Contemporary Youth Culture in India as seen through a Semiotic Lens
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Youth is a life stage and a cohort of immense interest to everyone – to the youth themselves, to marketers who hope to catch them young in favour of their brands, to educationists who see them as the nation’s hope for the future. It seems that even politicians have accepted that the youthful demographics of India is something that they need to think about, as they campaign for votes and appoint ministers and young leaders. Parents look back nostalgically at their youth as one of the best periods of their lives – a famous line says, ‘youth is wasted on the young’. Some of the best known brands in India have made their name and at least a part of their business success by representing the voice of youth and celebrating youth attitudes.
With all of this interest in youth, a sub-segment of the consumer research industry has emerged over the past decade, specializing in the ‘study’ of Indian youth – youth attitudes, youth trends, youth culture, ‘what is cool’/cool hunting’ and so forth…metro youth, small town youth, rural youth, who leads, who follows and who copies? Could a semiotic lens placed on understanding youth culture yield fresh insights too?
Semiotics is the study of texts, signs and symbols for meaning. It looks beyond the literal and direct meanings of ideas and concepts to uncover the hidden culture codes or rules that lie beneath and govern the things people think, say and do. It provides cultural and sociologically based insights. The main difference between conventional qualitative research and semiotic studies is that semiotic analysts do not talk directly to consumers and probe their mind-sets. Rather, they study the cultural material that surrounds consumers and try to understand what ideas are being propagated and how these are shaping consumer attitudes and values. With this in mind and drawing from work that the authors have done for various clients, here is our take on India’s youth culture as decoded from movies, tv programs, magazines, the blogosphere and FB content.
What does it mean to be a young Indian today? What is the essence of youth as a life stage and how does youth culture reflect or talk to the central truths of youthfulness? The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, writing in 350 BC, described the many qualities of the young – including passion, hopefulness, optimism, recklessness and dynamic energy. Fast forward to our time and the essence of youthfulness can be summed up in the phrase – confident optimism. Why these two words and are they not subsumed in one another? Together they seem to capture the essential qualities of this post-liberalization generation – an undiminished hope for a brighter future coupled with a high level of self-belief that they will be successful in accomplishing their goals and fulfilling their ambitions and aspirations.
Eight big themes can be identified that act as the drivers of numerous youth culture codes – the norms and rules that guide youth in their everyday behaviours.
- Be a leader and opinion maker:
“Thou shalt display driving ambition and go-getter spirit to make it to the top of your field and get the commensurate rewards. Aggression, competitiveness and a strong desire to win is the hallmark of a successful person today. Thou shall have strong opinions on all matters and express them via all forms of social media. Thou shall seek the spotlight and the limelight so you can stand out amongst the rest. Followership is passé and anonymity is death.”
- Be enterprising, creative and trendsetting:
Thou shalt start your own business enterprise soon enough. Entrepreneurship is cool and gives you the space to shape your own destiny, define success on your own terms (at least partially). Thou shall be creative and a trendsetter. Creative professions such as advertising, design, music, movies et al are the ‘coolest’ jobs to do. Doing your bit for the under-privileged and the planet, fighting against corruption and standing up for women’s rights – risk taking is a must, although with group approval. Who wants to be a follower, a copier and the last one around, totally left behind?
- Take a ‘light-touch’ approach to relationships:
Thou shalt not shed copious tears and break your heart over others, be they friends of the same sex or of the opposite sex. Nothing too ‘heavy’ or excessively sentimental, please. Have lots of friends, have a good time and if nothing comes of it that you had hoped for…just shed the emotional baggage and move on. The next great friend or love or boss lies in waiting, to be discovered, just around the corner.
- Enjoy an endless stream of fun, pleasure and lifestyle upgrades:
Thou shalt dream of owning a large mansion, a fancy car, a four wheel drive, taking vacations in exotic places and of filling your home with the latest gadgets. It’s such fun to dream and even more fun to get these things and show them off to friends and family, to learn about them and talk about them. It feels great to become a gadget guru, the one who all your friends consult before they make their purchases. Living the plushest life that money can buy – it doesn’t get bigger or better than this.
