National HRD

Taking Stock of the World of Young India

NHRD Network Journal - April, 2014

Leadership is about how people behave and what values and tendencies drive such behaviour. All behaviour has psychological, social and cultural foundations; and anyone attempting to influence leadership behaviour of a cohort or understand it better needs to understand the social environment in which the cohort grew up and the challenges it faces in life at this point in time. Needless to say this is the “baggage” that they will bring into the workplace that HR professionals need to be cognizant. But first, a necessary caution that has to be heeded by anyone seeking to lead young India or prepare young India to become better leaders:

Young India is not singular and homogeneous. It is very heterogeneous and the different segments of it are quite different from each other. Yes, all of them are a singular age cohort – liberalization children; born after 1991 and now entering the work force. But just as post liberalization Indian society has sharply fragmented into the haves and have nots, the cans and cannots, the happy upwardly mobile and the angry frustrated underbelly i.e. those who can seize the boons of liberalization and those who suffer-the-banes of liberalization – so too is young India. HR professionals will encounter all segments in the work force in one form or another and need to be able to recognize which segment they are dealing with and also know that one size of solution will not fit all.

There is Arrived, privileged young India which typically comprises the children of affluent and well-placed parents, who, income or socio-economic strata wise comprise the top 30 to 40% of urban India and about 10% of rural India. These are truly liberalization’s beneficiaries, who have an abundance and variety of higher education choices and career choices, irrespective of their educational attainments. They can join their parents’ business and take it forward or in a different direction, and many of them do; or they get a job in the traditional career spaces like doctor, lawyer, company executive, fund manager and so on; or opt for one of India’s new and burgeoning career space like those described in one of the newspaper’s career pages – RJ, VJ, party planner, script writer, games tester, sound artist, fashion designer or even things like food service, travel and hospitality etc. They can also set up their ‘own business’ and be entrepreneurs. For this segment, there are no limits except in the imagination, the globe is their playground and their parents are a supportive backbone to lean on. If they run into trouble or crash land, their parents are always there for them and the basics of decent living are taken care of.

There is another group too that is less privileged and cushioned but has joined the ranks of the “arrived”. Let’s call them “Arrived with struggle young India”. There is a significant chunk of young people who come from what could be described as “ordinary backgrounds” with parents who are white and blue-collar workers in lower middle level jobs. This group has fiercely competed their way to good colleges and now there are enough role models from within such backgrounds to fuel the growth of this group – provided the prices of education and coaching do not spiral beyond their reach and the absence of collateral-free loans continues.

Does this segment of the “arriveds” blaze new trails and reinvent things and reject the environment that has nurtured them? Far from it. They do blaze new trails, but the umbilical cord to the support system that they came from or to the old ways is never cut. Students at premier business schools will get impatient with old rules on some counts but are not willing to embrace new placement paradigms that are truly free market. They want the rules to be able to chafe against them but they are not revolutionaries. They are pragmatists testing the waters and negotiating for change within the confines of the established order. And it is here that the girls fight harder than the boys for their rights.

This is the group that Corporate India employs in its management cadre. Let’s not forget that fewer than 10% of employed Indians are employed in formal sector jobs.

Within the “arrived” young India is the creamy layer, a subset from where a lot more formal corporate sector recruitment is done – the better engineer + MBA from good colleges which are hard to get into. First of all, it is depressing to see how few non-engineer MBAs we have in India. The reasons provided are many including the better quality and quantity of engineering colleges as compared to other kinds of colleges. Good law school or architecture college or even CAs don’t do their MBAs as much because now they have a lot more opportunities in their own chosen fields. But diversity of mind wiring because of educational training has become a casualty here. Why are they risk averse? Young people who have ‘made it’ in terms of good colleges for engineering and MBA or have put their lives on hold from Standard 9 onwards and the odds of getting through competitive exams are so great that you cant afford the luxury of experimental answers or experimental study procedures. They have also been nurtured carefully like hothouse flowers by their parents, given the right-controlled environment to help them cope with the pressure and the workload. Add this risk aversion to the lack of diversity emanating from left-brained engineers and you have a cocktail that makes you worry about future leadership challenges corporate India will face in a world that is famously described as VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). And a business environment where innovation is the mantra. I would prepare future leaders by getting them to complete their incomplete education – get introduced to the world of literature and philosophy and history and social sciences. Make them rounder human beings who recognize that two plus two can be four or twenty-two or zero. Their interpersonal and social skills are quite high for the mainstream, as many of them have moved away from home at young ages and made friends and got support groups for themselves in a peer group that is immensely competitive by nature – or is it by training and conditioning at home? There is a small ill-adjusted and beleaguered group that cannot cope with the pressure of all this, which gets written about and which signals societal distress. But, by the large, this group of privileged cushioned corporate choosing young India are a curious mix of hothouse flowers in their need for good environments for them to flourish and of hardy jungle weeds with survival and social skills and high learnability and adaptability. How this cocktail is moulded for leadership that is relevant to the times ahead is for HR professionals to decide.

The entrepreneurs are an aspirational and growing lot in this group. In premium B schools, the successful entrepreneur is the role model. And the young entrepreneurs are persistent in their search for mentors. Not for them is the idea that the gen before them had known nothing about the new world. They want to access the wisdom, not the directives.

All of Young India are people in a hurry. They have put too many years of their lives on hold getting ready for the tough world, and not having much fun in their teenage or early 20s. They are not in a mood to wait and get more trained. Corporate employers realize that and are already adapting to atomise organizations and give quicker movement upwards. VCs funding young entrepreneurs are in a hurry themselves so it’s a good match with impatient entrepreneurs. It’s the family businesses that have a tougher time but many carve out a piece or facilitate a new entrepreneurship opportunity for the young people to earn their experience and make their mistakes.

