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A Brief History Of India’s Generation Gap And How The Russian Revolution Influenced It

‘Generation gap’ is one such phrase which often takes all the blame upon itself when people – mostly parents or teachers (on one side) and their children or students (on the other) – do not find any point of reconciliation on some issues regarding daily affairs or those that have wider implications.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines generation gap as “a situation in which older and younger people do not understand each other because of their different experiences, opinions, habits, and behaviour.” While trying to gain an edge over younger people in an argument, it’s quite common for older people to say something along the lines of – “You don’t really understand the meaning of what I am saying now because of the generation gap and your lack of experience. I’ve seen a lot more through all these years – and you too will realise the same once you reach my age.”

However, the interesting thing here is that in numerous such instances where this statement is used, the opposite turns out to be true. Rarely do people realise the meaning of what was once said by their elders in the same way they meant it, even after they reach the so-called ‘age of enlightenment’. Most often, they simply stick to the opinions they held initially. However, it’s only this statement that continues to be reiterated through generations.

People often take for granted that the ‘age-factor’ is the determinant for defining a generation gap. It is often thought that people belonging to the same age group universally share similar opinions on common issues. It is also believed that such people come in conflict with the people from a different age group or ‘generation’. But this isn’t necessarily true.

For instance, on several matters like technology, films, music, job preferences or dressing style, the youth from the Indian middle-class would probably, to a large extent, agree with the views of the older and younger generations in the West or even with the elite Indian upper-class. However, in all probability, it is the older generation of the Indian middle-class that may come in conflict with this united front of diversely-aged people.

What then, is the determining factor for the generation gap that is quite visible among the youth and the older generations of our time? Again, the keyword here can be found in the same clichéd word repeated by the elders – experience. Yes, experience is the key factor that defines and determines the gap between different ‘generations’ to connect with each other.

Experiences are neither universal nor static. They are case-specific, relative and dynamic and are definitely not something that converge in the same point at the same age. Going back to the Cambridge English Dictionary, experience is defined as “(the process of getting) knowledge or skill from doing, seeing, or feeling things.” Singling out the attributes that define ‘experience’, we can easily find the implications of the existing divide in the way the youth of today think (or act) – differently, or at times, in total opposition to the value systems of the elders. The way the youth travel, communicate, gather information, write, eat or even live, have been greatly influenced by the changes and advances that have come along in course of time.

While the elderly people of our times have grown up walking long distances to schools or writing weekly/monthly letters back home, the middle-class youth of today has grown up on cycles or buses and may not have ever written a letter except during an examination. Some may say that even the elder generation catches up with these changes. But then, the influences in the formative years do stay on for a long time – and they do colour one’s preferences. Also, it wouldn’t make much sense to expect a generation brought up in an age of video-calling and instant messaging to be patient enough to wait for days or weeks for letters. The pace of doing things has increased – and the ways have become easier. The youth is clocked faster – and yes, the youth of today is among the earlier generations post the digital revolution.

Image source: NU SCI

Some scholars opine that the advances in technology from 1980 to 2020 will be much faster, more innovative and ‘newer’ compared to what had happened between 1600 and 1980. The current youth has grown up while experiencing rapid changes in the way of doing things during their formative ages, unlike the elders who probably grew up seeing changes at a much slower pace. Both the generations may perhaps be equally susceptible to the changes brought in by technology, but the youth probably finds it much easier to catch up – and are also perhaps more welcoming towards changes. In fact, they get ‘bored’ with things quickly and are demanding changes at a faster pace.

Having said that, what has the Russian Bolshevik Revolution (that took place in 1917 – more than 100 years back), got to do with the wide generation gap among the Indian middle-class? It would perhaps be a matter of surprise to find the significance of such an event in the behavioural changes in multiple Indian generations. But then, the undercurrents set off by the Socialist Revolution has had a huge impact on the lives of people throughout the century. The effects were not just confined to the Soviet Bloc; instead, they spread globally.

The Socialist state that was set up after the revolution, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was seen and hailed as a paradise for the working classes. Whereas, the very idea of a State controlled by the working class was a nightmare come true for the bourgeoisie of the western world. To ensure that the working classes in their own countries (whom they had been exploiting for quite a long time) were not lured by the Marxist call (“Workers of the world, unite”) to revolt, the western imperialist states started showering benefits and welfare schemes targeted at the workers, including retirement pensions and allowances. Welfare schemes and social security measures were taken up as ‘state policies’ to preserve their legitimacy. Such measures trickled down to the imperial colonies as well – and laid the foundations for the idea of a State as the fountainhead of benefits and welfare.

The independent republic of India, which succeeded British India, furthered the British legacy in this realm, with an additional choice to follow the path of the Soviet Union – of planned development and state-triggered growth – towards the aim of attaining a ‘socialist pattern of society’. This policy of the Indian state which employed a large chunk of the educated Indian populace led to the formation of the ‘salaried government servant’ class, which seemingly led and represented the discourse of the Indian middle class in the decades that followed.

This mixed economy with socialist ideals triggered incremental and comprehensive growth. It also seasoned the Indian populace, especially the middle classes, to accept and incorporate changes in a slow and steady fashion. Government jobs were seen as desirable in comparison to private-sector jobs which were thought to be relatively unstable. Production and competition were restricted by the ‘licence-raj’ – and the bipolar power structure in the global arena restricted the neo-liberal forces from making an entry to the Indian economy.

The Cold War era was the period in which the elders of today were born and seasoned. The character of the erstwhile polity – one of slow but stable changes – was therefore imbibed by the generation.

Representative image

However, the Cold War ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 – and the world witnessed drastic changes in every sphere, thereafter. The present young generation was born and seasoned during this period – a period which saw the advent of free-market economies, the digital revolution, rapid privatisation, globalisation, trans-border flow of finance and human capital, e-governance and social media. The collapse of the Socialist Bloc minimised the threat of a communist revolution – and the capitalist economies once again walked out into a safe zone.

The welfare-state policies are now slowly being revoked. The retirement pensions have become (or are becoming) contributory pensions. Subsidies are being slashed. Job vacancies in the government sectors are now often seen to be on a temporary or contractual basis with not many employment benefits. Government agencies and departments are rapidly being privatised or outsourced. Public-private partnerships seem to be managing the affairs of the State.

The ATMs, which once substituted bank cashiers, are now being substituted by Paytm and UPI. Retailers are being substituted by Amazon and Flipkart. The grocery market has been replaced with Amazon Grocery or Big Basket.

The gramophone record had long back given way to audio cassettes and compact disks (CDs), which are now again giving way to pen drives and memory cards. The VCR or the DVD players have become a thing of the past – while Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hotstar have all taken over.

Seen in this light, how can anyone, even in their wildest dreams, expect the youth of today (seasoned by privatisation, the digital revolution, globalisation and social media) to be inclined towards public-sector jobs, paperwork, letters or telegrams – in exactly the same fashion the older generations used to? Is it not almost morally criminal to measure the value systems, lifestyles and ways of thinking of people belonging to two different eras (the pre-Cold War era and the post-Cold War era) with the same yardstick?

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