They seek the freedom to choose their own careers without disapproval; the freedom to be selfish about their own desires; the freedom to be free of the weight of family expectations. The inalienable right of your boro chacha to insist that you go into the family business and marry his best friend’s daughter is being increasingly challenged. If decisions are to be made regarding their life, the new generation would like to make them themselves
Irum Ali Khan
Call them what you want: Generation Now, Gen Yo, the Me Generation, the Djuice Generation, or simply â€˜those kidsâ€™; the truth is that urban university-educated middle-class youth are on the move. They are creating a new social order, one in which the values that underpinned their parentâ€™s realities are no longer the most influential, and in which the horizon no longer stretches to the finite boundaries of the nation. This is the post-post-independence generation brought up in a culture that is free to define its own identity, no longer constrained by the dominance of another. This is the generation firmly placed within the urban middle class, their parents and grandparents having made the physical and conceptual leap to city life and professional careers. This is the generation that is connected instantaneously to the rest of the frenetically-paced world at the click of a remote control button or a tap of the â€˜Enterâ€™ key. This is the generation whose life choices have expanded exponentially in the past decade, even compared to that of their older siblings. This is the generation who is trying to forge an identity â€” caught between the traditional middle-class Bengali values of their families and the siren call of the increasingly globalised world they live in.
While this urbane generation might have moved on, their surrounding society still lags behind them, insisting on obedience to the established norms â€” have a â€˜stableâ€™ career, marry a â€˜suitableâ€™ girl or boy, support your family, take care of elderly parents, fulfil familial obligations smilingly, be financially conservative, have the right number of children and, most importantly, maintain the desired status in society, or achieve a higher one. Yet, contrastingly the material culture all around them urges them towards a very different life â€” the advertisement billboards urge them to engage in â€˜ajaira pechalâ€™ or â€˜jotil premâ€™, much against their parentsâ€™ wishes. The steady stream of serials, reality shows on satellite TV and movies they consume by the dozen on pirated DVDs show them a so-called better life overseas, replete with all the materialist trappings of globalised success.
If not available abroad, this lifestyle is to be strived for here, complete with the job at an international bank, ad firm or multinational company and the latest mobile phone model and surround-sound home theatre system. The â€˜internationalizationâ€™ of their reality daily removes them further and further from any sense of rootedness or investedness in a Bengali future. The failure of the society at large, and the education system in particular, to provide them with an analytical understanding of the wider world has resulted in an ideologically bereft generation, some of whom are turning to radical interpretations of Islam to find a sense of identity. They lack a political ideology to call their own, ideals to dream and fight for, unlike previous generations. They yearn for success, usually defined in materialistic and monetary terms, and are willing to fight for it with a determination previously unknown. So, where do they go from here?
Conventional wisdom tells us that social change happens slowly, that it takes years and decades for ideals and values to change. Although each successive generation demonstrates a marked difference in thought and fashion to the one preceding it, the rapid emergence of the phenomenon that is the â€˜private university educated urban middle class youthâ€™ has been truly astonishing. Of course, one might argue that this is a limited and eventually statistically insignificant section of the population, given the vast numbers of young people this appellation does not cover. However, it is certain that given their access to myriad opportunities these young adults will one day have the opportunity to shape the nationâ€™s economic future. While this fact is a testament to the class and region-based inequalities that plague our nation, when we consider that these are, to use an already overused clichÃ©, the leaders of tomorrow, it gives us pause to consider their provenance and destination. Irate readers may leap to point out that their brothers, sisters, friends, children, or even they themselves are part of the group in question and do not share any of the characteristics described herein. The study of social groups by its very nature requires the analytical observation of general characteristics and behaviour that are perceived in the majority. Exceptions to the rule abound, and may acquit themselves accordingly.
Sociologist Anthony Giddens argues that industrialisation has brought with it a culture that involves the accumulation of material wealth and the evolution of â€˜world societyâ€™ where the individual is confronted by social institutions that are globally shaped. Bangladesh, in the throes of a highly scrutinised industrialisation process, is not exempt from the tentacles of globalisation. Globalisation is contemporary with modernisation and current capitalist development, directly allied to the manner in which modern societies are evolving. It is impossible to be a part of the world â€” economically, socially or politically â€” without opening the doors to the global juggernaut of transnational business and media. In Bangladesh, this has meant the availability of international consumer goods and technology in the local market, the indefatigable spread of the mobile telephone revolution, and the all-pervasive influence of satellite media. The appearance, assumptions, attitudes and aspirations of the new generation of urban youth are evidence of this.
