The flip side of abundance: millennial anxieties in the face of too many choices
“Where there is too much, something is missing.” – Jewish proverb
The millennial generation, also known as Generation Y, has been the subject of much interest for some time now. Born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, urban Indian millennials grew up during a period of revolutionary technological advancements along with the growing abundance triggered by economic liberalisation. Naturally, there is a propensity among older adults to see them as ‘the lucky generation’. Having grown up in a time of relative abundance, it would seem that millennials had missed the tough times.
But to view millennials in this light is to do so with rose-tinted glasses. Abundance comes with its own share of challenges, from endless confusion to painful disillusionment, to ever-rising anxiety. These are real challenges faced by many, if not all, millennials and often fly under the radar when millennials are observed collectively as a generation. This article is an attempt to understand and appreciate these challenges, but to do so, it is important to first trace the developments that caused them.
The early days
India’s pre-liberalisation period was marked by a dearth of opportunity. According to Vanitha Kumar, an English teacher at Bengaluru’s St Joseph’s Pre-University College, around 40 years ago engineering and medical courses were seen as too far-fetched by most students, who chose instead to study BA and BSc programmes. Those who did choose engineering and medicine, she recalls, were the ones who scored well in exams, those whose parents were engineers or doctors, or those who could afford it.
The growth of the private sector was hampered by the many obstacles placed by the Licence Raj. Consequentially, government jobs were preferred over private ones as they offered stability and good salaries.
“Everyone looked for secure desk jobs, especially in governmental agencies. Employment in the Department of Post and Telegraph and State and Central Government offices were considered lucrative,” says Vanitha, who herself started her career in banking before eventually embarking on her passion for teaching. “In those days, we could hardly decide our destiny. Parents and family had a major say. Job security also played an important role. High-paying, secure jobs were preferred over jobs in speculative fields and the private sector. Jobs in private companies were taken up as a temporary fix until one secured a government job.”
The security and prestige offered by these government jobs ensured that employees were not quick to leave. Job hopping, an apparent trend among millennials, was a rarity then and those who did so were seen as “unsettled failures”.
Entrepreneurship as we know it today did not have much room for growth either. According to 33-year-old Kabeer Biswas, Founder of Dunzo, “Our parents didn’t have the background, they didn’t have the tools, and they had a lot more responsibility. So I don’t think they ever took the kind of risks people can take today.” Additionally, he states that the idea of impact has since evolved. “Today’s idea of impact for you and me would be how to go ahead and impact a million people. And that’s potentially possible now,” he says. Earlier, the idea of impact was limited to meeting immediate ends, such as keeping one’s family secure.
The paucity of options amidst a stagnant economy ensured that job security and good salaries were the two key requirements from any job. But this began to change as the world inched a decade closer to the new millennium.
‘The lucky generation’
The economic liberalisation of the early 1990s effectively broke the country’s prolonged spell of stagnation. With the private sector finally getting its much-needed breathing space, increasing foreign investments coupled with the emergence of the internet ushered in a new wave of globalisation. As a result, those who grew up in the 1990s did so in an atmosphere of rising abundance. But with abundance came more choices, and in the case of millennials, this was first exemplified by education.
“Trade and commerce across countries got a boost, creating a lot of job opportunities. Educational institutes capitalised on this and introduced different courses, some of which really did not have any value. Education became job oriented. Earlier, we could work anywhere with basic BA and BSc degrees, which is not the case anymore. One needs a special qualification to enter a subject field. Back then, I could enter the banking sector with a BSc in science. But today, one needs a BCom or a related degree,” says Vanitha.
The rapid increase in job choices and education consequently becoming more job oriented meant that many millennials had to decide their future prematurely. At the age of 18, with little knowledge of the outside world and with many still unsure of their own skills and capabilities, this abundance of choice became a burden.
As Vanitha recalls, very few in her generation had the freedom to pursue what they wanted, thus reducing the pressure of choice and the fear of failure. In the case of millennials, more options translated into a fear of making the wrong choices.
Contrary to previous generations, this fear can be attributed to factors beyond money and security. In the face of rising job prospects, this fear in the case of millennials stems from losing out on careers that add value to their lives. This search for value and meaning in their jobs is a quintessential millennial trait, one that was perhaps born out of a desire to solve the confusion of abundance.
