India’s aspiring middle class Gen Z – those between 18 and 25 years old – is making a break from tradition. But can the economy deliver on their dreams? Internet entrepreneur Ankur Warikoo has millions of YouTube and Instagram followers, and receives 300 emails a day from young people. Here is how he thinks the young Indians he has spoken to differ from their predecessors.
When we think of young, middle class Indians, we tend to think of them as hardworking, studious and largely respectful of their families’ wishes and traditions.
We imagine young men and women intensely prepping for competitive entrance tests that will earn them a spot in a top engineering or medical school. They are determined to chart a dependable careers for themselves and live out their parents’ dreams.
This, of course, is a stereotype.
Many young middle class Indians that I’ve spoken to have questioned their parents, rebelled and trod alternative paths. They haven’t always played it safe. But for the most part, even after a detour, they eventually buckled down and stuck to the script.
Growing up, I was one of these people, and I believed that those who came after me were not that different.
But everything that I thought I knew about young middle class Indians was challenged when I started creating content for them on YouTube and other social media two years ago.
I have made videos that have been watched by more than four million young people – half of them are in the 18-24 age group, and 40% of them live outside of India’s 10 biggest cities.
They understand English but are more comfortable speaking in their native language. Every day, I receive hundreds of emails from them – topics range from money and careers to relationships and mental health.
I have engaged with a 15-year-old self-taught coder; a college dropout who is helping his father take their family business digital; a 24-year-old painter who has been painting since the age of six; a freelancer who is already earning three times what he would have made from a full-time job straight out of college; and an accountant by day and beatboxer by night (I have heard her, and she is brilliant at it!).
At one time, I would have assumed these 20-somethings to be quirky exceptions to the rule. But it feels like they are no longer such outliers.
For this group of Gen Z, college is not just the route to a job – instead, it’s a space for opportunities.
They aren’t fixated on the classes they take or the tests, or even the curriculum. College, for them, is a springboard for networking and experimenting. It’s where they can mull over or even launch an early version of a start-up or do multiple internships without any financial burden.
They won’t jump to find a job
Young Indians typically never took a “gap year” between high school and college.
Taking an entire year off was seen as self-indulgent or a wasteful luxury. But the 18-year-olds that I speak to say they don’t want to waste their life trying to be someone they are not. So, they prefer taking a few months or a year to figure out who they are before they set out to pursue their goals.
They want to marry late, if at all
Nearly every 20-something I have spoken to sees commitment as a trap.
They will take financial risks
Although most of them grew up watching their parents focused on stability, they seem to realise that it’s a different time now – inequality is wider, dreams are bigger and the paths to success are many.
For them, money is not a source of survival but a source of freedom.
A bungalow in a posh neighbourhood isn’t the goal. Rather, it’s having money to splurge on a pair of Air Jordans after investing monthly savings in stocks and crypto.
Social media is for learning
YouTube is their school.
They don’t particularly care where the lessons are happening. They follow the right people on Instagram for quick and consumable nuggets of wisdom.
They have ambition and audacity. And they have one quality that sets them apart from every previous generation in India – a genuine appetite for risk.
Risk has always been a four-letter word in middle class India.
Even in my parents’ generation, stability was key. Work-life balance, career fulfilment, impact – these were terms thrown around by the privileged elite.
But Gen Z is not just aware of global opportunities that are available to them – they are also not shying away from giving it a shot.
They know that there is a path to retire at 35 – and they are not embarrassed to chase it – as opposed to slogging until you are 60.
It’s why the flamboyant founders of successful start-ups – Vijay Shekhar Sharma of digital payments platform Paytm or Ritesh Agarwal, who became India’s youngest billionaire when he founded India’s largest hotel network – have become icons.
The fact that Paytm makes no profit, or that Oyo is struggling under a mountain of debt which fuelled its rapid expansion, is not an immediate concern.
And that worries me. Growing up, we were made to wait, often against our choice. We stood in line to buy milk, waited for hours to call someone or days for a letter to be delivered. We waited years to buy a vehicle and a lifetime to find financial stability.
Patience was learnt not by choice, but by the design of the India we lived in.
Now, everything we need – food, clothes, books, movies, even relationships – is available a click away.
The pace of the world, combined with Gen Z’s ambition, makes them want everything now – I saw a tweet recently that read: “My problem is I want everything today.”
This is the case with Gen Z everywhere – but in India, our economy is at odds with this generation’s ambition.
Will the young accountant become a full-time beatboxer? Will the 20-something artist find a job at a graphic design firm?
Can this restless generation bridge the gap between aspirations and options, or will it fall into the chasm in between?
Only time will tell.
Ankur Warikoo is an Indian entrepreneur, a bestselling author, teacher and content creator.
Copy Credit: BBC