Eight hundred and fifty kilometres from Delhi is Jabalpur, a once-prosperous industrial town in Madhya Pradesh, home to a government ordnance factory. In the 1950s and 60s, it was one of central India’s most industrialised cities, home to a vibrant working class.
When I visited in 2018, I was surprised to find a city in decline. Travelling around Jabalpur’s urban and exurban environs, I was struck by the number of young men everywhere – on the roadside, at public squares, outside shops and buildings – seemingly unemployed and disengaged from any economic activity.
Many of these young men came from agricultural families, but their aspirations lie elsewhere, not in farming.
Some experts and intellectuals have argued that formal employment is not the most common or useful form of work in rural India. Because of the seasonal nature of agriculture, holding a formal job makes it difficult to help out on the family farm during sowing and harvesting.
And some rural youth still see it this way. Many spend time in the cities near their homes when they are not needed to help out with farm work; however, they largely do so because there are no attractive work opportunities in their villages. Furthermore, the continued subdivision of rural landholdings has rendered farming almost unsustainable as a way to support a decent living.
The sight of young Indians loitering around town squares is not surprising to anyone who takes regular trips outside India’s big cities, but the scale of unemployment in Jabalpur was really something else. Apart from the ongoing campaign for the state elections, there didn’t seem to be any productive activity taking place.
Australian academic Craig Jeffrey, while doing research in northwest Uttar Pradesh in the 2000s, studied this phenomenon and subsequently wrote a book about it, appropriately titled Timepass. In his research, Jeffrey focused on educated unemployed young men and rich farmers in and around Meerut to answer questions about class, politics and “waiting”.
During his fieldwork, Jeffrey “met large numbers of unemployed young men in north India who were engaged in forms of waiting characterised by aimlessness and ennui. Unemployed young men in Meerut commonly spoke of being lost in time and they imagined many of their activities as simply ways to pass the time.”
But what Jeffrey discovered was that it is was not uneducated, illiterate youth who were engaged in “timepass”. Educated young men were, in fact, the biggest participants of the activity, though perhaps even the word “participate” suggests a level of choice they did not have in the matter. They had not chosen this lifestyle voluntarily.
As Jeffrey told me over email, “a decline in the availability of public-sector employment and failure of economic growth to create graduate jobs was the primary cause. Allied to this, young people lacked some of the skills to start their own business and the infrastructural and institutional environment militated against entrepreneurship.”
He may as well have been describing the people I met in Jabalpur.
I was in Jabalpur during the state’s 2018 assembly elections, and although the purpose of my visit was to investigate how millennials intended to vote, I was more arrested by the lack of employment that seemed to prevail everywhere.
One evening, I had a few minutes before attending a jansabha organised by a Congress candidate, so I found myself at a nashta ka dukaan, or snack stall. It was around 6 pm, and the sun was about to set. I ordered myself a cup of chai and looked around at the people gathered outside.
A group of friends, mostly men, but a few women as well, had arrived, and I started talking to them. They were all graduates of the Rani Durgavati Vishwavidyalaya, also known as the University of Jabalpur, which was considered among the better institutions in town.
Strikingly, not a single one of them was formally employed.
“We all did our graduation in engineering. But there are no engineering jobs here for us. We will have to move elsewhere to find employment,” one of the men in the group told me.
There’s a popular adage which describes engineering education in India: You become an engineer first, and then figure out what to do with your life.
This was playing out in front of my eyes in Jabalpur. The people at the snack stall had all gone to decent colleges, but elsewhere, I met as many engineers who got their degrees from nondescript two-room engineering colleges in crowded marketplaces. When I went to one of these colleges, I met a teacher who told me he was only teaching students because he had been rejected from every other job he had applied for.
Thirty years ago, many of the families of these young people did not have a stable income nor access to twenty-four-hour electricity supply. Some didn’t even have pucca houses. Today, they have most of that, but vibrant employment opportunities are scarce. Gauging from their responses, it was clear that many of these individuals were just about surviving, far from thriving.
A twenty-five-year-old man in the group told me about having to ask his parents for permission to travel to Bhopal, five hours away by train. “I only have money to buy snacks. I can watch movies at the cinema hall occasionally. For most other things, I have to ask my parents for cash.”