This good narrative of Young India applies not just to the privileged and the well educated but also to a section of “modestly educated but have connections or drive”. They study in average institutions, they have average degrees, do some courses, but have higher degrees of social confidence. These are children of what is India 2, which serves upper class India 1. These young people have above average exposure and their family has connections with India 1 to get them an entry into a line of work or apprenticeship or a contract job that can give them an entry into the world of well-paid work.

Taking all to get to a quarter of all young people, about 65 million by my estimate. There is a bad narrative that applies to the rest. About 200 million of the 15 to 24 years olds have been described by analysts as “Unskilled, Unemployed, Angry: India tomorrow headed for disaster?” and as “a generation of functionally uneducated Indians being churned out in a fourth rate education system” (for further references to these quotes, see the chapter Generation Next angst, in my book A Never-Before World). Those among them with exceptional chutzpah or drive manage to go into some business of their own.

But for the rest of the “left behind, angry Young India”, largely poor and unskilled, struggling for contacts or sipharish, it is unemployment staring them in the face or any contract work they can get big or small. Recent data on unemployment rates of graduates speaks for itself. The newspapers are full of incidents – and I shall not recount them – of people with graduate degrees applying for peon’s jobs and, as another observer pointed out, the angry young man is back. Many of them have no role models and no authority figures at home, a significant number from the poorer populous states have absentee fathers who are migrants, and live in areas with poor law and order. All of them have aspiration and see the world of the haves around them. Leadership for them is a whole different discussion than for the educated young India, and no skilling initiative or missions are treating this problem holistically. Nor perhaps are the HR managers of the contract labour era reading their anger holistically.

There are certain circumstances that are common to all of them. Young India is the liberalization generation. Born after 1991, they have seen more change in the world around them than any Indian generation before them. They therefore know how to cope with change per se, but also know that you have to look out for yourself and not grow roots so deep into anything that you cannot uproot and move when you have to.

It is also the generation that has been told that earning more and acquiring more and aspiring to earn and acquire is good thing. But it is also a generation with vastly different job opportunities available (or not) to different segments of it to match its aspiration. It's also the generation that has had no job security, even if it had a job. Every generation has to pay a price for something. There were the generations that paid the price for getting independence. And the generations after it who paid the price for nation building. This generation of liberalization children has paid the price of integration with the global economy and all the volatility and shocks that go with it - both economic and social.

They also are children of a troubled society, struggling with new inequalities, with new power balances, with old value systems and rituals under severe questioning and the new ones not yet created. They are the children of uncertainty and negotiation.

They are the children of a country caught between a 21st century economy and a 18th century society.

They also are a generation whose ethical compass has not been strengthened by all that they see. Coalition politics of negotiation on principles and stands, absence of clearly stated ideologies and principles of those in power, rampant corruption, valuation and profit maximizing short termism from companies manifest in increasing contract workers and variable pay (you eat what you kill), no social security and high levels of exploitativeness.

And as a generation they seem to cry out for authority figures who will sort out the mess and create an enabling environment for them to flourish.

There are also certain phenomena that apply to society as a whole that applies to young India as well. The two that I would like to flag are decreasing 'power distance' which is the degree to which the less powerful accept that power is unequally divided and the social pressure coming from the visible increase in education, legal rights, assertiveness and power sharing by women while the men have not been conditioned or prepared to make way for that. So sexual harassment and rape laws have been strengthened, but the discourse at home on gender equality and respect has not caught up. (For a more detailed discussion on these, please see chapters on "It’s her turn", and "society and culture", in my new book A Never-before world.

Decreasing power distance plus the anonymity of the digital world makes the employee-employer relationship different and more complex. An IT company that prided itself on the law of omerta that it expected all employees to maintain on company matters found to its chagrin that its young work force were discussing increments and other matters affecting them on social media with peers from rival companies. They set up a "come talk the ceo" digital hangout but very few people turned up. HR was struggling to calibrate what level of upset in the real world the sharpness of comments in the anonymous digital world translated to. Decreased power distance also explains why arranged marriage requests from young people are on the rise. They know that their parents cannot force them to marry someone against their wishes. Yet most young people do believe "my parents know best". So that seems to be their ideal - authority figure but accessible and seen to be competent and wise and "on my side".


Young India is a large component of Indian society and is changing the way circumstances and society changes. For example a ten-year rule of a clean authoritarian regime with absolute power taking the reigns of this country and being directive will shape India's gen y differently, both good and bad. A ten-year rule of leadership and governance of expediency and pragmatism with continuous erosion of the moral authority of institutions will shape it differently. Different kinds of affirmative action or quotas will, and already have, shaped the work force making it different from previous generations. The decrease in the government servant middle class (bank officers, civil services, armed forces, railways, etc.) whose children formed a large chunk of the corporate work force and the increase in the children of the new mercantile and business middle class will bring a new set of value systems as the mainstream ones in the work place. HR practitioners need to see the surround far more widely than perhaps they do now when building policy and strategy and perhaps need to re evaluate their entire tool kit and see how good it is for shaping and enabling leadership of all segments of the new generation. Transplanting best practice from elsewhere will not suffice. Learning from the best and creating a new body of knowledge on leadership of and for India's next gen is how the HR community can serve the country. This is the need of the hour. Holistic ways for harnessing the abundant human potential that we have.