How Graduate Unemployment (in Kerala) is Changing

As employment becomes unfeasible, many graduates actively try to not get a job

I happened to visit an engineering college in south-central Kerala to help with campus placements for a small IT company. I was expecting things to be how they were when I was graduating: classrooms full of anxious students with lots of questions, expectations, etc. But what I found was the opposite: indifferent, disinterested students, many of whom were shooed in by teachers to barely fill half a room. It almost seemed like they didn’t want to get a job! No, it was not a one-off thing but the manifestations of a trend that turns we’ve been thinking about the youth and employment in India on its head. There has been a lot of talk about companies unable to find people to fill their open positions and at the same time the frightening unemployment spectre India faces for its youth. Of course, we all know the stripped to the bone story of Btech graduates in India being generally unemployable as they lack domain knowledge, skills and etc., which one could easily surmise to be the cause for both unemployment and talent crunch. However, there is another unexplored angle to this. Contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of openings in IT companies in Kerala, but they are finding it extremely hard to fill those positions. It is not because they can’t find competent applicants, but because they can’t find applicants at all. Has anyone ever considered that the kids actually do not want to be employed?

The Winds of Change of the Neo-Liberal World

Yes, it seriously looks like there are a large mass of young graduates these days who do not want employment, at least not immediately once they graduate, instead, they seem to be happy to continue under their parents’ wings, take it easy, travel, enjoy life and wait and watch what life brings them, as if they were living in Europe, while it seems like a lot of parents also do not pressurise their kids to get jobs as well. All this goes against the grain of every established societal norm we have been brought to believe until now. This is a recent trend and seems to be curiously mostly limited to Kerala and especially visible in the Btech stream, which is all but dead now, because no one wants to be an engineer as it does not pay any more. Kerala has always been notorious for educated unemployment as our fathers’ generations struggled for jobs after college due to the absence of opportunities in the state. Today, their children’s generations still exhibit graduate unemployment, but out of choice, because they and their parents are prosperous enough! If you think something like this too fantastical to happen, it is not.

Let me put this straight up front on the table: hardly anyone wants to get into information technology (IT) jobs (which is a good thing). Kids these days are well informed about the state of the Indian IT industry and decide accordingly. “Get into IT? For what?” I was told, “To end up working like donkeys for the business owners to mint money, and only to only be kicked out at a moment’s notice in the name of cost savings? Not to mention the general pointlessness and stagnation of IT work, along with insane hours, terrible stress, politics, diseases. Let us not even talk about the pay, which is so ridiculous that it is almost like you’re working for free.” So that’s that. Who would want to join an industry where the only certainty is that you will become redundant in a couple of years and will lose your job and career? Some are ready to work, provided the calling company is large and rich, or if Zuckerberg personally comes calling. Joining small companies for work is absolutely out of the question, mostly for anyone. This is one reason why companies aren’t able to fill their technical positions, but that is only one side of the story and is one that IT companies solely brought on their heads themselves with their policies.

It isn’t that they just want to not join IT, but they don’t want to work anywhere, and especially not in private companies. Graduates do not want to be employed because it makes no sense to. Having seen or experienced little hardship and lived in utter comfort all their lives with no want, would they want to give it all up, including the 1.5 lakh plus motorcycle they were commuting to college on and move to a strange city, live in cramped shared accommodation and do soul-crushing work for 15,000 bucks a month, which will require an additional 15,000 from their parents for bare minimum sustenance, with no guarantee of any progression in life? Would you give up your cushy job for one that will demand double the work at only 1/4th of the salary with no perks? In the words of a parent: “If he stays at home, we will save at least 15,000 more than what if he goes for a job.” In simpler words, falling wage levels have made it senseless for today’s privileged youth to be employed, at all. What sense does it make for one to chose a way of life that will result in an actual fall in their standards of living? Jobs are not hard to come by, but wages that ensure a standard of living comparable to what these young people were accustomed to, are. It suddenly looks like trying to get employment itself makes no sense. “You cannot realise your dreams by working. We see very well what you IT people are achieving by working 12 hours a day“, they say. You really cannot blame those kids.

Instead, they seem to be rather fixated on a fantastical or romantically illusory ideal perception of how life should be, in line with what they imagine it to be in the mindscapes they create of it. One of those that all the young today seem to want to do is to buy (big and expensive) motorcycles – Royal Enfields, KTM Dukes, Yamahas, Suzukis – and go on (long and winding) trips. (Cars aren’t as popular as they are expensive to maintain and run, though numbers car trippers are no less). “The feeling of freedom motorcycles give you is incredible“, they say. “We’ve just gotten out of college and its grind, let us enjoy for some time, no? We’ll look for jobs later“. Ask around. One in two homes with a young man will have witnessed some sort of agitation for a Duke, Yamaha or an Enfield. The kids of today seem to be living in a Dulquer Salman movie with an Amal Neerad film background score. And of course, they are all hooked to their smartphones, but so is everyone else. The next thing is marriage: unlike earlier generations who waited to be financially stable before they got married, the very first thing most kids, guys more than girls, in fact, want to do as soon as they get out of college is to get married! (I can understand the motorcycling thingy, but this makes no sense!)