The first thing you notice are the way they look. These kids would be cool anywhere â€” anywhere being the operative word. The upper-middle-class youth of Santiago bear a strong resemblance to their counterparts in London, or Delhi, or Dhaka. Satellite media, having made its way into every middle class home, ceaselessly transmits a mass culture of standardised and dictated tastes, fashions and aspirations. Be it on the ubiquitous Hindi movies or film-based programming or the international music channels (lead by MTV), young people are exposed to an increasingly homogenised representation of what it is to be â€˜coolâ€™ or â€˜trendyâ€™. The rising importance of appearance, lifestyle-based gadgets and access to the latest technology is what sets this generation apart from its predecessors.
For this generation, what you wear says a lot about who you are. And who you are seems to be an aspiring citizen of the world. Dhakaâ€™s â€˜Generation Nowâ€™ follows the same internationally hip style code. The guys, especially, nearly to the last man will have the hair in the regulation spikes, the necklace of wooden beads, a silver ring or two and the carefully composed uniform of fitted t-shirt and jeans or cargoes. The women, still governed by an adherence to the shalwar kameez, will improvise on this standard garment to the point that it is no longer recognizable as such. Those who have the nerve to be more â€˜daringâ€™ are seen to eschew any pretence of local flavour at all and head straight for the jeans and t-shirt combination. The defining fashion trend of the past few years, the fotua, is yet another step towards a more Western silhouette while still keeping within traditional boundaries of acceptable dress. The ever-diminishing proportions of the â€˜ideal bodyâ€™ suggest the internalisation of international standards of beauty and desirability. Sadly, the traditional Bangladeshi proportions arenâ€™t exactly the same as a supermodelâ€™s, but this doesnâ€™t seem to deter legions of girls from aspiring to look like an impossible dream.
And it doesnâ€™t stop at the clothes. Look at any 18- to 23-year-old standing outside a private university and chances are that he or she will have a mobile phone attached to their ear and a look of intense concentration on their faces. If they arenâ€™t actually talking on the phone, theyâ€™ll either be sending SMSs to each other, playing games/taking pictures/listening to music on their phones or showing off the latest model theyâ€™ve just purchased. This is a generation that is attached at the hip, or rather the ear, to their telephones. Phones have moved beyond a medium for basic communication to the basis of a whole lifestyle.
This addiction to consumerism and technology goes beyond mobiles. This generation is defined by a techno-savviness and internationalism that often leaves their parents baffled. DVD players, MP3 players, computers and associated paraphernalia, musical instruments, cars and the ability to travel widely are standard objects of desire. Cool is having the latest music from the international charts downloaded via your broadband connection from your home computer onto a tiny MP3 player dangling around your neck; cool is the aspiration to own these international symbols of materialism and comfort.
The cultural life of university students is yet another area where we see the relentless influence of globalisation. Yes, the campus bands still sing of broken hearts and forbidden romance in the grand tradition of the Bengali balladeer, but they also sing of teenage angst, disaffection with society, anger at limited opportunities and dissatisfaction with the status quo. The favoured bands on campus all seem to be purveyors of the alterna-metal genre of music, whether they be local or foreign. Music that speaks to the generational disconnect is whatâ€™s in, and what strikes a chord. Black t-shirts emblazoned with the name of some massively successful band that makes its money from moaning about how terrible life is seem to be adorning young men all over town.
If it begins with what they wear and what they listen to, it ultimately ends in who they think they are and where they want to be.
Who they think they are is simple â€” they are a generation who feel entitled to be able to fulfil any dream that they have, and believe in being go-getters. This sense of entitlement, this conviction that they deserve that job at a multinational or a foreign bank or an up-and-coming ad firm is new to this generation. Their parents were often surprised by their own successes, and grateful for them â€” holding onto them and sheltering them from misfortune. Not these kids. Brought up in lives of relative comfort built on the endeavours of their parents, to them success will be there for the taking, their attitude one of assured success. A financially secure future is the number one aspiration.
