Photograph by Menty Jamir

For her 31st birthday, Charu, a high-level marketing executive with a large MNC, decided to treat herself to some of her favourite things: a solo staycation at the luxurious Rambagh Palace in Jaipur and a Dior purse she’d been eyeing. For this occasion, she set up a couple of SIPs in a high-performing equity fund that, luckily, paid off just as she’d hoped they would.

Charu’s father, who retired as Brigadier from the Indian Army, couldn’t understand this urge to ‘treat yourself’. His own impulse, at her age in the same circumstances, would’ve been to lock away that money in a deposit with a solid interest rate to add to his children’s education fund or make his own retirement easy. “Why must you spend everything you earn?” he asked her, somewhat exasperated. “What else is one earning for, if not to occasionally access the good life?” she retorted.

Sound familiar? You’ve likely had a version of this exchange at home — often unfolding between an average millennial and their baby boomer parent. Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) came of age post-World War II and were the first generation to help build independent India. Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) hit their stride in a post-liberalisation economy and were the first generation to grow up with the internet and digital technology.

Boomers earned lower salaries (and had a lower cost of living) but saved, bought and invested in solid asset classes, like real estate and gold. Austerity was a way of life. Millennials are more spending-oriented — in post-liberalisation India, consumerism became the norm. They prefer to spend on short-term pleasures — travel, high-end electronics, jewellery, a lush night out. Adulting in the sharing economy, many would rather rent houses than own them and hire cabs or use public transportation instead of buying cars. “They look forward to experiences rather than acquisition,” Anna Chandy, a Bengaluru-based psychologist, told The Economic Times in 2016.

Two years later, another ET article titled ‘Are millennials financially wiser than their parents?’ noted the paradoxes of the generation that was also, supposedly, India’s demographic dividend. “They need to be seen as sui generis, yet follow the herd as investors. They are getting married late, spending a lot on their education, and spending a lot, period. Yet, most are starting to save early. Living on credit is de rigueur, yet the finances must be in order.”

So are millennials really worse off than baby boomers in India when it comes to money matters? A global recession, a pandemic, spiking inflation, rising unemployment and attrition rates, the very real prospect of climate change — you’d think the universe really has it out for this bunch.

In the US, millennials are snowed under debt, with heavy student loans to deal with, and an inability to build assets, leaving them significantly poorer than their parents were at the same age.

In India, the situation is only slightly different. Fintech platform Bankbazaar’s Aspiration Index 2022 notes what young Indians want the most, beyond buying a home: to be happy and healthy (49.2%), see the world (44.1%), be their own bosses (34.1%), save for their children’s education (37.9%), and splurge a little on the finer things in life (31.3%). Given the bleak big picture, this has meant significantly heavier lines of credit to meet basic expenditures and falling or stagnating savings.

Consulting firm Deloitte’s 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey, meanwhile, finds that members of these generations in India are more optimistic about the economic and socio-political situation than the global average. While unemployment is a major concern, side gigs are common. The other things on their mind? Work–life balance, mental health, positive work culture, and hybrid or flexible work arrangements.

At the same time, during the pandemic, there was a spike in the number of millennials signing up for personal finance apps, opening demat accounts, or simply getting into the mutual funds game. According to the Bombay Stock Exchange, 38% of the 70 million investors registered by June 2021 belonged to the 30–40 age group.

While the picture may be different from what it looked like for the boomers, this blend of digital literacy, ambition and optimism might, in the end, save the day for Indian millennials.

Nidhi Gupta is a freelance writer and editor based in Mumbai.

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