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Age of adolesense
This is the first generation that has the ability to choose between many equally good options, and this realisation leads to a great need to try out things.
Which channel will we come on, a group of teenagers asked my colleagues and I who were shooting them in their natural habitat for a research project. The matter-of-fact acceptance by a group of 15 year olds of being a step removed from some form of media exposure did not seem out of place in a cafe in Bhopal. Across the country, teenagers sit posing, waiting to be framed by some camera. The sense of imminent fame, of waiting perpetually at the edge of being discovered, is part of a new sense of selfawareness that characterises the teen of today. If in an earlier era, to be a teenager was to be a tentative frog in a cloistered well, today, the vastness of the world outside is seen to be an opportunity waiting to be cashed. The ubiquity of the camera has made everyone a model of sorts; everyone knows themselves as others see them. The focus on the body as an asset to be shaped, groomed, tended to, adorned and pointed in the direction of opportunities is visible across the large and small towns of India.
Perhaps the biggest change between the millennial teen and her 20th century counterpart lies in the sense of control that is felt over one's own self and the life that one wishes to lead. From childhood, the experience of having an opinion that counts, of being part of family discussions on subjects that were hitherto considered to be the exclusive domain of adults - what car to buy, where to go for a holiday, the merits of one operating system versus another, have led to the a degree of selfconfidence and significance that makes the entry into the teens a less tentative experience than was the case for an earlier generation. The growing pains are still very much in place, but these are navigated with a greater sense of purpose and with the clear recognition of oneself as an individual. In a larger sense, the idea that the self, and all that goes into its construction is an individual responsibility, a project that begins with the arrival of puberty and continues till well into the twenties, is well understood.
Enabled by technology, the need to mould the world around one's own needs translates itself into actively managing one's context. Unlike earlier, technology for today's teenager is like time itself, a mode of perception that is taken very much for granted. Technology does not evoke awe, only impatience. The next big thing is seen as a matter of right, and the interest lies as much in what technology can do as in the richness of experience that it provides. The more the world responds to touch and thought, the greater a sense of mastery over it. The distinction between the physical and virtual world is less clearly etched out, and there is a degree of seamlessness with which there are traversed. Perhaps because of the fact that this generation is born into a world that gives them an array of options, the urge to seek out new experiences before freezing on any definition of the self is an extremely strong one.
This is the first generation that has the ability to choose between many equally good options, and this realisation leads to a great need to try out things, to float from one experience to another without crystallising any firm view on what works for the individual. Whether it is the area of education, personal relationships, consumption or personal identity, the desire is to keep things open. This is particularly pronounced in areas of relationships and sexuality where there is greater selfawareness and implicit license to experiment. In some sections of society, it is now common to hear of young girls and boys speak casually of their exes, something that was unheard of earlier. The idea of having a girlfriend or boyfriend is now part of the regular vocabulary of teenagers, although it is not yet a routine event in their lives, at least not for all sections of society.
Between the genders, girls without question, show the most marked change. The emerging sense of control that is experienced over their own lives is facilitated by the loosening of controls at home. Across urban middle class India, young girls, enabled by access to education and technology, are radiating a new sense of confidence. What is remarkable is the consistency with which they speak of a belief in being able to realise their ambitions, and the ease with which they are able to reconcile the conflicting claims on their lives. For this generation of teenagers, parents by and large play a supportive role; there is greater anxiety about competition, much more visible in the metros as against the smaller towns, but there is also an acknowledgement that today there are many more avenues to success that are available. Importantly, parents no longer back their own ability to choose on behalf of their children, and this creates a great sense of liberation for the young.
While family continues to be a valued support system, friends are very clearly central to the journey of identity formation. The idea of 'our group', a collection of friends with distinctively marked personalities that operates as a unified entity of some kind, can be seen across the country. Friends allow for the collection of experiences that might have not been possible without the safety net of numbers. Unlike an earlier era where 'hanging out' without actually doing much was the primary past time of the young, today there is a greater activity orientation. The desire is to do interesting things, although that definition often does boil down to going to a mall and hanging around. The difference is that given relatively higher levels of affluence, doing nothing is most commonly signified by consuming something. Consumption is more than just a pursuit, it is a language in which the teenager has acquired some fluency. Consumption becomes both a way of experiencing the world as well expressing oneself to it.
Social media creates a virtual sense of hanging out, but this often accompanies some other activity. For this generation, the idea of doing one thing at a time is a colossal waste of the senses. Unless two or three senses get utilised simultaneously while being engaged in different activities, life seems a little dull. Brought up as natives in a digital world, the tendency is to process things simultaneously rather than sequentially, leading to the privileging of width over depth.
One notable in this set of teenagers is a greater willingness to engage in causes. Perhaps this stems from a greater sense of control that one feels over one's environment and a belief the world is responsive to their own actions, but the desire to not only complain about things but to participate in changing them is visible today. The attention is not always enduring, and the understanding of issues often reactive, but the desire to do something is present. For the millennial teen, all experiences seem to be more heightened, beginning with a sense of self. Becoming oneself is not automatic, but for now the journey is viewed with optimism rather than anxiety.
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