Learning to Read Social Change

Rama Bijapurkar / October 16, 2010


For example, how did consumption patterns change after World War II when the men came back to a changed and unfamiliar world, and the women had the upper hand because they had coped independently through the war? What were the consumption behaviour changes when women's participation in the workplace became the norm in America? Shared responsibility was forced on the men, and when men went to shop for the home or for the children, they did it quite differently from women. It struck me that in India, we have a lot of business strategy discussions in which social, demographic and lifestyle changes are listed. We, however, are yet to sharply define and quantify them, and then relentlessly push for the "so whats" that could be in a variety of areas. In middle-class urban India, with heavy traffic and great distances between home and workplace in big cities, many kids are growing up without seeing Daddy at all. They leave early for school, so does he, and he gets back late. Mother, who is usually educated and capable of dealing with the outside world, is on her own and in charge of the kids and the house most of the time. We still don't fully know what this means for how households run and what that, in turn, means for buying and consumption of things as diverse as family entertainment and food. Are there any special new opportunities and dying old ones because the family comes to life late at night? Many schools in bigger cities now also have a shift system, so even the morning school timing is not sacrosanct. Sometimes the implications of what's happening around us can be quite scary.

The management graduates from the Indian Institutes of Management often have a previous, equally hard-to-get-into engineering college degree, made possible only by excellent class 10 and 12 performance. Let's face it: most kids can't make it through all these hurdles if they lead normal teenage lives and flout mummy-daddy orders. Also they aren't going to get the marks if they use their creativity and imagination, and take any risks in the answers. The net result is that many of the top-flight management graduates India is turning out could be risk-averse, conformity-embracing, ambiguity-innocent and pressure-driven products. This, at a time when business needs the exact opposite in India. I often wonder if we would get a more healthy middle majority mainstream if we rejected the top 200 ranking kids and went for the next 200 .

The article mentioned at the beginning of this column talks of how in the old days productivity in a marriage was maximised when "he" went to work in the marketplace and "she" supported him by running the house. But now, since gadgets and expenditure are incurred on women's education and better control over woman's fertility, there's not much benefit to be had from a spouse specialising in homemaking. The "so what" of this is that the concept of marriage has changed from one built on the foundation of shared and complementary roles to one built on the foundation of hedonism, in which it isn't economic rules, but shared passions that drive spouse choice. Hence the old adage of "opposites attract" doesn't hold true any more. It's about being the other half of a "power couple", in which synergy and resonance are more important. In India, the economic maximisation model of marriage is alive and well, but because "we are like that only", there is a twist to it. Goddess EMI [equated monthly instalments] has brought even more pragmatism into marriages. To pay off the EMI, the woman has to work, the marriage has to stay. The more upper class you are, the larger the EMI, and the higher the "lifestyle I am used to" bar for divorce. The statistic of decreasing percentages of women working outside home in the higher-income households is easily explained by the "economic maximisation" model of marriage. He can earn a lot more per hour of unfettered working and her job fetters him with shared responsibility. So, she opts to stay at home with her huge qualifications, and work experience (because most upper-class women are well-educated and work for at least a while, ironically to boost their marriage market value). You can see the effect of this on school projects. All the intelligent and educated mothers are competing with each other, the projects are getting better and better, and the child is often a helpless bystander or errand boy!