A view into India’s Gen Y

November 6, 2007, 1:18 AM UTC

Being in India over the last week at the Fortune Global Forum has been as amazing as one might expect — full of big names and high-level talk. What I didn’t expect, though, is the degree to which our Gen Y discussions resonated, even here. Usually, at events like this, people our age are a tiny minority, often serving as support staff (or mistaken as such even if they are attending for “real” reasons). But for at least one hour at this year’s Fortune Global Forum, the issues facing Gen Yers took center stage.

It was during a session called “Our India: Reflections of Rising Stars,” which included a conversation with three young Indians navigating many of the same career issues we discuss here on The Gig. It shouldn’t be a surprise, considering how often we get comments from the Subcontinent here. But there is a perception, however wrong, that young Indians are all taking their parents’ advice or following their example and dutifully forging ahead in the tech fields (in addition to our “traditional” chosen occupation of doctoring, of course) without a second thought.

Not so, at least based on these panelists’ experience. Akshay Mahajan, 21, dropped out of college to be at freelance photographer. And Nikila Srinivasan, 19, is pursuing what she calls a dual career path, as an engineering student and aspiring writer. “One is my profession, and one is my passion,” she says. She isn’t willing to give the writing up, particularly since, as she pointed out, with one company often recruiting 200 people from one campus for the same entry-level posts, there isn’t much incentive to be the top graduate or opportunity to distinguish yourself.

But it was this that I found most interesting: “In a small town,” says Abhishek Nayak, a student at the prestigious BITS, Pilani, engineering college and already an entrepreneur himself, “there’s a lot of pressure to succeed from parents and peers.” Fellow young people, it seems, play a comparable role in pressuring Yers here to choose what Mahajan calls “careers perceived as ones that will get you set.” Is this the case in the U.S. and elsewhere, too, or is it a function of India’s more recent shift to tolerating all this free-spiritedness in its youth?

Regardless, the peer point was driven home to me at our closing dinner, when I sat with a general from the Indian army, his wife, and his daughter. She’s a 21-year-old product design student who, at his encouragement, studied in Italy for six months. And now that she’s about to graduate, he told me, he’d like her to take a year or two to travel the world before settling down to work. “Talk to her,” he told me, smiling but plaintive, as though my good example as a follow-your-heart writer might knock some sense into her.

I’m not ashamed to admit that the whole thing had me a little disoriented. While he was explaining how he wanted her to stay with friends around the world and rough it a bit, I was still marveling at a seemingly traditional Indian dad sending his young daughter off to Italy by herself. I don’t think my own mom would’ve gone for that, and we were growing up in liberal New England.

It was all pretty amazing. And I think it speaks to something pretty amazing going on in India, as it takes center stage. After all, as moderator and editor JAM Magazine Rashmi Bansal mentioned in her introduction, much is made of the fact that 54% of India’s population is under the age of 35. (Read Rashmi’s “Youth Curry” blog for more on Indian youth here.) So it shouldn’t be a shock at all that young people there are struggling with many of the same things we are here.

In fact, maybe there are some bigger lessons to be learned from the emerging Indian example, though I probably need to recover from the jet-lag a bit before I can say with any certainty what they might be. (I’m back writing at Frankfurt Airport, by the way, so let me ask forgiveness in advance if it’s visibly affected my thought processes…) In the meantime, what do you all — Indians and non — think?