What India’s love for a World War II-era motorbike says about its millennials

Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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The world’s oldest motorcycle brand, Royal Enfield, is an unlikely millennial success story.

The iconic bike is a massive hit with young Indians. Sales have risen from a meagre 20,000 in 2010 to 740,000 units in the eleven months ending February 2018. The Chennai-based manufacturer’s success is not just about image and engineering. It represents an ability to understand the experiential nature of the millennial mindset.

The retail experience is slick and compelling. A regular flow of new models and customisations keep showrooms fresh. A formidable feeling of community exists among owners, and Royal Enfield has built on that with a host of events, including Himalayan adventures that create a sense of belonging and shared purpose. Royal Enfield is more than a means of transport.

In its depiction of transportation as a lifestyle choice, Royal Enfield seems to have found a compelling blend of tradition and modernity. Its parent company, Eicher Motors, has been richly rewarded with a share price that matches the muscular image of its two-wheelers.

India’s millennials, midnight’s grandchildren, are a cohort born in the two decades before 2000. They came of age in the post-1991 era of liberalisation and their experience contrasts sharply with the scarcity, austerity, and lack of opportunity that marked the lives of their parents and grandparents—midnight’s children, as Salman Rushdie famously titled the progeny of Independence. For midnight’s grandchildren, the world offers unmatched opportunity and an abundance of choice.

The tension between the generations in India is profound. Traditional hierarchies are being challenged and old certainties are crumbling. New paradigms are emerging. But the line between tradition and modernity is porous: progressive in some attitudes, this generation remains acutely conservative in others.

India is experiencing a unique moment, and the response is uniquely Indian.

India’s millennials, like many in other emerging economies, are optimistic about their future in a way their contemporaries in developed markets are not. Young Indians can realistically expect to be financially better off than their parents. Their western peers no longer have that guarantee. Other factors also differentiate the groups.

In the west, an ongoing series of social, economic, and political revolutions have unfolded in the seven decades since the second world war. The delta of change between one generation and the next has been incremental. In India, where there have been just two moments of transformation in the same period, the delta of change is vast and unprecedented. This means there are few models or frames of reference for any of the participants to fall back on.

The new rules are as yet unwritten and many Indian millennials are ill-prepared to navigate the changes swirling around them. Institutions—family, marriage, workplace, brands, and economic models—are all being disrupted. Young Indians, like their international contemporaries, are characterised as less beholden to tradition and more willing to challenge authority. In certain areas of life, that’s a fair assessment.

Midnight’s grandchildren now make up 440 million of the country’s population. They are about to become the majority of the nation’s workers and the engine of the much-hyped demographic dividend.

The idea of a job for life, a one-company career, belonged to past generations, for whom career progression, albeit slow, was an important point of surety in a world of uncertainty. Young workers want to expedite their progress up the ladder. They are less inclined to defer gratification, and gladly jump ship if their demands are not met. In the workplace, command and control leadership is questioned. “India’s middle managers are having a tough time,” says R Nanda, chief human resources officer, Tata Chemicals, who is transforming structures and policies in response to new employee expectations.

Relationships with brands are evolving at pace. Notions of loyalty are being rethought as an explosion of consumer choice coincides with new attitudes to spending, which are less inhibited and bound by sanction. For new consumers with little past experience, the plethora of choice is at once exciting and confusing.

Some brands are realising that to capture a share of this fast-moving market they must offer more than the provision of goods and services. They have the potential to meet other psychosocial needs related to the desire for independence and can play a role in shaping the identities of young people in this period of seismic change.

And yet, there are areas where millennials stubbornly cling to the convention.

In their romantic lives, midnight’s grandchildren are finding novel ways to handle this clash of tradition and modernity. Many are comfortable with a Tinder or Hinge date on a Friday night and then willingly sit down for coffee with the “arranged marriage boy,” or girl, on a Saturday.

Despite the flirtation with dating apps, more than 85% of Indians choose arranged marriages, obdurately contradicting the predictions of development theorists who believed that western models of personal choice or “love marriage” would prevail. When it comes to tying the knot, it seems tradition holds the trump card. An Indian millennial’s desire for autonomy often plays second fiddle to a need to conform to social norms and a fear of being an outcast.

This, then, is the conundrum at the heart of India’s millennial moment. Emboldened by new economic opportunity and spoilt for choice, they yet choose to cling to the past.

Mark Hannant is an entrepreneur and author of the forthcoming book Midnight’s Grandchildren: How Young Indians are Disrupting the World’s Largest DemocracyThis article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. We welcome your comments at