A man of his age and qualification should not just have a stable job and enough financial liquidity to purchase his own train ticket, but also possess the agency to make his own decisions, which comes with economic security.
“Educated unemployment” is therefore a crisis that defines millennials more than any other demographic group in the country. In January 2018, Prime Minister Modi sat down for a televised interview with ZEE News anchor Sudhir Chaudhary. In response to a question about the job crisis in India, Modi asked his interviewer: “If a man selling pakoras outside the Zee TV office takes home Rs 200 at the end of the day, is that not employment?”
Modi, a measured and calculated speaker, was completely off the mark, and in response, the Congress Party said that if frying pakoras is classified as employment, begging should be included as well.
Modi’s answer was obviously disrespectful towards India’s aspirational and educated millennials, but also more alarmingly made clear that India’s so-called “demographic dividend” could become a demographic disaster if not treated correctly. If the leader of the nation believes that frying food for Rs 200 daily qualifies as the sort of employment the country ought to create for its youth, it will never break out of poverty.
And that’s because the math simply doesn’t add up. If a young Indian man were to open a stall frying pakoras and make Rs 200 a day working every single day, he would make Rs 6000 a month.
That doesn’t even include his operating costs. Even if it did, and he made Rs 6000 in absolute profit, that would still not be enough to survive, let alone thrive, in modern India. It is simply not sufficient for a single man, even if he lives with his parents, and it is certainly not enough to support a wife and children.
One evening towards the end of my stay in Jabalpur, I found myself back at the snack stall, talking to its owner, Radhe, a thirty-two-year-old civil engineer and first-generation graduate. After he was laid off from a construction company in 2015, no one was willing to hire him, and he could not move elsewhere because he had to look after his ailing parents.
So, he set up a stall, where he sold pakoras, kachoris and tea. After expenses, he brought home about Rs 5000 every month. His wife, a librarian at a private school, made Rs 12,000, which was how the family primarily sustained itself.
“Being an engineer doesn’t mean much. I wish I had applied for a government job instead. I would have at least had a stable income and been able to provide for my family,” he told me.
His wife was an anomaly, given women’s participation in the workforce has fallen sharply since 2000. A World Bank study found that nearly 20 million women dropped out of the workforce between 2004 and 2012, and a Tata Sons-Dalberg analysis estimated that approximately 120 million women in India have a secondary education but do not participate in the workforce. Radhe’s wife, Nandini, worked because her husband didn’t make enough.
Her situation suggested that women’s involvement in the labour force could save families from destitution. The Tata-Dalberg study further found that women’s employment could add Rs 31 trillion rupees, or roughly $440 billion, to India’s GDP, but a variety of structural inequities prevented women from joining the workforce: from existing social taboo and gender norms to safety and mobility.
The idea of self-reflective and anxious millennials is something of a trope used to mischaracterise the generation. But real financial and economic anxiety exists among millennials, particularly those who have to support their families and find or maintain stable employment. With more than 120 million women missing from the workforce and a lack of vibrant economic opportunities, young couples in the millennial bracket don’t only struggle to fulfil their dreams, but quite literally to put two meals on the table.
The United Nations Development Programme estimates that India needs to create nearly 300 million jobs between 2015 and 2050 to capitalise on its demographic dividend. But these jobs cannot include frying snacks by the road or begging. They must be generated in labour intensive and stable sectors of the economy, largely in the formal manufacturing sector.
The bleak reality is that millennials are stuck in a low wage trap. Either they have employment which is low-paying or unpredictable, or they have no jobs at all. The resulting economic insecurity has and will continue to have profound effects on the future of the country and the social attitudes of millennials.
It appears grimly inevitable that the countless years of lost or wasted economic output for millions of young Indians will have significant repercussions in the decades to come. Most millennials are at a point in their lives where they need stable employment and economic security. Older and younger millennials have families to support.
In a 21st Century economy where the very nature of work changes every couple of years, this is the most crucial period in the careers of millennials to establish themselves and attain economic security. Else, its most promising generation on paper will rely on the state for incentives and schemes instead of putting money back into society and creating growth.
Excerpted with permission from What Millennials Want: Decoding the World’s Largest Generation, Vivan Marwaha, Penguin India.