I happened to visit an engineering college in south-central Kerala to help a small IT company with their campus placements. I was expecting things to be like they were when I was graduating nearly two decades ago: scores of anxious young people thronging rooms with lots of expectations, apprehensions, questions. But what I found was the opposite: half-empty classrooms, indifferent and disinterested students, many of who were there only because they were forced to attend by teachers. It was almost like they didn’t want to get a job! Though this puzzled me, I dismissed it as a one-off thing maybe due to the profile of the college (it was in the news for some wrong reasons). However, later on I realised that this is no one-off but the manifestation of a puzzling and shocking new trend, turning what we’ve been thinking about the youth and their employment patterns in India on its head.
India faces a strange problem. A lot of noise has been made about both how employers are finding it impossible to fill their open positions and about the frighteningly high rates of youth unemployment. Of course, we all know the stripped to the bone story of the great Indian skill shortage, of graduates in India being generally unemployable as they lack domain knowledge, skills and so on, which can be surmised to be behind both these problems. However, there is another angle to this problem which nobody has bothered to explore. When we talk about employment problems, we generally assume that all these millions and millions of young people are desperate for jobs. Well, IT companies in Kerala advertise a lot of open positions, but they are finding it extremely hard to fill them. 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
This is what the current trend seems to be. Yes, unemployment might be high, but no one is taking into account that a lot of this unemployment especially in Kerala is actually voluntary. It seriously looks like there is a large mass of young graduates these days who do not want to be employed, 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. Seemingly, 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 were brought to believe until now, a recent trend and seems to be curiously mostly limited to Kerala, especially visible in the Btech stream. (It is another thing that the Btech story is all but dead – No one wants to be an glorified engineer as it does not pay any more). Kerala has always been notorious for educated unemployment. The stories of our fathers’ generations struggling for jobs out of college and having to move out of state due to the lack of opportunities are all very well documented. Today, their children still exhibit graduate unemployment, but this time out of choice, because they and their parents are prosperous enough! If you think something like this too fantastical to happen, it is not.
And then, 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 or automation? 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 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. But the problem here is that Kerala’s youth do not want to join just IT, but they don’t want to work anywhere at all, and especially not in private companies.
Kerala’s Millennials do not want to be employed because it simply makes no sense for them to work. Yes, the trend of the youth shunning employment is indicative of the wider Millennial trend across the world of low and stagnating incomes having made employment unattractive and pointless. The difference between Kerala’s Millennials and those of the rest of the world is that they are not overly concerned by things changing the world like unemployment or climate change or the rest of the problems of capitalistic society. In fact, they embrace capitalism and all that it brings with it, because it is what accords them the consumerist privilege of free cars, bikes, fuel, gadgets, food, malls and everything else. This privilege enjoyed by the youngsters of a large section of Kerala society supplanted by the surety that the parents will take care of them, making them shun employment and any inkling of a struggle in life. They don’t want to work, invest or in general do anything, just fulfill a bit of economic activity here and there to generate enough pocket money, as they are content in living in their parents homes which they are entitled to anyways.
What is this Privilege We Are Talking About?
Every generation frowns at the fancies and functions of its youth. The youth is always considered 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 of 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 dictates that human beings exist to acquire education, find gainful employment and earn money and acquire material possessions. The stories our fathers’ generations went through to land a job are not just that of struggles but 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 as educated and unemployed as their fathers were, but the difference is that today, they can afford to be unemployed.
To understand what this means, I recommend you visit any engineering college in Kerala. A large majority of kids even in rural areas drive or ride their own vehicles to attend undergraduate college. In cities luxury cars are very common. I’ve seen an Audi R8 and a Dodge Challenger with a Dubai plate. Most of these cars and all bikes are given to the kids for their exclusive usage, turning engineering college surroundings into 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 this 235 hp monster in the hands of a 20-year-old, but that is another topic). If you were riding a 1.5 lakh Royal Enfield Classic 350 to college, what sense does it make for you to take up a job that pays you Rs.15000 per month in a strange city?
Over the past 20 years, Kerala has seen a dramatic rise in the prosperity of its people. This is of course, mainly due to migration to and inward remittances from the Arabian Gulf where an educated populace leveraged the timely Gulf oil boom and more recently Ireland/UK/Australia/NZ/Canada etc. However, 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, and the state’s overstaffed government sector and generous welfare state also contributed to this in no small measure. The result as that entire legions of kids, today’s Millennials, grew up in relative prosperity and comfort, brought up only “to study and get a job“, pampered and spolied by their parents who shielded them from the harsh realities of “real” life and made all hard life choices for them. Among these, many grew up on the assurance that one day they would follow their fathers and uncles to the Gulf for a settled life, making them all the more complacent. Having lived in utter comfort all their lives with no want, having seen or experienced little hardship, why would they want to give it all up, (including the 1.5-lakh motorcycle) and move to a strange city, travel in overcrowded public transport and live in cramped shared accommodation to do soul-crushing work for 15,000 bucks a month (an equal amount has to be contributed by the parents for bare minimum sustenance) with no guarantee of any progression in life? 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 work.“
What changed for today’s kids is that changing Geopolitical and economic realities has ensured the Gulf-succession opportunity for most youngsters is all but dead. While many tens of thousands of jobs are actually available in India, it does not make any sense to accept them because they pay so low that they aren’t worth it. For one they will not be able to match what their fathers had been making abroad, and two, why go for a job when the family is already financially secure? Why would one to chose a way of life that will result in an actual fall in their standards of living? Would you give up your cushy job for one that will demand double the work at only 1/4th the salary? In simpler words, falling wage levels have made it senseless for today’s privileged youth to be employed, at all. 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. This is called economic mobility, or rather, the absence of it. “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.
