They know they are called the ‘selfie generation’—the moniker often being a subtle way of hinting at their selfishness. Even when I, Me, Myself ride their existence, it is not that the young Indians are not bothered about the world they inhabit. They know how countries at war in faraway land affect them, how eco-anxiety is real and the echo chambers they dwell in their virtual avatar aren’t the real deal.
“The most common refrain is that they are selfish. But it isn’t true,” says Farishta Dastur Mukerji, a Kolkata-based psychotherapist who works with young people across educational institutions to create policies on mental health, critical interventions and training.
In Mukherji’s words, the issues that concern the young range from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war to homeless people on the streets. Social issues, cultural norms, religious extremism, and political agendas are all matters that affect them deeply. “They are also much more opinionated than any previous generation. It is because they are so much more aware and have the means to stay informed,”
It’s the most technologically-immersed lot, the generation that is growing up seeing the best of opportunities and the worst of crises around. And yet, for most young Indians, the country with all its flaws and merits is the one that they throw bouquets and brickbats at. “To me, India means home,” says Prarthana Batra, a 17-year-old from Delhi, who wrote Getting the Bread: the Gen Z Way of Success last year. Avyukt Dev Goel, a 12-year-old studying in Gurgaon, adds, “There exists two India—the privileged lot and the homeless ones.
And both are trying to co-exist.” In a 2020 survey undertaken by the Delhi-based Centre for Catalyzing Change as part of its Youth Bol campaign, it was revealed that health and well-being, besides access to technology and information, stood out as over-riding concerns for the young in India. The campaign surveyed over one lakh young people for three age cohorts—10 to 14 years, 15 to 19 years and 20 to 24 years—from across geographies in the country.
According to Bengaluru-based sociologist GK Karanth, the younger generation is more well-informed and knows the means by which the information has to be acquired. “For us, it took several years to make up our mind when we were young, but a youth of today is more or less clear as to what she or he would like to be as an adult,” he says.
This “clarity of thought” along with putting “self at the centre” is the overriding characteristics that define the young today. A peek into the things that matter the most to this generation throws some light on what young Indians want.
Empowerment is the Goal
Kerala has nine women among its 14 district collectors, a rarity in the country. And yet if you were to ask Namrutha T Ajay to pinpoint an issue close to her heart, without a second thought, her answer is women empowerment. Even though the glass ceiling is being broken, the 14-year-old from Trissur knows how deceptively steeped in patriarchy is her state. “Age-old traditions and patriarchy go hand in hand,” she says. Her role model countries are the Scandinavian lot. “They always top their happiness index. Over there, they respect women and corruption is at the lowest,” she points out.
A sentiment echoed by Diva Naik from Vadodara, who believes conversation around gender can help young people feel less ashamed about their bodies. “Why are we ashamed of talking about menstruation? Girls in my class feel embarrassed about it. This irks me, this lack of discourse around sexuality,” says Diva, 11.
Her frustration on the surface may seem not too big but the implications of not being taught about sex education in school stand out when they get older. Ask Shriya Gupta, a 20-year-old from Bengaluru, who believes any meaningful conversation around sex or mental education must start at a young age which is usually not the case in Indian educational institutions.
She hopes to build a network of young people who work for gender equality as well as for mental health. “I want opportunities for women to be more available and equal. I want us to fight through the patriarchal and sexist cultures and traditions,” she says. Shriya also hopes to mobilise the youth to bring in a change. “India has tremendous potential. There are young children in villages with so much talent but there is little awareness around opportunities,” she says.
Entrepreneurship in Mind
If you think selfie is the term that defines the generation, then it is also a cohort that is growing up in a fast-changing start-up landscape. To the young and ambitious, there are few things as fascinating as the world of building your own business. “Each generation has its own version for inspiration,” says Mukherji. Undoubtedly, the constant reinvention of the hustler inspires the present lot to build their own enterprise.
Take for instance Delhi resident Devasya Rana. At 11, he knows he is going to build a business that will provide employment to many. “Instead of working for someone, I want to be my own boss. And also generate employment,” says the son of an advocate. A maths and science Olympiad champion, Devasya has a clear-cut academic path defined ahead of him. After a degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, he aspires to pursue information technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “It’s a dream to study at MIT. And then return to India, start my own tech firm, a start-up providing software solutions. The way technology is shaping up, the future is bright in this area,” he says.