Why is Employment Becoming Unfeasible?

By the turn of the century, Indian youngsters were suddenly presented with a radically new kind of employment possibility: international-style corporate careers in new age fancy private sector industries of IT/ITES, BPO, telecom, banking, retail, airlines etc, offering not just unheard-of salaries but also glitz, glamour, great wealth and fortune, and easy foreign opportunities, private company jobs suddenly became the default option for youngsters across degree streams, courses and backgrounds, riding on the glamour of which did the Btech mania flourish. However, 20 years later, the endless stream of graduates and the basic philosophy of cost arbitration on which the Indian outsourcing industry was built kept entry salaries low while automation technologies eliminated jobs across the spectrum, all the while when costs of living increased drastically. When I started by so-called career in 2006, my first take-home salary was Rs.12,500. Today the take-home salary of an equivalent fresher remains about the same 15,000 it was a decade earlier. Being a salaried tech worker does not pay any more, financially or careerwise, while a generation of Btech Victims and their horror stories have prompted a mass abandonment of engineering as the choice for undergraduate degrees, ending the Btech mania.

This wage depression or the trend of salaries not matching up the living costs is a global phenomenon, a direct outcome of the events of 2007 and the Great Recession of 2008, the culmination of decades of globalised neo-liberal crony-capitalistic economic policy that ensured that a few ultra-rich people control a majority of the wealth in the world while everyone else gets poorer. As the fourth industrial revolution is taking hold and as automation and bots take over the workforce, we seem to be headed for a truly dystopian future, where all the wealth of the world is controlled by a super-elite few, the rest of the world their (nearly slave) labour. The world is getting poorer, and it might only get worse for our children.

In these circumstances, it is no wonder that for those who are bothered about these things, the long-term aim is simply stability and security:  banking or government jobs, family businesses or try to get married abroad. Tens of thousands suit up to prepare for the battles of Bank, PSC, UPSC and other competitive examinations or post “groom/bride working abroad preferred” in matrimonial sites, especially girls. Incidentally, women also make up the majority of applicants for public competitive examinations. However, the core of this trend seems to be one of privilege. The kids (or rather, their parents) are rich enough to afford to not being employed and to pursue other things instead, bringing the romanticised vision that all youth always have about life, to life, and enjoying it on the lines of their counterparts in more privileged countries do, like the bikes. Yes, the trend of the youth shunning employment is indicative that the “lost generation” trend is alive in Kerala, too. And the reason for this is the same as that of the developed world, the privilege enjoyed by a large section of Kerala society.

What is this Privilege We Are Talking About?

Every generation frowns at the fancies and functions of its youth, considering them spoilt and irresponsible. At first sight, this might seem to be the result of the same judgemental viewpoint, but this time it is different. The youth of every generation for the past century took it upon themselves to land a job as soon as they attained sufficient age and qualification, to secure themselves financially and “settle” as per the established capitalistic working norms of our times, which dictate that human beings exist to learn, find employment and earn money, failing in which you’re a loser who doesn’t deserve to live. The stories of struggles like those our fathers’ generations went through to land a job are epic stories of survival, well documented as movies from those times. However, along with everything else, the rules of the worlds and times of T.P. Balagopalan M.A. no longer apply today, as the circumstances that governed those days no longer exist. The youth today are still educated and unemployed as their fathers were, but the difference is that today, they can afford to be unemployed.

Over the past 20 years, Kerala has seen a dramatic rise in the prosperity of its people. This is, unlike widely believed, not because of migration and inward remittances alone, but that combined with an educated populace and the timely oil boom, along with Kerala’s not-so-widely known traditionally extremely wealthy landed gentry (cash crops, spices) and trader classes of its central and northern districts whose riches long predate the Gulf boom, in addition to the welfare state and the state’s overstaffed government sector, thanks to which entire legions of kids, today’s graduates, grew up in relative prosperity and comfort. Brought up only “to study and get a job”, their parents shielded them from real life and made all hard life choices for them, pampering and spoiling them with everything they asked for.  For instance, the other day I heard a story where the kid convinced the parents that a bike will help him study more utilising the time he saves by not waiting for and commuting in public buses (yeah, right). Kids even in rural Kerala today drive or ride their own vehicles to attend undergraduate college, while in cities these can include luxury cars, turning engineering college surroundings huge parking lots. In my time, there were a grand total of maybe 10 motorcycles in the entire college of 500+. Let us not even talk about gadgets etc. (Putting these high-powered machines in the hands of hormone-fuelled youngsters is not always a good idea, which a lot of times end up like with this 235 hp monster in the hands of a 20-year-old, but that is another topic).