Just a thought: The general theme of movies of any time period tend to reflect the most pressing socio-economic matters of those particular eras. While the late 1980s saw cult movies laying out the wagaries of unemployment like T.P. Balagopalan MA, Ramjirao Speaking, Nadodikattu and Karunyam, today we have carefree-youth-roadtrip movies Guppy, Bangalore Days, Neelakaasham…, Oru Vadakkan Selfie, etc.
Instead, Kerala’s Millennials seem to be rather fixated on a fantastical or romantically illusory ideal perception of how life should be. In their mindscapes, they visualise life as being a road-buddy movie, one full of big and expensive motorcycles – Royal Enfields, KTM Dukes, Yamahas, Suzukis – and long and winding road trips. And they enact that in real life. Half of the vehicles on Kerala’s overcrowded roads are youngsters “tripping”, because they can. Almost every youngster with an Enfield has undertaken a major road trip that spanned atleast 3-4 days. “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 Bajaj, Duke, Yamaha or an Enfield. In a case I heard of the other day, the youngster convinced his parents to get him a Gixxer so he could get more time to study as compared to commuting to college in public buses (yeah, right). Once they are a bit older, cruising in cars across the country becomes the norm. Today you are looked down upon if you travel in public transportation and are gauged by your car and how well you maintain it and how often you change it, all trends that didn’t exist in Kerala until very recently. The kids of today seem to be living in a Dulquer Salman movie (his has played no small part in romanticising the jobless tripper) with an Amal Neerad film background score, inspired by the Gulf, living it up every weekend, driving hundreds of kilometres. The next thing is marriage: unlike earlier generations who waited to be financially stable before they got married, the very first thing most kids, in fact guys more than girls, want to do as soon as they get out of college is to get married! (I can understand the motorcycling thing, but this makes no sense!). Where do they get the money for all this? Doting parents, of course!
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, disposable relationships, and easy foreign opportunities. Private company jobs suddenly became the default choice for youngsters across degree streams, courses and backgrounds, and the Btech mania flourished riding on this glamour. However, 20 years later, the this story is dead in the water. The philosophy of cost arbitration, on which the Indian outsourcing industry was built, an endless stream of fresh graduates and automation and new paradigms kept entry level salaries low, middle level-age wages stagnant and job progression impossible, all the while when costs of living increased drastically. When I started my 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. Being a salaried tech worker does not pay any more, financially or careerwise. A generation of Btech Victims and their horror stories have prompted a mass abandonment of engineering as the choice for undergraduate degrees.
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. Kerala’s Millennials hence if at all opt for banking or government jobs, family businesses or to try to get married and/or permanently migrate abroad (Over the past decade, almost an entire generation of central Travancore youngsters have migrated to Australia and Canada, never to return). Tens of thousands suit up to prepare for the battles of Banking, 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.
This wage depression or the trend of salaries not matching up the living costs is a global phenomenon. It is only 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 and the rest of the world relegated to being their (nearly slave) labour. The world is getting poorer, and it might only get worse for our children.
None of this is 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 misgivings 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 a Change in Times
Now, 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, an exotic and fantastic notion 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, for a 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. People always expected 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 like those in IT/H1B and prices for second-hand apartments. This is called the Perpetuity Trap, the belief that the sun will shine forever and “nothing will happen to me”. A lot of people fell into the above 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. However, things changed and none of those rules hold good anymore. The kids 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). 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 Kerala Millennials too, who look to 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. It 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’ life ambitions 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 only makes us poorer? Shouldn’t “employment” be a means for the upliftment of the standards and quality of life of all people, rather than one to satisfy the economic greed and consumption urges of a few? Unlike what some people would like to think, “work” and be satisfied with 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 and philosophies of and how we build and live our lives. Until then, let the kids enjoy their trips, while they can.
P.S. I regularly post updates for job openings for tech-companies in in Kerala on Twitter, but I almost never get any response. Do send me your resume if you are looking for an IT job in Kerala (experienced). And no, I do not run a HR consultancy or staffing or placement agency.