The idea of youth in India is caught in stereotypes. On the one hand is the SOBO (south of Bombay) version, when three school friends want to catch up, they go for a three-week road trip to Spain—as in the movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. On the other hand, is the expletive mouthing, tattoo wearing, stereotype who needs beeping every other second — as in the television series MTV Roadies. Hidden somewhere, between these archetypes is the serious, bespectacled guy that we see in the ads by the IIT-JEE entrance preparation institutes.
It appears as if the reality of youth in India is far away from its portrayal in cinema, television and advertising. Most advertising targeted at youth too, paints a shiny, rosy picture. A quintessential youth ad is set in a college canteen with a group of friends (remember, research said that friends are the most important people in a youth’s life). Some foot tapping music, a guitar, a beanbag and maybe a basketball completes the picture. Most brands present a bubbly, frothy view of the life of Indian youth. Ads by several telecom brands, e-commerce players and youth-targeted apps fall in this bucket. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong in casting youth in a confetti-world; just that it’s an opportunity lost to say something real about their lives.
The truth is that in the country with the youngest population of the world, the reins of their own lives are not in the hands of the youth. Elected in the 12th Lok Sabha (2014), only 12 parliamentarians are below the age of 35. Contrast this with the fact that 65% of the country’s population is under 35. The situation doesn’t change much at the workplace. According to a report, only 8% of Indian CEOs are under the age of 40. The youth in India have little representation where it matters. Why else would you have rules that put the legal marriageable age at 21 and legal drinking age at 25? Why else would the police pick up 40 couples from hotels in Madh Island and Aksa on charges of indecency?
The common assertion that today’s youth are a heady cocktail of money, freedom, and sexuality might be a little out of place. An Outlook survey in December 2012 asked 18–35 year olds how old they were when they had sex for the first time. The average turned out to be 20, not 16, as we have been led to believe. It’s not easy being young in India. According to the 2011–12 National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, 16.3% of young male graduates in the age band of 15–29 years went unemployed. The rise in the number of suicides at IITs and other engineering institutes too points at the life that India’s young live.
Indeed, today’s youth in India is a practical generation. They aren’t living a life without a plan. They are working very hard towards a life with a plan. The youth in today’s India are more like Kabir ‘Bunny’ Thapar in the movie Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani who chooses his passion and career over his love. Across small town India, there are millions of young people toiling in various coaching institutes with a dream of gaining admission to the prestigious IITs, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) or other such institutes. There’s nothing more prominent in the cities of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar than the posters of coaching institutes for IITs and medical entrance exams. Yet this hard work, doggedness, and struggle has found little reflection in the popular culture of content or advertising narratives being peddled in the name of youth.
This understanding of youth has implications for us as marketers. What the youth of today need are platforms from which to voice their opinions and opportunities to implement their ideas rather than get stereotyped as “wayward”. Brands and businesses have a role to play in this. Brands today need to have a view on the social context of young people. Sitting on the sidelines and pretending that everything is hunky-dory comes across as fake. There are several issues, big and small, that today’s youth is battling each day. Brands need to put their weight behind the youth and not hide behind political correctness.
As a society, we must put more power in the hands of the young. The experience of our elders is valuable because it helps us get on the right track, but the energy and impatience of the young gets things done. We could certainly do better than 12 parliamentarians under the age of 35 and 8% of CEOs under the age of 40. Brands and businesses must lobby for this change of guard. We need to stop dodging the youth of this country—eulogising them at youth conferences and giving them a short shrift in real life.
The author is chief strategy officer, South & South East Asia, Grey