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Thursday, August 6, 2015

The shifting social dynamics in modern India

It is an accepted fact that cultures are not stagnant - they are constantly evolving; however the normal pace of change is usually extremely slow. When I look back over three generations, I see a difference in my grandmother’s life, my mother’s life and my own. I see changes at many levels – social norms, accepted ways of thought, communication and behaviour, and the role of family and community. However these changes have slowly been woven into the fabric of Indian society, gradually being absorbed as the new norms, without shaking the core.

When I look forward and see the current scenario and compare my son’s generation with the past, the changes that have taken place seem to have manifested themselves at a much accelerated pace and caused tears in the very fabric of Indian culture. They seem to be impacting the very basis of individual identity and the pillars of Indian society. It makes me wonder – what could be the cause of these major shifts at deeper social levels? Is it the impact of globalization? And if so, how much do external events affect the pace of change? Is it one major factor or is it the synchronization of multiple factors that causes this acceleration?

I am going to focus on the phenomenon of the outsourcing industry and the growth of call centers in India to understand if they have been factors in the rapid change, especially because this sector taps into the Indian youth as its main resource and thus is a big influences. The call center jobs require the young Indian service providers to assume a ‘Western Identity’. They take on a western name, learn and adopt a western accent, learn about western cultures to help them deal with western clients – in short they live fake western lives while physically being a part of the Indian reality. What are the impacts of this duality – how do they deal with it? Their experience in this role is accompanied by financial freedom – they earn salaries and bonuses at levels never seen before by their parents’ generation. Does this new wealth affect behavior and roles, expectations and hierarchy within the family and society in general? If so, how does the impact manifest itself?

Some of the changes I am referring to are very overt and obvious and others are insidious. There seem to be many layers within Indian society and the gap between the generations appears to be magnified. There seems to be a diffusion of social boundaries.

Many Indians, whether they admit it or not, covet the Western way of life. However in the past it was only a select few who actually managed to realize their aspirations to study / travel / live abroad. For the majority, it was just a dream. Traditional Indian society has always been restrictive in many senses. Social mobility was restricted. Family, gender, caste, and hierarchy defined one’s place in the social order, determined how others viewed you, related to and behaved towards you and what is expected of you. It also defined what options were open to you in terms of what you could accomplish and who you could become in life. It favored the privileged and those in the upper classes in society. So dreams of going abroad seemed the only way to break the social shackles.
The offshore industry shook all that up. It levelled the playing fields in some ways. It opened new doors, offered new opportunities and financial freedom, which brought in its wake many other changes. The social fabric of Indian society is undergoing dramatic changes. The changes are redefining the concept of identity among younger Indians and reshaping the role of family and the Indian values of interdependence, modesty, family honour, social hierarchy and so on.

Many of the changes are positive – young Indians are confident, ambitious and ready to take on the world. Unlike their parents, they want to take charge of their life and ‘make’ things happen. They wish to be masters of their own destiny. Young women are seeing a world of opportunities opening up for them like never before. Financial independence is allowing this generation to make choices that were not possible before - for example, they can now buy their own homes and move out of parental homes, spend on material goods and lifestyles without feeling guilty. Consumerism has hit a new high. Money and earning power is the new social currency. They are becoming more self-oriented and individualistic. They are now exposed to members of the other sex on a regular basis and making choices of life-partners from a wider pool of people, beyond the old lines of hierarchy. And more importantly, social mobility is now possible due to all the above. The restrictions of family, religion, gender, and so on are no longer inhibitors. India’s traditional caste system mapped out life-paths for most people. Most Indians walk around with an inbuilt radar scanning for clues to place people who they meet into their mental maps and hierarchy. Their behaviour and interactions with others would be based on their readings of the other. Today, these things do not seem to matter as much.

None of this is bad, except when you put it into perspective of what this means in the Indian context and how it plays out. Below are a few examples.