The millennial workforce
A couple of months ago, 22-year-old Yogita Dakshina was a recent master’s graduate in International Political Relations from Bournemouth University and was soon to start her first job. When asked what she expected from her job, she answered, “I think, first and foremost, is personal satisfaction. I love being busy, I love accomplishing different goals, and I love all of it to be impactful. And if the job gives me all three, it's basically the best job that could happen. I also do want exposure to new places, spaces, and people through my job. And I hope every job, at every stage of it, offers me something new, something that I have not tried before. I think those two are very, very important. After which, obviously, comes the money factor.”
Yogita currently works as a communications manager and programme lead with Helping Hands Organisation, a Thiruvananthapuram-based NGO that focusses on autism rehabilitation and civic awareness.
On similar lines, 28-year-old Santanu Roy, who worked as a project delivery co-ordinator at Ansr Source, an education consultancy and design firm, says that he finds it absolutely essential that his job matches his personal values.
“We spend a large part of our lives working. And irrespective of the fact that we are from India, where unemployment is pretty widespread, you cannot do a job throughout your life with the sole intention of just paying the bills. You need that something that makes you look forward to work because the only difference between stress and passion is that things that you do not care about give you stress and things that you care about make you passionate. So, in order to keep doing what you do best, you really need to work with something, for something, and at something which you really believe in.”
These traits were reflected by a millennial survey conducted by Deloitte India in 2016. This study found that “opportunities to progress and take on leadership roles” was the strongest reason for millennials to work at an organisation, and that most young professionals chose to work at organisations that shared their personal values. The same study also found that among those millennials surveyed in India, 52 percent expected to leave their current employers in two years, a figure that rose to 76 percent when the time period was extended to 2020. Only 40 percent were reported to have high job satisfaction. As much as 69 percent of those surveyed stated that their leadership skills were not being fully developed. Other factors that prompt millennials to stay include a positive work culture, transparent communication, and flexible work schedules.
With so many factors deciding millennial job satisfaction, it is clear that millennials pose what Deloitte calls a "loyalty challenge" to many businesses. Older adults might irritably attribute this challenge to ‘millennial entitlement’. But to understand this dilemma clearly, it would help to see things from the perspectives of millennials themselves.
The great divide
In the face of rising abundance, it was only natural to seek the best. Many millennials studied for degrees that apparently guaranteed the best jobs in the market, and they did so keeping in mind the two factors that had previously been used to determine the quality of a job – high salaries and good security. Unsurprisingly, many of them had been heavily influenced by their parents and other senior family members. Naturally, what followed was disappointment and disillusionment.
Without the same commitments and responsibilities that faced earlier generations, job security and good salaries do not have the same lure for millennials. As the figures noted earlier show, millennials are more concerned with personal and professional growth, without which their jobs feel meaningless. But finding the ‘right job’ that offers the right kind of growth presents a needle-in-the-haystack conundrum. Even if one does land the perfect job, there is no guarantee that this job will continue to help them grow after, say, a couple of years.
“There is a fine line between stability and stagnation. You find too much stability and you end up stagnating yourself,” says Santanu.
For millennials, stagnating in their careers right in their 20s or 30s is a nightmarish thought, seeing as most of them have at least three to four decades of work left ahead of them. So when faced with multiple options without fully knowing one’s potential, it is only natural to want to test multiple waters before committing to a single profession, should that even be the case.
But this tendency for millennials to refrain from sticking to one job continues to be looked down upon by older generations. “Because the boost was too sudden, older individuals who believed in working in one place are unable to understand the new trend,” says Vanitha.
Elaborating on this generation gap, Yogita says, “I think that we grew up in a generation of modern thought, but strongly overpowered by people who couldn't deal with the sudden modernity. They wanted to, but just couldn't. To be clearer, we as millennials have such massive options in front of us. A lot of us, the privileged lot of us, are allowed to pick whatever we want, not be an engineer or doctor specifically.
“But at the same time, it's our own parents who tell us that we have to take up responsibilities because they did so when they were our age. Or we must start ‘growing up’ and be serious about our careers. So one of the biggest issues I think we face is finding that balance between our aspirations and our moral apprehensions.
“Unfortunately, we as millennials are only worth our productivity. The generation before us were teachers, farmers, and bankers with a mid-income salary and possibly a more family-focussed life. Our generation has the both privilege and the disadvantage of earning respect only on the basis of what we earn or what our posts are. Not our general sense of charitability, or art, or culture, or ethics; just the money and the obsession with a singular identity.
