Gandhi vs Cyrus Broacha. Nehru vs Sabeer Bhatia. Is it a generation gap or an abyss? As the Indian population careens over the one-billion mark, 57 per cent of it is on the fast lane of youth. A group defined only by remaining undefined.
An MTV survey, "tuning in on Indian youth", throws up surprises. Kids in Bangalore don't think jeans are cool. Chennai turns uncommonly materialistic, Mumbai's disinclined to rebel, Kanpur and Lucknow are open to live-in relationships, while overall only 23 per cent subscribe to pre-marital sex! Threading these disparities is materialism, displayed by 70 per cent. Meet the I-me-my generation.
The common bond between the Madonna generation and the Pink Floyd one is the latter's line - "We don't need no thought control". But the older lot, with convenient amnesia over its own anarchic youth, turns apoplectic at the lobotomisation of its brood. Isms - consumerism, individualism, materialism - are damned as the subject of this preoccupation placidly marches into the next millennium, outnumbering other age groups. Not iconoclastic as much as irreverent, these youth shun plastic, favour forests (to remedy the legacy of their parents' ignorance), are wooed frantically through multimedia, work hard at their goals and play just as hard to propitiate the God of Self.
Unlike their angst-ridden western counterparts, India's Millennium Generation hasn't required to shout from rooftops to be heard. Says Sangeeta Gupta, associate director, research, MTV India: "Their value systems are Indian even if outward symbols are western. They're mature in their consumption of the West and their acceptance of the East. It's not infra-dig to choose swadeshi yet not singularly cool to sport anything western. Modernity's come about not by rebellion but by parents and children narrowing the generation gap to accommodate each other."
Parmesh Shahani, 23 and angry, launched freshlimesoda.com because "at 17, I'd realised we were inadequately represented. People said our lives were about posters, pop stars and crazy music, and we had no vehicle to set the record straight". Shahani, like other youth, decided not to get mad, but even. Three lakh hits later, freshlimesoda.com feels vindicated. Indian youth have been writing in, making Kargil and careers, religion and racism, abortions and academics their business. So while youth, all through history, have stood up to the rest of the world, the Y2K generation is uniquely positioned to stagger it. Says Suresh Bala, general manager, Channel V: "A major transition has been the replacement of idealism with acquisition. Complacency due to self-confidence, has displaced rebellion. Whatever the currency of its ideologies this group is completely peer-driven."
On the positive side, kids want to be in control. Negative, however, they're unwilling to be accountable. "Unlike earlier when parental influence was greater, kids from all backgrounds co-mingle to set their own rules," observes Meenakshi Madhvani, CEO, Carat Media Services India Ltd, that conducts youth surveys. They don't live in the past, have no regrets, lack guilt, are more intent on cutting losses and running. Governed by the here-and-now, their loyalty to anything, be it brands or relationships, is fleeting. "Attitudes have changed. Parents have become their kids' friends. Even consumerism, the plethora of choices, is a backlash of the parents' own repressive childhood."
Kids subscribe to the "my-closest-friends-are-my-parents" norm, reveals the MTV survey. "Friends are centre of all activities, often seen as brand advisors." Hence, these kids are "bullish on life, believe in rebelling with a cause, chant the mantra of marriage of choice (interestingly, more girls voice this), are keen on wearing what suits them, irrespective of fashion". The influence of TV is supreme, as is its reach in cities like Chennai, Kanpur, Lucknow where small screen transmits big aspirations.
And Cassandras carping over reading habits among youth may be discounted. Though TV viewership was 100 per cent among respondents, newspapers still commanded the attention of a 97 per cent, magazines of 65 per cent, novels 23 per cent. There's also information explosion through multimedia, though space scientist and educationist Smrutika Patil fears unfiltered information failing to give perspective is as devastating as an atom bomb.
This generation has already begun pushing politics off the front pages, believes Tariq Ansari, managing director, Mid-Day publications. "Youth is driving the agenda for most media. What they want and read is a key input into our editorial development plans. Young people are looking at the web intently, are quick adapters to new forms of media."
As comfortable with mithai as with McDonald's, with pai lagoo as with playing pool, they've employed tact instead of tantrum, deftly weaving their way around tradition. "They know what they want, how to get there," says Jessel Chagas-Pereira, 19, organiser of Mumbai's St Xavier's Malhar festival. "They don't want to be just engineers or doctors. But for most, academics are important even if they choose a completely unrelated career later on." Calling them "the luckier generation", Vijay Mukhi of the Mumbai chapter of the Internet Users Club, observes: "They read about young American success stories, about 40 per cent of Silicon Valley being Indians. They dream of making it big in our own country. At 18, they're fantasising about their first million, owning that Jaguar."
