India’s entitled millennials aren’t the urban poor – they just suffer from poor judgement

The inability to afford a Rs 300 sandwich doesn't make you a member of the urban poor.

An article plaintively lamenting the deprivation-filled lives of millennials turned out to be another exercise in privilege. On Friday, BuzzFeed India carried an article bemoaning the fact that “the metro-dwelling twentysomethings” are spending a good part of their salaries on “keeping up the lifestyles and appearances”. It was headlined “The Urban Poor You Haven’t Noticed”. Urban poor, really?

These are kids in their early twenties, who are living in times of abundance, have probably not seen a recession. These are young, urbane, educated young men and women who are probably working in jobs that weren’t dreamed of 10 years ago, but somehow can’t make it through a month without running out of their money. Are they trying to keep up with the Joneses or the Kardashians?

As an informal survey shows, the monthly salary of those working for over two years range between Rs 50,000 and Rs 75,000. Suffice to say, anyone earning this much is an active contributor to the economy, via income and other taxes. This alone puts them in an exalted bracket – just 1.25 crore people (or a little less than 1% of India’s population) pays income tax. No matter what the BuzzFeed article suggests, they are not the 99% of the country. Far from it.

Let’s now look at actual urban poverty – according to the definition of the think-tank National Council of Applied Economic Research, earning less than Rs 33 a day makes you fall among the urban poor. By spending nearly three times of that on an average sandwich, our urban millennials may be making injudicious culinary choices. But poverty? Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Distorted reality

If the BuzzFeed article is to be believed, our urban millennials are striving to keep up appearances. They forgo basic necessities like food to save enough money to buy nifty threads so that they can impress their Instagram followers. This betrays a poverty of the mind, not of the pocket.

The millennials are in no way comparable to the real urban poor – those who are snared in the impossible-to-escape poverty trap. The urban poor are the invisible people who keep our lives running like clockwork. It is our maid’s daughter, who has been forced to leave school to work because her alcoholic father’s liver has given up. It is our driver who is forced to do double duty because his Rs 15,000 salary doesn’t cover the family expenses. It is the children in Dharavi who work 16 hours in hazardous conditions.

In each of these instances, the urban poor cannot break out of the poverty trap even if they wish to. Is it the same with the poor milliennials? No, a Nike-wearing millennial’s destitution is of his doing, and escaping the imagined poverty hole is also on him. This, to me, is the most spectacular fail by the author: assuming that the poor millennial who forgoes meals in order to buy Rs 200 sandwiches has no way to break out of this consumption trap much like his or her domestic worker.

The article is an example of how distorted middle-class reality is. Some of us actually believe that urban poverty extends to the well-heeled youth who find a shiny Instagram account is a birthright.

Let’s call this phenomenon for what it is – living beyond your means. Just over a decade ago, pink papers were full of stories of urban India being leveraged to their eyeballs, and households earmarking 70% of their disposable incomes towards EMIs. Those were stories of people living beyond their means. The trend continues even today.

As ever, much angst and outrage will be aired on Twitter on the poor millennials. Points and counterpoints will be written on a phenomenon that relies on anecdata, and not on the reality outside air-conditioned windows and gated communities. Instead of this, let’s understand that frugality is as much a virtue as a new phone. Also, let’s not patronise those who don’t know where their next meal will come from.

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