“Like, I did journalism so I have to be a journalist. What if I changed my mind and wanted to sell ice cream instead? Nope, that is not cool,” she quips.
Adding to this, Santanu explains, “Our families are so hell-bent on seeing us safe in life that they forget that even prisons are safe. I’m saying this because I’m at a crossroads where my family wants me to settle into a kind of life which I know will not suit me and I’m trying to swim against the flow to the kind of life that would suit me. Even if I can’t settle into it, I can still say that at least I tried and aspired for something in life.
“Our fathers and grandfathers had to make a lot of sacrifices, kill their passions a bit for the sake of their families, and be more collectivistic in nature, if I can say that. So they perceive it as the only way to live. Sometimes, you let them oppose your means, understanding that deep inside they are scared that if we end up achieving the kind of life we seek or desire, that we end up, if not happy at least content about the kind of life we live, their entire life would turn out to be a lie. So you kind of understand that opposition and try to accept it and live with it.”
The revolutionary technological advancements and rising economic improvement that accompanied the last two decades also sparked seismic lifestyle changes. While many of these changes doubtlessly improved our quality of living, they also dramatically increased the pace of what once felt like a stable and predictable life. Increasing abundance equals more entitlement, and as a result, there was suddenly a lot that needed to be had and a lot that needed to be done but with little time for any of it. And besides being faced with a multitude of options, there was (and is) also the added pressure of dealing with too many changes too soon.
“The entropy in our society is getting so random and chaotic with so many people, so many changes, and so many ‘next big things’ interrupting our flow of life every other day that there are too many changes too soon to deal with,” says Santanu.“When our parents were our age, the next 10 years of their lives would have felt pretty clear. In our generation, to reach that point where the next 10 to 20 years of our lives are clear would take a very long time.”
Entitlement is a trait commonly attributed to millennials, but Kabeer feels that even this has its costs.
“I think there’s a lot more anxiety nowadays. Because with being entitled, we have this whole need to get somewhere. But the process is not about getting anywhere. You have to enjoy the process. You have to find what makes you happy. This idea that you need to get somewhere, which causes anxiety…I don’t think that’s how you build a great life,” he says.
Equipped with more than enough resources, millennials are also an exceptionally competent generation, and as Kabeer puts it, “the best equipped generation for the digital age,” so far at least. But he adds that with such competence comes tremendous stress and pressure to perform.
“I’m guessing there was a lot of subliminal messaging that might have happened when you’ve been told you’re this good all your life. It must be hard after that, to go to the workplace and hear ‘You’re good’, ‘You’re great’ but no one’s actually saying ‘You’re fantastic.’ When you’re that capable at 20, more than any generation has ever been before you, the kind of problems and issues that you have are completely different. I don’t think my dad ever went through something like that.”
Extreme competence also leads to increased competition. Santanu feels that on a macro-level, “there is too much competition for limited resources, which is why life has become a lot more chaotic. There are too many choices and the prices of those choices have also increased, and so have the emotional costs of leading such a life.”
Fortunately, people have now begun to take notice of these anxieties. As Kabeer says, “I’ve seen anxiety up close – you see it at the workplace very often. It’s a hard problem that people have to endure, but it’s slowly getting better. People are finally talking about it right now, which is great because, with the kind of workplaces and the work that we do, those are the kind of diseases that you have. It’s important to recognise that.”
Perhaps this recognition was a natural reaction to the pressures of modern life, and one that is most befitting of the times we live in.
The way forward
Abundance certainly has its costs, and that millennials are the first to play this game makes it all the more uncertain and challenging for them. In this article, we’ve seen the difficulty of choice and the cost of having too much. There is, however, some truth to the ‘lucky generation’ tag. Opportunities to grow and excel are now more than ever. As Kabeer confidently expresses, “I don’t think there are any boundaries in our heads and our lives anymore. For instance, suppose someone asked me what Dunzo would be doing in about five years, I genuinely think we should be in 100 to 200 cities in the world. I think it’s absolutely possible.”
Abundance, then, appears to be the antidote to its own poison. Put simply, perhaps the solution to millennial confusion and anxiety is to take advantage of it and use it to its fullest.
In the end, every generation is a product of their time.The circumstances and the challenges we encounter eventually shape our traits, in turn influencing subsequent generations. If earlier generations were challenged by the constraints of scarcity, it is the pressures of abundance that challenge today’s youth. And it would certainly be interesting to see how these challenges are dealt with.