Where they want to be, for many, is anywhere but here. Sad but true. The urbanite youngsters who have changed the way Dhaka thinks about youth dream of a better life far away from these shores. If they are â€˜stuckâ€™ in Dhaka then the universally middle class aspirations towards professional commercial jobs seems to be the norm. Banking and advertising seem to be glamour industries that are drawing young BBA graduates by the truckload. However, ask any number of students today and they will tell you that their plans include working for a few years, and then applying for immigration to Canada/Australia/USA, etc. Ask them why they want to leave, and they look at you as if you are crazy for even asking and cynically shrug, â€˜Whatâ€™s there to do here? Whatâ€™s there to stay for?â€™ Not very much it would seem, even for those who have been given so much more than so many of their fellow country folk.
Ay, thereâ€™s the rub. Even the prospect of better jobs, better pay and a brighter future than any generation before them do not seem to satisfy many of the young. Why would a generation who have lived a far better life than their parents be so ambivalent about their futures and reluctant to imagine a fulfilling life here? The answer is twofold: firstly, while there has been a sea-change in the values of the urban youth, the society around them has not kept pace. Secondly, this is a generation bereft of any guiding political ideology or social commitment that urges them to strive to improve their societies â€” that inspires them to dedicate themselves to build a better Bangladesh.
A cursory look at the group of young people in question is enough to tell you that they are governed by their own norms and values that at times are in conflict with that of the world around them. â€˜Bengali middle-class mentalityâ€™ â€” which in itself is a relatively new concept in sociological terms â€” has already been eclipsed by the urban youth who yearn to march to the beat of their own drummers. The pre-eminence of the family as the guiding concern in a personâ€™s life is slowly, but surely being disputed. The divergence in norms is especially apparent in matters pertaining to gender, and to family obligation.
Unlike the previous generation, the opposite sex is not a mystery to todayâ€™s young who are educated in co-educational schools followed by co-educational universities. Even if their schooling has been segregated, at university the complementary gender becomes an inalienable part of their daily lives, both as friends and more-than-friends. So whatâ€™s new about young love flowering in-between classes and during tea-addas? Well, whatâ€™s new is that these young lovers are not held back by middle-class norms that dictate only the briefest of contact with the object of their affections before the romance culminates in marriage. These days, marriage is not even on the horizon when love blooms. The freedom to get to know each other, to love each other and then to walk away if life goals, obligations and personalities do not match is increasingly being demanded by todayâ€™s young. Now, all of this is quite recent news to their parents, who are still stuck in the days when â€˜a common friendâ€™ brought news of â€˜a good matchâ€™ with â€˜a steady incomeâ€™ and â€˜from a suitable familyâ€™. Especially for young women, while the doors to personal interaction and freedom have opened in one direction, they are still closed in another â€” despite their CSc degrees and their 3.9 GPAs, they will still be expected to let ma-baba decide on their life partner. For the vast majority of these university graduates, it will be status and familial approval that will eventually decide their fate.
This is not a situation that sits well with many of them. When asked what is the one thing they want more than any other, many people of both sexes will answer with one word: â€˜freedomâ€™. Freedom to do what, you ask? Arenâ€™t they more free than any others before them? But they want something more. â€˜Freedom to be me.â€™ Me is the important word in that sentence. The young donâ€™t want to be defined by someone elseâ€™s story, they want to make their own. They seek the freedom to go out late without a million questions; the freedom to choose their own careers without disapproval; the freedom to be selfish about their own desires; the freedom to be free of the weight of family expectations. The inalienable right of your boro chacha to insist that you go into the family business and marry his best friendâ€™s daughter is being increasingly challenged. If decisions are to be made regarding their life, the new generation would like to make them themselves. Traditionally, Bengali sons and daughters have borne the responsibility for fulfilling not only their dreams, but that of their parents; of gratifying not only their desires, but that of their parents. This is increasingly being seen as a burden, something to be rejected. Commentators would say this is the beginning of the end â€” it starts with an erosion of family values and ends God-knows-where. But really, itâ€™s just evolution, yet another way in which the outside world is impinging on ours and bringing a different set of mores with it. Every generation has striven to push the boundaries of their world to see if they stretch. This one is no different.
