Understanding India’s millennials

We need a more nuanced understanding of this generation. If we look beyond the middle class, urban youth, their aspirations and motivations differ greatly

Rishikesha T Krishnan

[Photograph by Kyle Taylor under Creative Commons]

Much has been written about millennials—people born between 1980 and 2000—and how they are different from the baby boomers and GenX, the two generations that preceded them. Many millennial traits are positive—they are earnest, positive, seek new experiences, and display a high level of social consciousness. But, they are also demanding—they seek frequent positive strokes and approval, have a large number of expectations having been brought up to think they are the best, need flat work environments, and crave work-life balance.

These generalisations have their origins in the West and there have been occasional yet largely anecdotal efforts to see whether Indian millennials are the same. A recent article in Mint, for example, profiles a young Indian investment banker who craves recognition and appreciation, and frets against the claustrophobia of organisational processes.

Yet, given India’s large population under the age of 30 and the hope that India will be the economic hub of the world taking advantage of the so-called demographic dividend, a more nuanced understanding of Indian millennials is important.

So, I was really excited when I heard that a serious HR professional, Subramanian S. Kalpathi, has written a book on millennials in India. And it turned out that The Millennials: Exploring the World of the Largest Living Generation is much more than a dry sociological account of millennials in India. While millennials constitute one pillar of this book, it rests on two other pillars—innovation and entrepreneurship, and human resource management.

Kalpathi’s book has two distinct yet linked audiences: millennials themselves, and managers and organisations who employ millennials. I particularly liked the way he ends every chapter with takeaways and implications for both of these groups. I also commend his efforts to ground the book in theories of human behaviour.

Kalpathi argues that though it is true that millennials can be obsessed with themselves, at the same time their social consciousness provides an opportunity to engage them in organisational pursuits. The key is to identify a higher purpose for the organisation with which the millennials can identify. For example, Ola’s larger cause of making intra-city travel easier and more affordable while at the same time benefiting the large community of owner-drivers provides an ideal lever to get millennials engaged. Their need for more frequent and tangible feedback can be met by organisational re-design. Kalpathi quotes the CEO of a procurement consulting firm to define the challenge: “Can we make our workplaces as responsive as the app on the smartphone?”

Kalpathi points out that smart companies are creating organisational systems, processes and cultures that are aligned with the values and aspirations of millennials. These include large corporations like HCL Technologies that give employees the freedom and flexibility to craft solutions far beyond what the client has asked for, and young firms like InMobi that use office design to promote interaction, “Conversations over Coffee” to facilitate interaction and feedback, and Spot Rewards to quickly recognise outstanding contributions.

Continuing in this positive vein, Kalpathi sees millennials as digital natives and well suited to be “Exponential Entrepreneurs” who can use new technologies to transform businesses. By the same token, large corporations can engage millennials if they use digital platforms to engage them.

Millennials take to improvisation well, particularly if they have the right tools. Defying traditional logic, millennials are early givers—millennial entrepreneurs have been seen to support other startups even before their own have stabilised. They are happy to learn together and out loud. Firms can leverage this if they establish internal social networking platforms. Millennials are quick learners, and companies can use group events like hackathons to engage them in solving big problems. Millennials like to work with coaches and mentors. Given their prodigious digital talent they can also be useful as reverse mentors for senior management.

In Imagining India, Nandan Nilekani forecast that Indians growing up in post-liberalisation India would be free of the legacy of the past and forge new paths. The case studies and examples of millennial innovators and entrepreneurs in Kalpathi’s book corroborate Nilekani’s expectations.

Yet, this picture doesn’t ring true for thousands of Indian millennials who are prisoners to the expectations of their parents. I have met several parents who feel that they have sacrificed a lot and invested their lives in bringing up their children. They now expect a “Return on Investment.” I don’t find Indian students willing to “disappoint” their parents or take the big leap out of the comfort of their parental support systems. And, frankly, I don’t see such a high degree of learning agility in our college students. In particular, applying what they have learnt seems to be a big challenge.

Given the limited penetration of the internet in India, Kalpathi’s book and much of the data on Indian millennials is, I fear, restricted to the middle class, urban demographic. The millennial entrepreneurs profiled in this book come from such a background.

It’s also sad that we don’t see much evidence of the Indian education system aligning itself with the innate digital strengths and capabilities of millennials. Teaching styles for the most part remain classroom-oriented. Meaningful gamification to engage students is rare. The millennials’ much-touted penchant for social learning is hardly exploited.  

For myself, I am not completely convinced that Indian millennials represent a radical shift from the past. Perhaps this is because I meet a new set of students every year, and hence changes seem to be more gradual. Are Indian students smart? Of course. But they are certainly more distracted than before, given the number of things happening both physically and virtually around them. I find that Indian youth still need a combination of direction, task guidance and emotional support that is not very different from the Nurturant Task leadership style that eminent sociologist JBP Sinha found suitable for Indians four decades ago!

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Rishikesha Krishnan on Jan 19, 2017 1:25 a.m. said

Good point, Karthik. Reservation tensions and economic liberalization were certainly shaping events. I would suspect that 1991-2007/8 was a period of optimism and growth that influenced many youngsters.

Karthik Srinivasan on Jan 17, 2017 9:11 a.m. said

Great thoughts. "Indian youth still need a combination of direction, task guidance and emotional support" is telling!

On a related note, should we not be having our own generational definitions instead of relying on Strauss-Howe categorization, which was defined for the US? It may work well for West but I suspect if it makes sense in India.

The fundamental premise of the model is that each generation has a "formative era" and a common set of events that occurred in that period. With respect to people born between 1980-2000 in India, they would likely be 'Indira/Rajiv murders', 'Mandir-Mandal politics', 'Economic Liberalization' and 'Coalition Politics'. I am afraid these experiences would be completely different from the Millennials in the US.

About the author

Rishikesha T Krishnan
Rishikesha T Krishnan

Director, and Professor of Strategy

IIM Bangalore

Rishikesha Krishnan is an author, columnist and professor of management who focuses on strategy, innovation, and education. He is listed in the Thinkers50 India list of most influential management thinkers from India. 

Prof. Krishnan’s book 8 Steps to Innovation: Going from Jugaad to Excellence (co-authored with Vinay Dabholkar) won the Best Book Award for 2013-14 from the Indian Society for Training & Development. His earlier book From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation: The Challenge for India proposed a blueprint for how India can enhance its innovation output. 

From 1996-2013, Prof. Krishnan worked at IIM Bangalore, where he held the Jamuna Raghavan Chair in Entrepreneurship from 2007 to 2010. After serving a five year stint from January 1, 2014 to December 31, 2018 as the Director of IIM Indore, he returned to IIM Bangalore and is currently Director of IIM Bangalore and Professor of Strategy there. He was educated at IIT Kanpur, Stanford University and IIM Ahmedabad.

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