in business thinking. The generations in America is broken up in five different generations, each comprising of people born in roughly twenty year periods: The GI Generation (1905 - 25), the Silent Generation (1925 - 45), The War Babies/ Baby Boomers (1945 - 65), Generation X (1965 - 85) and finally Generation Y (1985 - 2010). The fact that generations in reality do not fit into such neat boxes is well-understood, but since American history was marked by at least five era-defining events, The Great War [1914-18], The Great Depression [1929 -34], The World War II [1939 -45], Vietnam [1963-75] and the advent of personal computers [1970s onwards], those boxes still fit somehow. There are of course other social and political events that affected the demographics as well: For example, Rowe vs Wade and legalization of abortion meant 45 million aborted births and a Generation X SMALLER in size compared to the Baby Boomers; Or Affirmative Action, which moved millions of Afro-American families into professions and created a whole new generation, mostly Gen Xers so far, who are far more affluent and educated than their parents were ever have been. Besides, there was a significant impact of immigration in population, starting with the Irish and other European migrants during the GI generation, who stopped coming on the wake of the Great War and because of the depression, the waves of Asian migration after the war and through the boom years, and later the Latino boom, all of which changed the mix and generational preferences.


The practical understanding of this Generational understanding can be profitably applied in business and in policy-making. For example, Gronbach's formula is to ask whether your 'ideal' consumer is still ten years away from 'peaking' in their consumption cycle. For example, if I am selling SUVs for Hockey Moms [and I can imagine Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, eyes closed, and not Sarah Palin], I should be aware that the Hockey Mom generation is now past its Peak consumption time and the one's who rule the roost are professional , environmentally conscious Generation X women who [used to] drive Toyota Prius. It is a complete different sensibility; after all, I should know this because I was 'taught' by my Gen X American friend that while an SUV produces a ton of carbon every 1300 or so miles, a plane produces as much in 2000 miles and a Hybrid, like Prius, in 6000 miles. This is a generational shift. The point is that no SUV will sell anymore; the point is that they will less than they used to, and Hybrids will sell more. I would also recall a recent essay in New Yorker about Toyota Prius; where the author thought it is neat, but 'too silent'. That taste for noise is a Baby Boomer sensibility; not something a Generation Y may prefer, because their ear is permanently attached to a earplug and an iPod, and the silence/noise conundrum is largely irrelevant as they start buying their first cars.


The same goes in Politics. Suddenly, the western political arena is full of smooth, telegenic professional men. [Gordon Brown looks an anomaly, and he, and the labour party, is already paying for it] It is not just the medium; it is the sensibility too. The buzzword today is 'professional', which denotes a combination of work ethic, education and smarts, and pragmatism. But, looking at Barack Obama's plight post-election, one would guess that Generation X is already passing the baton over to Generation Y. The new generation, due to the confusion in values they grew up with, have a different perception of all these words. It is too early to predict whether this means Carey Mulligan will be voted in as PM, or we shall turn back to the trusted instincts of grandfatherly Prime Minister, and bring Gordon Brown back from the dead. But, as Generation Y steps in, the smooth, the Tony Blair, David Cameron or David Milibands of the world, who built a career on sounding correct but hypocritical and non-committal all the time, may face a bit of a testing time.


However, the point I would like to make is that this whole Generational formula applies to the West. It may stir some souls in India, but it is foolhardy to apply the Generation Y label on those born in India after the 80s, who have experienced liberalization and expansion of opportunities while in school [and whose preferences I tried to describe above], and expect them to behave as such. The underlying assumption that India has caught up may not even fly, because these young Indians are not in the game of catching up; they will tell you that they want to set the standards. So, if I suffered from a bit of a generational freeze, so did parts of our media, and I am rather happy to see that as more Gen Y comes to work, such generational labelling is already on the back foot.

This is not to say that Generational studies have no significance in India. Far from it: India is, as Nandan Nilkeni explains, at a point where it is enjoying a huge demographic dividend, and it must take the advantage with proper policy interventions. However, Indian history is different from Americas, and even the population cycles are different. The ones called Indian Generation X - the ones like me born between 1965 and 1985 - is actually doing what baby-boomers did to America, pulling the country along. This is a large generation - in fact, I would suspect that this is larger than the following generation when birth control became more pervasive and economic uncertainties started creeping in - and this is one which is taking over the power in corporations, politics and social life now. [Rahul Gandhi's generation] I keep talking about India being adolescent and brash - this generation is - and they are just taking over from their fathers who sort of made up a silent generation in India and spent a lifetime in government's shadows.

My objection with that Indian Gen Y formulation is therefore two-fold. I shall say, one, do not undermine India's Generation X, they are the boomers for us; and two, generational patterns can not be exported and made to fit a different country. Our Gen Y is not America's Gen Y. Our Gen Y, if I have to keep calling it for the want of a better name, may want to be like America's GI generation, the ones who created [not consumed] and propelled America ahead of the pack in the world. The ones who brought the enterprise and toil to build Americas factories, schools and public libraries.

I believe in the future as a progressing dot; imagined affinities with Americans by way of a generational labelling does not really impress me.












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