- Project the ‘right’ image, learn the ‘right’ lines to say and fake it (if required) to make it:
Thou shalt practise the mantra, “the image is it, perception is reality”. Learn how to remake yourself into the ‘perfect’ you with all of the products and services available. Take the coaching classes to know just what to say in an interview, what to say to impress the girl you are interested in and how to ask your boss for a raise. Look cool and confident at all times, even if you are shivering inside. And of course, be quick to spot the fakes too – the ones wearing the designer knock-offs as well as the reality shows that are not quite ‘real’.
- Don’t wait, don’t postpone, don’t delay – get it, enjoy it, it’s all in the ‘now’:
Thou shalt be impatient, ‘oh-yes, abhi’ shall be your anthem. Instant gratification is so much more pleasurable than delayed gratification. Who wants to work hard, wait and wait and then eventually get those objects of desire? And who knows what could happen tomorrow? Today is far more interesting and waits to be ‘juiced’ for maximum pleasure and reward.
- Widen the circle and play the field, it’s more about thrills than about attachment:
Thou shalt use your sex appeal to the full. When it comes to the opposite sex, attractiveness is power. Women, take heed. Learn how to make the men in your life run behind you. Men, practise getting girls hooked to you. We are talking girlfriends, boyfriends, flirtation and playfulness here, not marriage, forever, kids and families.
- You are the hero/heroine/star of your life story:
Thou shalt look at yourself in the mirror and admire yourself. Take lots of pictures of yourself in various poses and post them in places where your friends and others can see you. You are the centre of your universe and you have the right to step up to take center stage. Fashion, accessories, grooming and styling, you must dress like the Star that you are. You deserve nothing less.
In these depictions, representations and narratives that comprise contemporary youth culture, what’s relegated to the background are the two traditional pillars of Indian culture and society – family and faith. Other studies indicate that they are very much a part of young people’s lives but in the media created popular culture, family and faith are taken for granted as a given, hence are not very ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’ to talk about – unless he/she is an inheritor of a famous family legacy.
What is missing altogether are several themes pertaining to an alternative set of cultural values such as:
- Duty, responsibility, sacrifice for the family and society
- Religiosity and service before self, mysticism and exploring higher levels of consciousness
- Taking a more relaxed and easy-going approach to life, with less of striving and more of contentment, less climbing/keeping up and more acceptance
- Being quiet and humble, listening more and talking less, understanding more and arguing less
- Collaborating, working together and winning as a team rather than showing off or proving individual superiority
- Sharing, caring, showing kindness and un-self-interested/altruistic behaviours … doing things for others or the collective good without any likelihood of immediate or even later, personal gain
- Forging long term bonds and lasting relationships among family, extended family, friends and the larger community
These missing ideas and themes pose fundamental contradictions to the directions being propagated in youth culture – to strive, to compete, to achieve, to shop, to consume, to project the right image and to constantly upgrade one’s lifestyle. Hence, these missing ideas, while very much a part of India’s historic traditions and value system, seem to have taken a backseat for now.
It is very much possible that youth of today are practicing some of these values on the quiet – creating their own hybrids of traditional values learnt at home and the norms of youth culture being put forward by the media. The wheel of time and cycles of thought could be expected to come around once again too. And some of these missing ideas could find their way back into the mainstream ideas propagated by popular culture when the next generation reaches the peak of their youth.
Until then, there is the new i-pad to dream of as a birthday gift, along with the high-heeled shoes and designer jewellery, on sale at Myntra.com. And she hasn’t posted this on Face book – that she went to Rishikesh for the Kumbh Mela and that she gives away all her old clothes to the NGO Goonj, to be refurbished and distributed to young women in the villages of Northern India.
About the Authors:
Hamsini Shivakumar is Co-Owner of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, a specialist brand consulting firm. Prior to Leapfrog, she was Head of Brand Strategy at JWT, Mumbai. She is a WPP award winning writer and a regular contributor to International and Indian publications on brand strategy and consumer insight.
Anila Shrivastava is the Founder and Principal Consultant of idstats Research & Consultancy; a Singapore based research and consulting firm. Anila is an award winning researcher- TNS regional award, Millward Brown Knowledge Award, Nielsen Best Branch as branch head; in her previous assignments. She has also written and presented papers at international market research forums. Prior to idstats she was Vice President TNS India.