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Expert Roundtable 6 Chinese and Indian Youth


This summer, BusinessWeek brought together 13 of the smartest people we could find for an online roundtable on the past, present, and future of China and India (see below for a list of participants). On each of eight days, we posted a new question. Economics Editor Peter Coy moderated the discussion. The experts communicated both with us and with each other on everything from geopolitics to generation gaps. Now we're sharing the discussion with you -- and invite you to offer your comments. Please note that not all 13 participated every day, and comments have been edited for style and clarity.

How are young Indians and Chinese different from their elders? Are they smarter? Lazier? More creative? Less obedient? How will their differences affect the development of the two nations in coming decades, in everything from consumption patterns to technological advancement?

Oded Shenkar

Whenever a country modernizes there is speculation that the new generation will be dramatically different from those that preceded it, in particular more Westernized. Much of that speculation is based on superficial observations regarding rock music and the like. However most systematic studies show that new generations retain much (though not all) of the core values of their culture.

Cultures change, if at all, very slowly. What is changing is the environment in which they live, their living standards, opportunities for advancement, and self-fulfillment. Young Chinese and Indians certainly have more opportunities today, and it is easier to be ambitious and hard-working when these qualities are rewarded.

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Wang Yong

According to some latest pollings, young generations in China are more individualistic, more consumerist, less obedient, and more knowledgeable about the world. The country will have a better-educated workforce, and the eagerness about a successful career is quite high. Young generations are optimistic and positive. Personal interest and high income are top factors in choosing a job while the concern about job stability is quite low.

Regarding the potential of technology innovation, about 65% of high school students express they are not interested in science.

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Subroto Bagchi

I have two daughters. One is 23, and the other is 20. We have raised them partly in India and partly overseas. I see their generation at close quarters also because my company has 2,500 people, mostly, twenty-somethings. I often travel to nonurban Indian places, and I watch young people there. Here is what I think.

When I look at my two daughters, it amazes me that they never lost a day in school or college due to a "student strike." We have before us a generation that did not turn to the streets because they were deeply unhappy about something.

The current generation has, by and large, rejected politics as a prime mover. They have grown up with a TV and a telephone either at home or in the vicinty. They have watched MTV but washed their hands before dinner. They still go the temple, and most of them seriously believe that God exists.

For the first time, it is O.K. in India for a kid to say that he or she wants to be a theater person, a singer, a fashion designer, a writer, a cricket player as a profession without parents losing sleep. It also means that they had multiple choices to pick up a role model.

For the first time in India, business is not a bad word. It is O.K. to be a businessman. When I look at young people around me, I see more hope than helplessness. More aspiration than angst.

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Wenran Jiang

These questions are primarily about the differences between the younger and older generations within the two countries, but it is worth noting that China has experienced unprecedented economic transformations and other dramatic changes (including its political environment) in the last 25 years, exactly the time needed for a generation to grow up. In contrast, changes in India are less extraordinary and more gradual.

Such a difference results in a much wider generation gap in China than that in India. Another thing we need to keep in mind is that not all the young people are the same, growing up in the same environment or thinking in similar ways, especially in India and China, where in both there is a huge development gap between the urban and rural areas and between the regions.

The young in urban China today are much more open-minded, better informed about the outside world, less politically indoctrinated, and more entrepreneurial in economic activities. They could be still nationalistic, yet the value system is predominantly utilitarian and self-centered. They tend to seek better education opportunities to study abroad as hundreds of thousands have done.

None of these qualities can be said about the generation that grew up from the 1950s to 1970s. Among this new generation there will be very energetic and talented people emerging as social, economic, and political elites, and they are likely to guide the Chinese economy all the way to rival that of the U.S. by the time they retire.

Many of them will study in the U.S., Japan, and other advanced industrialized countries. Unlike the last generation of Chinese students who went abroad and stayed abroad, the new generation of students who go abroad will return to China as they see that's where the future is and where they can make a good living.

However, the majority of young Chinese live in the countryside: There are still 900 million classified as rural population, and 600 million to 700 million are still trying to make a living in the agricultural sector. Some 200 million are surplus labor, and most of them are now floating population. The young people in rural China are experiencing similar kinds of changes but not quite at the same level of intensity as those in the cities, and they also face a new set of challenges: They no longer want to remain in the rural areas, either out of desperation or out of the desire for a better life in the cities.

They venture into cities, but many young males end up doing hard labor, such as in the booming construction industry. Many young women from rural areas go to cities, working mostly in the low-paid service industry, and many of them also end up in the fast-growing prostitution trade. They form a huge army of internal migration that is likely to become the largest urbanization movement in human history, moving hundreds of millions from the Chinese countryside to the cities in the next few decades.