Father Godfrey D'Sa, director, Prafulta, an organisation which provides vocational guidance, confirms: "Their one question: how to make money. They equate success, happiness, fame, everything with money and they're looking for the fastest route to get there." Sixty per cent of the children he addresses are looking for a future in computers, irrespective of whether they're equipped for it. Adds Rashmi Bansal, editor, Just Another Magazine: "The Internet's changed everything. They might not have a home computer, but most have an e-mail account. Their ambition makes them juggle several things to enhance their bio-data. They create their own job opportunities by directly approaching institutions, not scanning papers for placement ads." JAM offers bright sparks summer placements. "Advertising, TV, media, computers - these are the hot options. They're no longer willing to settle for the traditional, boring, market research summer jobs."
The Millennium Generation not only wants to strike it rich, but strike it fast. Quips Shahani: "They're moving so fast that at 23, I already feel a gap of two generations with teenagers." For one weaned on Yeh dil maange more, on living life kingsize, Generation 2000 also knows when to call a craze to a halt. Their reverence for money means they weigh their purchases with a certain caution. Says Bansal: "There's no premium attached to international brands anymore. They listen to Hindi music, profess their admiration for Amitabh Bachchan, Tom Cruise in the same breath. There is a reverse chic trend in operation. Those who can afford branded stuff might actually buy Fashion Street stuff.It is cool."
Short-cuts are preferred, even in education. Parents, though splurging on education, don't question its quality, while gurus no longer venerate teaching as life's vocation. "The best brains in scientific research mourn that the infrastructure for research, among the world's best, fails to attract youth. It's no elevator to easy success." Agrees sociologist Dr Sharit Bhowmik of the Mumbai University: "Robert Martin says a society is normless when not just playing the game, but winning it becomes more important. " Individualism subsumes other "isms". Icons are varied - Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Sabeer Bhatia, Sachin Tendulkar, even Harshad Mehta, while Gandhi is an afterthought among those who won't be pinned down by role models. Bala, drawing the pyramid of youth, places the "cool dude" type, the self-confident trendsetter on top.
Exerting less influence because of greater individualism is the Buddha-in-waiting type, who believe in alternate lifestyles, cerebral pleasures. Then there's a third, the majority, the traditionalist type, who wear jeans for parties, salwars for weddings, have no major gripe with conventions, families, comfortable with dualism. Each group feeds off the other. Connecting with one links you with the rest. Doomsayers, who fear anarchy, need address only one group to channelise the rest.
Some media groups, like the Discovery Channel, are attempting this. At Mumbai's bustling Churchgate station, tiny tots plead against circus. Ecological awareness is the new mantra. Discovery summer contests reach 400,000 students (mainly Class 5 to 10) in over 1,000 schools, while its India Educator Guide supplements the syllabus, targeting 2,000 English, 200 Hindi medium schools. Says Jayesh Vaidya, its regional director: "Awareness of problems provide scope for rectifying them." Millennium Dreamers global awards of McDonald's India, in association with Unesco and the HRD ministry, will reward 8-15 year-olds engaged in creative and inspirational community service, with a dream for the future.
Kids today are politically correct, trying to clear up not just the plastic bag, but the mess created by their parents. Ecologist Bittu Sahgal predicts this will colour job decisions, even now finding it easy to mobilise one million signatures from 8-12-year-olds to save the tiger that the older generation is decimating.
Not all's hunky dory. Sex expert M.C. Watsa, while conducting a youth survey, found 76 per cent robberies being committed by the under-25, while a shocking 75 per cent visitors to a Pune STD clinic belonged to the 18-19 age group. Crime charts show supari killers emerging from colleges. Nadeem Nusrat, a youth Congress leader, worries that urban youth is not as politically conscientious as his rural cousin. "A college kid will drive kilometres for a night out, but not walk up to a booth to cast his vote. Since politicians do not speak their language, college kids prefer to attach themselves to ngos." Human rights, eco-awareness attract 80 per cent of the activists, a number that earlier veered towards college politics. The fragile attention span of young readers, thinks Ansari, will make newspapers like TV soundbytes, while youth's inordinate interest in glamour will be accommodated.
On the brighter side, Raell Padamsee, who teaches at her Little Actors' Club, sees irreverence as a questing mind's voracious need to know. Television's Americanised youth, removed elitist control of information. Market-driven economy will create a level-playing field where kids in the coming years will tackle problems with a long-term perspective instead of using the band-aid cure of yesteryears.No future government can negate this large slice, believes Madhvani. They're focused. They'll not tackle pollution because it saves an amorphous entity called the nation, but to save their own lungs. "They're like a tidal wave." Whether India in the coming millennium will ride it, or go under will depend on how it taps this power even as it swells.