People always expect the future to be a linearly upward graph with today as the starting point, or that everything ever will be as it is today, only incremented. In Kerala, people thought that opportunities for migration to Arabian states would exist forever, at least for another generation, just IT and H1B and prices for second-hand apartments. This is called the Perpetuity Trap, falling into which is causing a lot of heartburn for a lot of people.

A lot of people fell into the above perpetuity trap and expected things for their kids to be just as it was for them as they were growing up. They thought a “good education” guaranteed “good jobs” and a “good life” for their children, and a lot of others were bought up under the assurance and assumption that they would follow their fathers and uncles to the Gulf. “For you to lead a life better than us“, they said. But today, as they have grown up, the rules have changed, including the “study hard and get a job” one. Geopolitical changes have made the chances of the kids following their elders abroad bleak as well. The hapless kids now look at continuing to stay under their parents’ wings for the foreseeable future, not much different from the current trend of western kids staying with their parents well into their thirties. They really don’t know any other way as they haven’t seen or experienced life, and many believe that gadgets, bikes, cars and unending pocket money is all that there is to life. Maybe, this is why a lot of these kids want to do is to get married, to carry forward their romantic notion of life (or maybe they are looking at dowry).

This is not to say that everyone in this age group is such. Of course, there are lakhs of youngsters who are anxious to land jobs and to secure their future, especially those coming from financially weaker backgrounds, battling against all odds, especially girls, who are fortunately not as spoiled as the boys. Also, most people would consider this as a “bad trend”. The reality is that there are no good trends or bad trends, but only those indicative of the socio-economic conditions of the particular time periods they’re measured. “Good” and “Bad” are only metaphors given to those indicators by people judging them from their viewpoints, affected by preconceived notions, prejudices and confirmation bias, especially those schooled in older, more rigid philosophies of how life has to be led. It is easy for those who blame the “vagaries of spoiled Millennial youth” of their misgiving to conveniently forget that it was they themselves, in their anxiety of preparing them to be nothing more than bots in the employment circus, who taught their children to be indulgent by pampering and spoiling them no end and refusing to saddle them with even the tiniest responsibilities.

Changing Times Call for Change in Times

Now, apart from all this, if I were to only chastise and censure these youngsters on riding bikes and going on trips, I would only come across as an enormous hypocrite, liar and asshole. The old only too fast and too often forget their own youth while shaking the finger at their young ones. A long time ago, when we graduated from engineering, we were expected to find jobs pronto. Any other course of action was impossible and unimaginable. There was no concept of “taking time off to travel and enjoy” back in the early 2000s. It was something exotic and fantastic that was simply not practical. We did dream of such escapades, though, but they remained precisely that, dreams. “You want to ride a motorcycle all the way to Wayanad? Why? What’s the point? Go find a job first!” was what one would hear. We were tied down to one city or place, with meagre incomes and strict budgets. And nobody had their own vehicles. Even if we had, neither those vehicles or roads were any good, most of today’s flat four and six-lane highways were bumpy, undivided two-lane roads, trying to do a Dulquer Salman on which would’ve been not just utter stupidity but suicide, reserved for adventure sports enthusiasts. So, when I see today’s kids taking time off” after their education to pursue what they think is worthwhile, from travelling to creating short films and other things, I feel kind of happy for them, for being able to escape from the drudgery of the world’s formulaic methods of how life has to be played out, living the dreams what we couldn’t, even if it is on dad’s money. It is good, at the time.

Every generation will do better than their parents“, or, that children will grow up to surely earn more, save more and in general lead better and richer lives than their parents, was a rule we all believed to be given and granted. However, as the world advances and the rates at which things change has reached dizzying levels, what were thought to be unalterable truths or rules of the way of life just a couple of decades ago are being dumped, leaving humanity confused, disoriented and bewildered. Thanks to wage depression and shrinking employment opportunities, the Millennials of today will be for the first time when a working generation unaffected by war or calamity has ended up poorer than their parents. And this includes Indian Millennials, the current Btech generation we were discussing, too, who will live on the wealth their parents created. This is where this trend of youngsters shunning employment that does not provide them with economic mobility they aspire for becomes important, as it presents an interesting shift in how employment itself is being viewed by younger generations.

Anyway, this trend, which is now a global phenomenon, must prompt us to rethink our concepts of employment and its means and ends in these times when it looks like “working to earn a living” does not seem an attractive option to accomplish ones’ dreams anymore, but seems to gravitate towards eternal debt, indentureship and slavery instead. What at all is the point of employment and the economy in general, if it fails to uplift living standards of the people, and in many cases actually regresses it? Should the point of our lives be only to “work”, no matter what the outcome is, even if it will only make us poorer? Shouldn’t “employment” be a means for the upliftment of the standards and quality of life of all people, rather than to satisfy the economic greed and consumption urges of a few? Unlike what some people would like to think, “working” and be satisfied whatever pittance one gets should not be the aim of one’s life. If humanity is not to regress into the dusty dystopia repeatedly being featured in too many Hollywood movies these days, we need to relook the basic concepts of what for and how we build our lives for. Until then, let the kids enjoy their trips, while they can.

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