They will also join a growing and young urban unemployed population. Together, they will put tremendous pressure on the government to continue the current pace of economic growth, and they are likely to be the core element of social instability when things go wrong or their expectations are not met.

I would like to hear from other colleagues who are more familiar with India. There might be some global trends affecting people across borders, but my understanding is that the young in India are not growing up in such a quickly changing and dramatic environment as their counterparts in China.

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Rajni Bakshi

There is, as Subroto has outlined, an exciting expansion of opportunities in India. But it is not yet clear if this is greater than the parallel reality of simmering frustration. This contrast is visible in cities and villages alike -- for there is now substantial rural affluence.

For those young people who are "in the loop" and in a position to tap the new opportunities, things are changing fast. For those who are left out, who have nothing more than their labor to sell for a bare subsistence daily wage, there is a dark stagnation. This is partly why armed Marxist-Leninist groups are able to wield considerable power over large tracts of three states in India.

In this context there are no simple, uniform answers to the questions posed above. But if we limit our view to the young Indians who are even on the edge of the expanding opportunities, there is certainly a greater "go getting" energy than before. The iconic status of Infosys is largely about it being the creation of regular middle-class folk who rose to the top through sheer skill, dedication and honesty -- not by manipulating a license-quotas system. The ripples of confidence triggered by such examples were not there 20 years ago and are thus important to celebrate.

However, these ripples don't reach those young Indians who are at present completely out of the loop -- either because they are malnourished, or insufficiently educated or unable to cope with an English-speaking world. There is a real fear that India could become a competitive global economy and still leave hundreds of millions out in the cold. In which case the potential advantage of a large working-age population would become a nightmare. The jury is still out on whether India's current growth trajectory can ward off this scenario.

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Jiang Li

I agree the assessment of Wang Yong on young generations in China. I want to describe some special conditions that may not be common in either India or Western countries and that may be used to explain some special characters in young Chinese. The first one is the One Child condition. In the new generation of urban areas, a [single] boy or a girl is almost always the center of a family. Extraordinary care is taken to the child by the whole family (usually father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother).

The second one is the extremely tough education competition. A primary school student usually needs to study very hard to upgrade to a famous middle school, then a middle school student usually also needs to study very hard to upgrade to a famous high school, and then to a famous university. Any failure in this career path will result in leaving the mainstream, therefore the psychological pressure of urban area children is usually very high.

I am concerned about the children in rural areas, as Wenran Jiang commented. These constitute the largest part of the young Chinese population. As the urbanization movement is expanded from coast areas to inner areas of China, the education condition in these rural areas is also being improved. However more efforts still need to be made to improve the living and education conditions of these young generations.

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Arun Maira

I think the more interesting aspect of this question may be not what is the difference in orientation and attitudes of younger and older people today but the differences in how the older people thought about the world when they were young.

A principal difference in India, I notice, is the attitude toward money and wealth. In my younger days, wealth did not automatically or easily give you high esteem. Now, wealth seems to have become the most important indicator of a person's worth. In those days, a question one had about rich people was, "I wonder what else is good about this person for me to respect him?" As a contrast, I was asked when I moved to the U.S. in the late 80s by an American colleague, "If you are so good, how come you are not rich?"

Indian youth think more in this way now. Jobs and careers are valued mostly in money terms, whereas in those earlier times, "service to the nation" was an important source of status, compensating greatly for less money. The admiration of wealth is an orientation that will accelerate the growth of India in money terms. We need economic growth, therefore this shift must be good for the economic side of India.

I am nostalgic, however, for the idealism that I found, in much greater measure, in young people in those earlier times.

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Viveca Chan

Our company, Grey Worldwide China, has been tracking Chinese consumers' attitudes, beliefs, and values in the past 10 years and doing in-depth research amongst specific groups, including Chinese youth.

Youths in China are behaving quite differently from youths some 10 or 20 years ago and from their parents. Apart from what has been said by our panel of experts, the biggest difference is Chinese youths today are optimistic and more confident. In most urban areas, life has improved significantly, and they no longer need to worry about having enough to eat or to wear. They can afford to go after higher hierarchy of needs.

The biggest difference is in the past young people's aspiration was to have job security: work for a big company, or get respectable job with the government or be a teacher/professor. Today, many more young people want to be their own boss. They are more willing to take risks, change jobs for a better future. Some of the youth idols are no longer just superstars on TV. They include Internet song writers and Internet writers who started their own business and may not even have completed college.

The other significant change is young people knows how to ENJOY life. It is not just about work and making money. The best is if they can combine learning and enjoyment. That's why going on trips is so popular because it is both a learning experience and enjoyment. This means that experiential marketing will be big and of growing importance to marketing to Chinese consumers.