One Life, One Planet
Nikita Dhawan is part of a generation that has only known a world in which the internet is supreme and fast fashion is a way of life. But her goals are not part of the norm. It was in March 2020, when the pandemic put people under lockdown, that this 16-year-old started to vociferously discuss animal abuse and fight for the plight of animals. The teen activist was particularly saddened by the ordeal of Shankar, the tusker in Delhi Zoo, who was leading a solitary existence after the death of its companion in 2005.
She runs a non-profit, Youth for Animals, which is an initiative to raise awareness around animals. Her public interest litigation for Shankar’s cause is pending in the Delhi High Court and the next hearing is slated for July. Her demand is to release Shankar into a wildlife sanctuary that shelters other African elephants of its kind. “There is a 2009 circular issued by the Central Zoo Authority which had banned exhibition of elephants in zoos. And yet there is no implementation,” says Nikita.
Wildlife is close to Devasya’s heart too. “How can we ill-treat animals?” he asks. When the news of people abandoning their pets and street animals going hungry during the pandemic was doing rounds, Devasya along with his friends started giving food to the animals around his neighbourhood. He wants Indians to care more about the planet. “We need to learn from countries like Australia and encourage public transport. Can’t we have dedicated lanes for cyclists? After all, air pollution affects everyone,” he states.
Climate change is not a passing phenomenon. “It is here and we are experiencing it currently. Even when I am privileged to sit in an air-conditioned room, I know the impact of heatwaves in our lives,” Avyukt says. These young adults know that they are the ones who will be facing the worst consequences of not caring for the planet. Amulya Gowda, a 14-year-old from Mysuru, wants laws to be more stringent against offenders of the planet.
“We must be more mindful of our consumption and keep our environment clean. We cannot afford to take climate change lightly,” asserts Amulya. Caring for animals is another of her concerns, so much so that she plans to study veterinary science.
In a global survey led by Bath University along with research group Avaaz, it was revealed that 60 percent of young people were extremely worried about climate change. The survey carried out last year highlighted that 45 percent felt climate change affected their daily lives.
“The figures aren’t surprising,” says Avyukt. The impact human choices have on the environment is an issue Avyukt has been talking about with his friends. He has been instrumental in convincing his friends and family against single-use plastic. “I got biodegradable bags stitched and I even can tell people where to buy them online.”
An Inclusive World
Any new generation brings with it new ways of thinking. “Old beliefs and practices either become obsolete or are reinforced in a stronger way,” says Mukherji. For Amulya, social inequality is the most pressing concern. “Why do we have so much poverty? We need to bridge this divide and make it a more inclusive world,” she says.
Karanth explains how the younger generation today does not easily fit into the templates of what “tradition” dictates. “But they have the compulsions to prepare themselves either to adapt to them or lead a life at variance to them—whether they are matters of what they do in life for a vocation, the food they eat or the person they live with.”
Not surprising then that inclusivity means living in peace with differences—be it around religion, region, sexuality or class. “It doesn’t have to be big actions. Even small changes like more accepting
towards people different than you is a stepping stone towards inclusivity,” says Shreya Jha. She is all of 14 and yet utilising her summer vacations not sitting in front of a device but reading about ways she can start her own enterprise for the underprivileged. “Our artisans never get the due price for the effort they put in creating an item. I want to build a portal where only products from the NGOs which represent marginalised communities are sold,” says Shreya who lives in Anand, Gujarat.
Tech & Consumption
If the talk is around the youth, can technology and consumption be not discussed?
In a study conducted by computer security software firm McAfee in 10 countries in May, it was found that Indian children are the youngest to reach mobile maturity. As per the study, smartphone use among Indian children in the age group of 10 to 14 years is 83 percent, which is 7 percent higher than the international average of 76 percent.
It’s not surprising that the youth (a cohort ranging from dependency to adulthood) remains one of the largest consumer bases for gadgets, gaming, social media, streaming platforms, and so on. “It’s an integral part of our lives. More so after the pandemic and online learning,” says Shreya who enjoys browsing through online shopping websites. “It also gives me ideas about what to have in my own app when I build one,” she adds.
In 2018, Kaspersky Lab, a cyber-security and anti-virus provider, studied what children watched, listened to, purchased, and searched for online. Of the 60,000 children surveyed, the majority—as much as 40.68 percent—searched for communication or social media. Though these are global figures, they are indicative of a largely Indian milieu too. “A decade back, there was hardly anything called influencers. Now they know that careers are built upon social media following,” says Mukherji.
Diva understands how tech dependency is often equated to drug addiction but she believes not everything around tech dependency should be looked down upon. “I love to sketch and paint. The internet helps me to learn about it from different sources and I can research so many things around it,” she adds.