The second problem highlights a more pervasive problem in our nationâ€™s social institutions. When you ask any of the group in question what they â€˜believeâ€™ in, most of them will be at a loss for words. This is a generation of cynics, not idealists. Their grandparents dreamt of a free India, their parents dreamt of a free Bangladesh, their older siblings dreamt of a government free from dictatorship. What do the current generation dream of? A better life, for sure, but a better life that concerns only them. This is not to accuse them of selfishness, but merely to highlight the absence of any guiding socio-political philosophy that would tether them to their society. The radical leftist and/or pro-independence political leanings of their parentsâ€™ generation seem a distant dream to a group of youth who are wary of politics. They see politics as destructive, and ultimately pointless. Look at their Dhaka University brethren, they say â€” caught in the mire of endless session jams due to the whims of the all powerful student wings of the major political parties. Nothing will change, and one party is as bad as the other, so why get involved? They see no marked ideological difference in the manifestoes of the reigning parties, and see elections as a merry-go-round where one party steps off to let the other on while the music and background remain the same. One party in practice is as bad as the other, so whatâ€™s the point in being engaged in the political process at all?
Asking them about the possibility of social change through activism unallied to politics brings forth an equally indifferent response. Whatâ€™s the use, they shrug? All the aid money gets pocketed or squandered, NGOs are a rip-roaring business, the poor will get poorer and according to the news and we will remain the most corrupt country in the world. All around them, they see the failure of civil institutions to serve the needs of the people. Many of the young do not demonstrate an iota of faith in the power of advocacy to change society. They exhibit a feeling of helplessness that eventually morphs into apathy and a desire to do what they can for themselves, rather than fight a losing battle for a lost cause. They do not see the power of small changes, of small steps forward. They see the process of degeneration as too far gone to halt. If people truly do define themselves through a sense of place, draw their identities from the cultures they live in, then the culture has failed our young â€” it might have given them material advantages, but it has failed to give them faith in their own abilities to make a difference.
The education system that they have been exposed to might have given them the basics of algebra, expound formulae and know the law of demand and supply, but it has not given them the analytical tools with which to carve out a niche in society. The task of education is not merely to educate the young, but also to socialise them into the norms and values of the society. Education should both anchor the mind in an understanding of the social structure, yet free it to move beyond it. It is in this that they have been miserably failed by their previous generation. The fact that students today do not aspire to the civil service or to political life, and only see it as a last resort, is testament to the fact that the system has not imbued them with a sense of civic responsibility, or an understanding of society that goes beyond their immediate parameters. It has failed to give them a dream to be committed to what involves a vision for a better future for all.
To give this generation an excuse for apathy would be defeatist. While there is much to be said for the fact that society cannot fulfil their dreams, looking back through time, there has never been an age where society has kept up with the demands of the young. Social change has occurred when those dreaming of a better future have pushed societyâ€™s boundaries, raced forward with these dreams and taken their culture to a new plane. This generation should be no different. The student revolutionaries of the 1950s, 60s and 70s fought against tremendous odds to create massive social change â€” they saved a language, inspired the dreams of a nation, and eventually freed it. They did not give in to the apathetic attitude that nothing would change. Subsequently, they carved out meaningful lives in a nation that was beset by poverty, and made huge strides towards improving that nation. Thirty-five years in the life of a nation is but a chapter, but Bangladesh has come a long way towards self-sufficiency and fulfilment during the interim. It is the task of this generation, armed with a better education, a better material existence and a strong link to the rest of the world to take us further.
The struggle will be to inspire the young to take up this challenge, and ally their dreams of individual success to those of the nation. We must give them a sense of place and belonging, teach them that freedom is not to move away and start a new life, but to stay here and build a better life. We must give them the freedom to think freely, to define themselves, their aspirations and their future in a way that reshapes Bangladesh, and takes it to a better place. Those of us in a position to do so must think long and hard about how we can inculcate the youth with a sense of purpose, a sense of identity, a sense of tomorrowâ€¦