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Manoj Singh

To give you the perspective of "the young," I threw this question to two of my managers in the Deloitte Asia Pacific Regional Office -- one of Indian origin, and the other Chinese. Here is what they said.

China

I think the behaviour and attitude of young Chinese (those below 30 with higher education) is quite different in mainland China and Hong Kong. In mainland China, the young are quite spoiled by their parents as a result of the one child policy. They are known to be quite self-centered and keen to express their ideas. Due to the open-door policy and increasing exposure to the Western world, they are aggressive and hardworking and look to seize every opportunity.

Young mainland Chinese are also enthusiastic to embrace knowledge and are highly adaptive to new technology. They are willing to spend on high-end technology products (digital cameras, iPods) or luxury items like Gucci and Louis Vuitton -- even if they have to save a significant portion of their income to do so. Young mainland Chinese are also quite patriotic.

In Hong Kong, young Chinese are well exposed to the West, and their eagerness to acquire new knowledge is therefore relatively less than those in mainland China. They have more of a "take it for granted" attitude. On the other hand, young Hong Kong Chinese are certainly creative and smart. They are also efficient in problem-solving. They closely follow technology trends, and especially chase after Japanese and Korean products. Since they are well blessed with material goods, many of them have a passion to lead a yuppie lifestyle.

India

One of the biggest advantages the youth of India have is mobility. It is very easy for them to move about the country and follow the opportunities -- an edge the Chinese youth do not currently have.

The youth of India are quickly adapting to new technologies, and English is now being more widely accepted and spoken than before. India's youth have a very unique advantage, a combination of mobility, language, education, a thirst for knowledge, and technology-savvy nature. Add to that a country that has an entrepreneurial spirit and a very clear intent to adapt to Western culture, and you have a very solid case.

But it's not all hunky dory for the Indian youth. Parents of the burgeoning middle class in India are driving their children ever harder at academic and other activities. They believe this is the only way to stand out and survive in a system which is cutthroat because of the exploding population and as education becomes more and more accessible to the masses.

The 18- to 25-year olds have now started to look at different professions besides becoming a doctor, engineer, lawyer, or government official, jobs that the earlier generations were expected to pursue, and did. Alternative professions are also beginning to gain credibility amongst parents.

The youth today are definitely more aware of the choices available to them. The middle-class youth seem to be grounded within the value system and culture, since it is so unique. They are also more creative. The environment that currently exists warrants that, and competition ensures that creativity is likely to be the best way to get ahead.

Though it is largely believed that the culture-and-value-system-torch-bearing youth are losing their way, I still believe that relates to a small percentage. The combination of the Indian value system and the Western approach is a winning one and if the Indian youth can manage to achieve the right balance, global organizations will court their skills vigorously.

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Saurav Adhikari

Every generation will experience change, and so will India and China. This will be more dramatic especially in the context of development. Social changes are what is rapidly driving this as is evident from a walk around the Indian cities and even rural areas. I am unable to comment about China, but I guess similar forces must be unleashed there from the comments above.

Simply put, young Indians are more aware about the world they live in. They are more materialistic (this is not to suggest that the spiritual side was more dominant earlier). They are consumers in the true sense. Frugality and conservation are not the virtues they grow up with.

They are exposed to satellite TV (there was only one or two state-run channels in India when I grew up), the Internet (DSL/cable access is growing, but cybercafes remain a key access point), freer access to social interaction, mobility (global and virtual). They are global citizens. Adoption of styles and fashion from anywhere (America still dominates) is quick.

But as several surveys have shown, this openness and confidence does come with some sense of humility and purpose. I feel confident that they can dream and achieve. My generation could only dream. We were hostage to a system that did not let us unshackle ourselves.

The Participants

Saurav Adhikari

Corporate vice-president for strategy, HCL Technologies

India

Subroto Bagchi

Chief operating officer, MindTree Consulting

U.S. and India

Rajni Bakshi

Activist and author

India

Madhav Bhatkuly

Managing partner, New Horizon Investments

India

Viveca Chan

Group chairman & CEO, Grey Global Group

Hong Kong

Subir Gokarn

Chief economist, Crisil Ltd. debt-rating agency

India

Wenran Jiang

Associate professor and associate chair

Department of Political Science, University of Alberta

Canada

Jiang Li

Research Manager, Media Communication Group, Microsoft Research Asia

China

Arun Maira

Chairman, Boston Consulting Group (India)

India

Oded Shenkar

Professor of management and human resources, Ohio State University Fisher College of Business

U.S.

Manoj Singh

CEO, Deloitte, Asia-Pacific Region

Hong Kong

Donald H. Straszheim

Chairman & CEO, Straszheim Global Advisors

U.S.

Wang Yong

Associate professor, School of International Studies

Director, Center for International Political Economy, Peking University

China


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