We’ve always been counselled that the usual course of life should be lived in four stages, with the roles and responsibilities in each laid out in detail to ensure that society functions smoothly, and individuals transition with clarity of purpose and expectations.
After focusing on and attaining knowledge early on, stage two is about taking on worldly responsibilities as you step into adulthood. Financial, family, work and social duties fall upon one’s shoulders all at once, and the carefree, optimistic life that once used to be seems like a distant celluloid dream. But hey, that’s what’s growing up has always been about.
But it’s getting tougher
We have jobs that are 24x7, aspirations and dreams that have many sources and few limits, and the same 24 hours in a day as we’ve always had. We have discovered individuality like few before us. We are on a perpetual journey of self-discovery and actualisation. We’re no longer keen, or even willing, to fill the shoes of the ‘responsible adult’ and do the things that it traditionally implied we do. What has changed ? What notions and conventions, that once applied to this stage of life be default, are now getting re-examined and challenged? What are the responsibilities people are keeping aside for later?
‘Marriage? You must be kidding!’
You’ve probably read innumerable jokes like the one about marriage being not a word a sentence. The nuptial knot is often one that not just binds, but chains especially in the eyes of those who are uncertain about its aftermath. Traditionally, after a couple of years of ‘taking it easy and having fun’ the family used to get the better of young, carefree souls and got them hitched, one way or the other. Even with people starting to determine their own partners, a year too long into courtship and you would get asked if all was well with the relationship, and if they should look around anyway to help.
Jasvipul Chawla, who went back to IIT Powai to pursue a Ph D in Wind Energy after a stint in a high-paying data analytics job, agrees that there is always some pressure from parents and family to get married, and from peers to not get married!
He does not believe he’s uncomfortable with the idea of ‘settling down’ per se, but is unsure he’s ready, given his current priorities. “I think the freedom to do anything I want with my resources and time is the biggest factor because of which I’m off the conventional path. Maybe that is why I’m off settling down also. My decisions might have been different and more conventional if I were on a usual career path.”
Clearly, for some, the unknowns that committing to another person brings, and the time and effort it takes, are reason enough to defer marriage. Others, however, do not think of marriage as a limiting factor.
Says Zainab Bawa, an independent researcher who has been through many twists in her exploration of higher education and what she really wanted to do, “I think marriage is one of the happy things that happens in our lives. You can be happy without a marriage. You can be happy with two to three to four marriages. That is very different from the conventional way of thinking where marriage is ‘the’ most important thing which should happen to you in life.” It’s something she chose, and has certainly has not precluded the pursuit of her own independent path, or left her feeling tied down in any way.
Houses, cars & EMIs!
The reality is that it’s not about marriage itself. It is more a trade-off between commitment to anyone and anything and what the individual wants to pursue. If one does not see a loss of freedom or independence because of the commitment, there are no perceived strings.
Kids, for instance, come with strings attached for most. “I am not sure I want them because raising children requires a lot of commitment and time. At this point, I don’t feel up to it,” says Zainab. In fact, at a startup, the founding team consciously put off having kids while they initially got their ideas off the ground. The responsibility that children add to one’s life is not one that can be worked around or met only partially. It’s little wonder that having kids is what gets delayed most, amongst all the roles this phase of life needs one to play.
It is similar, if less of a weighty decision, for buying houses, building a personal net worth, or playing a bigger role in the events and activities in the extended family or immediate social network — the things usually expected of an adult in this phase of his or her life.
“I look at people around me, my age”, says Zainab, “and they have cars, flats (on EMI), and quite a comfortable lifestyle. It is sometimes unnerving to see that when I am still sailing and learning to stay afloat these days in my student avatar.” But she values the freedom over the comfort of this lifestyle. Jasvipul too believes that chasing these dreams and the security of a beaten path come at a cost of exploring what one would really like to; in his case — backpacking trips, photography and the freedom to do more things as a passion and not just as a profession.
It’s probably the unshackling of the “I”, and the “I can” — the primary ingredient that gives the individuality a reason and a definition — that has spurred this change in approach towards life. More young people today believe that they can do much more, and even as they take on risks that their parents would’ve never dreamt of, they shy away from all of traditional responsibilities that might cost them the exploration of what they want to do with their lives. Failure and success have new definitions in the eyes of these individuals, and not having given things a shot is something they’re not willing to live with.
Jas Chawla sums it up nicely. “I’m not sure if my life is fuller off the conventional path or on it, but maybe because I have certain commitments to myself or certain expectations from myself, or perhaps because I value my freedom a lot, that I’m steering clear of commitment.
The old order changeth...
The rules around Grihasthashrama in Vedic times were designed for continuity and order in society and the family.
With the growth of individual responsibilities in nuclear families, a need to enhance skills much more than ever before, and the attention to the individual as a consumer, one’s own needs and wants have come much more sharply into focus, sometimes at the cost of those of the larger unit around. A lot of sociological research done in Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000s studied these changes, along with their impact.
Relationships and marriage are much more based on notions of individual equality and compatibility, as opposed to the same parameters in a social context. Children are often delayed, fewer per family and overprotected and provided for much more. Interestingly, given higher life expectancy, relationships between children and parents are much stronger as both age.
All of this has interesting side effects on the roles and responsibilities of someone stepping into life’s phase 2 — the various responsibilities that come with it are tackled one at a time rather than all at once and the nature of various relationships in this stage of life has undergone a major change.
The post patriarchal family is born of a process that is still not complete, and in the Indian context, just about started. Only time will tell how it unfolds.
The role of the extended family
In India, the extended family has historically provided a support system for families. In their tougher times, be it economically, or logistically or, more recently, for pursuing their dreams, the family often pitches in. This is truer in a situation where parents are economically much better off and families are smaller. Not only are the children free of liabilities and financial burdens passed on to them, the parents also strive to provide their children much more. Zainab and her husband, Kiran, moved in with the latter’s parents because it was the practical thing to do. In today’s context, extended family support also does not necessarily mean a stifling atmosphere. On the contrary, the extended family often eases the pressure of certain responsibilities — be it helping with bringing up kids, or finances - to let individuals pursue their dreams more easily. Even in the developed world, where the nuclear family has been the norm forever, the Boomerang Generation is using the ‘home option’ and living in with parents while the economy is lean, and to keep costs in check while they experiment with ideas.