The Indian identity of self has traditionally been defined by a sense of belonging to a group - of family, caste or community, religion, region and language. Indians did not think of themselves as ‘me, an individual’. There was always a context in which they are a part, and that context was always a group. The family has always been one of the most important pillars in Indian society. Unlike the western cultures, the concept of family in India has always meant the extended family, the entire network of people who are related to each other by blood or by marriage. This extended family maintains and defines social boundaries, norms and culturally prescribed behaviours. Relationships and social responsibilities within those extended networks are given prime importance.

Individualism, independence and autonomy, which are considered virtues and values to be aimed for in the West, are frowned upon in India. Independent behavior has always been considered ‘selfish’ and ‘bad’.

An outcome of the family networks was the tradition of arranged marriages, which worked in the interest of the family as a unit. Spouses for children came from a background and culture that were aligned to one’s own. This helped adjustment and nurtured the interdependence that is a keystone of Indian families. Divorces were extremely rare and parents and children were taken care of. This has changed dramatically. There are many ‘love marriages’ between young people who work together and unfortunately, the rate of divorce is extremely high too. The glue of common backgrounds, which helped pull individuals together by creating the magic ingredient of ‘adjustment’ to each other and the family seems to be missing. Many relationships seem to be breaking up on flimsy grounds, too – disagreements about the brand of car to be purchased, or destination for a holiday, can trigger a divorce. The facts that bring the couple together – physical proximity and easy access to each other, seem to not be deep enough to hold them together. And the social stigma that used to come with a break-up doesn’t seem to matter. All this impacts the value of extended families too. The cohesive nature of the family seems to be fraying. Indian culture has always been relationship-oriented; that too seems to be changing. Loyalties and unconditional caring for members in one’s in group seem to have become diluted.

Hierarchy has always been an inescapable fact of Indian society – within the family and in society. Everything and everyone is sized up and ranked in relation to everything and everyone else. Roles, responsibilities and expectations depended upon where one stood in the hierarchy. Parents were awarded respect, and sons and daughters each had their role cut out for them. Sons provided for parents once they started earning, daughters were married off when and to whom the parents chose. Girls today are choosing careers over marriage, preferring to marry much later than before and to find their own life partners. They may choose to move out of their parental home or may stay at home and financially support the family. These things change the sociology-dynamics within the family unit. Yes, the additional and generous income is usually welcome, but the accompanying change in values, expectations, attitude and behavior causes a lot of tension and strife in most homes.

Controlling and withholding finances was one way parents were able to ‘control’ their children in the past, to make them conform to values and behaviors which were considered socially acceptable. Family honor was placed at a premium and protecting it was the responsibility of all family members. This honor was very closely linked to acceptable behaviors. The financial independence of children today seems to have reduced the ability of parents to curb and control the behavior of their children.

There also seems to be a difference in the pace of change between young men and women. The women seem to have become more empowered, independent and vocal than the men. They are unwilling to be passive players in their own lives. I recently met a young professional woman in Hyderabad and asked her what it was like to be a woman in modern India, and she answered, “The men are not ready for us. They like girlfriends who are westernized but want wives who are traditional like their mothers.” I do believe the women have moved ahead in bigger strides, but that was mainly because for decades they were relegated to secondary status.

Changes at other levels which stand out are the adoption of Western behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, ‘baring of skin’, getting tattoos and piercings – all of which are considered ‘cool’ by this younger generation as they try to live their western identities. I believe these are linked to all the changes which are happening at a deeper level and connected to and fueled by growing financial independence. Family honor and taboos cannot matter if the family bonds are unraveling.
Western countries have developed social and legal systems geared towards an individualist society and all that comes with it. Indian society is in a state of transition and we do not have those safeguards and safety nets in place yet. I wonder how long it will take to acknowledge these deep social changes and recognize the impact they will have in the long term.

It would be interesting to see whether similar social changes are visible in other countries where the call center industry has flourished.