In every decade, young people develop their own culture and values, and displace those developed by the generation that preceded theirs. Hip-hop was addictive as was cable television. Now it is the internet. “Technology to me is the pathway to efficiency and enhancement,” says Prarthana. In a world swiftly marching into the metaverse, tech is neither an aberration nor an addiction. “Rather with NFTs, cryptocurrency and the metaverse, technology is just getting started at being more intertwined in our lives,” she adds.
To sum it up, Karanth says the young are spelling it out clear and concise. “They belong to a generation that has an opinion on practically everything—consequently there is a milieu with multiple perspectives. Yet, unlike the older ones, they are not confused. Instead, they are much more focussed,” he elaborates.
Now more than ever, young people are vocal about their choices and demands from their motherland. They may inundate their social media with selfies or converse with emojis but they aren’t ashamed of caring about themselves, are ready to acknowledge differences and believe in the strength that comes from inclusivity. From social justice to climate change, in this world of the young, change is the only consistent thing.
When she was 16, Melithafa joined Project 90 by 2030, which aims to reduce South Africa’s carbon emissions by 90 percent. Last year, at the age of 19, she represented her country at the World Economic Forum and is part of the youth voice in several national and international panels on climate change.
At 11, he is spreading positivity through his initiative ‘Race to Kindness’ that supports kindness projects in his community. A Texas, US, resident, Jean started this initiative with the $500 prize money he earned at National Kindness Speech Contest when he was just nine.
Currently the CEO of Hatch Technologies, Jaggi started working with environmental and energy technologies at the age of 13. When he was 15, he began working with alternative energy sources and a year later he started working in a lab at the University of Texas, Dallas.
In 2020, Rao became the first person to receive Time magazine’s ‘Kid of the Year’ designation when she was all of 14. Besides her credentials as an American inventor and scientist, she was awarded as a Laureate of the Young Activists Summit at UN Geneva last year.
An American YouTube personality, author and LGBTQ rights activist, Jennings is one of the youngest publicly documented people to be identified as a transgender. At the age of 13, she founded Purple Rainbow Tails, a company in which she fashions rubber mermaid tails to raise money for transgender children.
Lessons to Learn
Speaking up isn’t disrespectful
Don’t expect them to nod their heads through whatever is said to them. They argue, question, and need convincing to believe in what is doled out to them in the name of tradition or beliefs. They aren’t afraid to express their opinions and are the most vocal generation.
Tech to Go
Technology is their answer to everything from shopping to therapy, to maintaining relationships and investments in the stock market. They record and share the banal moments of their day on social media. Tech is their slave rather than the other way round.
Caring for Others
Selfie generation doesn’t mean not caring for others. Be it for animals or the planet, minorities or the less privileged, the young want an inclusive world where resources are shared.
Imperfect and Cynical
Being cynical or focused on own goals isn’t so bad. After all, only if you pursue your goals can you help others. Not easily trusting others or trying to do everything on their own is their road to independence. They demand authenticity even when it is an imperfect experience.
“Age-old traditions and patriarchy go hand-in-hand in Kerala. Take, for example, Scandinavian countries, they always top their happiness index. Over there, they respect women and corruption is at the lowest” - Namrutha T Ajay 14, Trissur, Kerala
“Technology to me is the pathway to efficiency and enhancement. Rather with NFTs, cryptocurrency and the metaverse, technology is just getting started at being more intertwined in our lives" - Prarthana Batra 17, Delhi
“We must be more mindful of our consumption and keep our environment clean. We cannot afford to take climate change lightly” - Amulya Gowda 14, Mysuru
“Instead of working for someone, I want to be my own boss. And also generate employment” - Devasya Rana, 11, Delhi
“There exists two India—the privileged lot and the homeless ones. And both are trying to co-exist”
- Avyukt Dev Goel 12, Gurgaon
“There is a 2009 circular issued by the Central Zoo Authority which had banned exhibition of elephants in zoos. And yet there is no implementation” - Nikita Dhawan, 16, Delhi. Runs a non-profit Youth for Animals, an initiative to raise awareness about animals
“Our artisans never get the due price for the effort they put in creating an item. I want to build a portal where only products from the NGOs which represent marginalised communities are sold.” - Shreya Jha 14, Anand, Gujarat
“I want opportunities for women to be more available and equal. I want us to fight through the patriarchal and sexist cultures and traditions" - Shriya Gupta, 20, Bengaluru
“Why are we ashamed of talking about menstruation? Girls in my class feel embarrassed about it. This irks me, this lack of discourse around sexuality” - Diva Naik, 11, Vadodara