Buy now, save later: The modern affliction of urban poverty

The urban millennials are negotiating with the commodified experience of everyday life.

Vishnupriya Bhandaram May 09, 2016 14:52:00 IST
Buy now, save later: The modern affliction of urban poverty

“That article is a load of crap! It’s whining about rich people not having enough. It’s pure bull s**t, look around there is so much poverty. Real poverty,” gasped a friend of mine.

She read Gayatri Jayaraman’s piece on Buzzfeed: The Urban Poor You Haven’t Noticed: Millennials Who’re Broke, Hungry, But On Trend — a sociological decoder about what plagues India’s millennials — earlier that day. My friend, dressed in a trendy grey romper from Nicobar, wearing the latest in the collection of neck-pieces from Zara and a Gucci watch, was sipping on a cup of coffee at Starbucks, fuming about the real poverty around her. I couldn’t help but notice her Narendra Kumar brogues. My friend, is afflicted with urban poverty (to borrow, from Jayaraman), however, she is not starving like the millennials in the Buzzfeed article, but I know that my friend’s lifestyle is not matched by the Ka-ching! in her bank balance; by the 26th day of every month, she goes into a shell, emerging only after her salary has been credited to her account.

The Twitterverse has spewed its guts out against her ilk and I too have wondered about my friend’s need to live beyond her means? Why is she being ‘stupid’?

“These are the metro-dwelling twentysomethings who’ve internalised the pressures surrounding them, and spend a majority of their salaries on keeping up the lifestyles and appearances that they believe are essential to earning those salaries.” (Jayaraman)

I’ve often asked my friend about saving money and told her that she should cut down on her Ubers but she says, with conviction, that as an events manager she can’t show up at rich people’s houses in an auto-rickshaw. Everything about her outfit and in essence, her lifestyle is about her wanting to actually be able to actually afford what she purchases now. Jayaraman, in her social critique, is neither hailing the ‘urban poor’ nor is she admonishing them, she is only holding a mirror to one aspect of society. Talking about millennials, she says, the Generation Y, everyone loves to hate and wonder about, are victims of an increasingly consumerist society.

Buy now save later The modern affliction of urban poverty

Urban broke/poor are victims of a consumerist society. AFP


Scroll’s critique of Jayaraman’s piece — that these ‘urban poor’ only suffer from “a poverty of the mind” was hastily formulated, an immediate holier-than-thou knee-jerk response to an authentic anthropological observation about a young-adults in the big city. It’s easy to call them entitled when you believe that all problems are hierarchical — an approach that is fundamentally flawed. Despite Jayaraman insisting that the problem of the ‘urban poor’ was a product of pressures that young adults experienced, Irshad Daftari from Scroll sticks to making scathing remarks of her use of the word ‘poor’ and that the poverty, the ‘twentysomethings’ experienced is their own doing — “a Nike-wearing millennial’s destitution is of his doing, and escaping the imagined poverty hole is also on him...This, to me, is the most spectacular fail by the author: assuming that the poor millennial who forgoes meals in order to buy Rs 200 sandwiches has no way to break out of this consumption trap much like his or her domestic worker.”

Daftari has unfortunately taken Jayaraman’s use of the word ‘poor’ purely in quantitative terms, despite that fact that she makes disclaimers that these twenty-somethings are not really poor. Daftari’s arguments fail miserably when one thinks about the Poor Little Rich Women of New York — the Park Avenue, Upper East Side dwellers, Yale and Harvard moms/wives — who are disempowered even though they wear Jimmy Choos.

The 20-somethings out to make it it big are spiralling into a trap that doesn’t feel like a trap because that's the stuff of which the corporate and advertising Mecca is made. Millennials are not like their parents, they have been provided for and their approach to life is different, while they want more reconciliation between work and life, they also want to climb the ladder to the top rapidly.

According to a survey conducted in six major cities across India, 59 percent millennials seek rapid growth in a company, 80 percent aspire to lead or reach a management position.

“My bosses never told me explicitly that I have to dress a certain way, but I know that they do care about how I present myself. In fact I got my first gig because my boss liked the handbag I was carrying. No one is telling you that how you look matters, but I feel it does. All my clients remember my name, and I think my boss is more likely to take me along to the important meetings because of the impression I am bound to make,” said my 23-year-old housemate as she sports Old Navy slippers unwrapping the dress she just bought from Tommy Hilfiger and went on to describe how she was in debt.

A simple search on Google, about making impressions, getting promotions yields ‘expert’ articles: “It may seem superficial, but clothing makes a statement about who you are and where you want to go”, another proclaims that shoes are your “most important accessory”, “think about your ornaments.” To the educated young adult who was raised in an economically well-off household, spending on appearances seems to be the obvious thing to do. Our advertisements also tell us that in order to enjoy a quality life, you’ve got to look a certain way. Consider the HD subscription advertisement doing the rounds on the telly these days: A man sits in shorts and T shirt, as he turns on his STB, his surroundings change to a posh looking home and a beautiful woman sits next to him, his shorts and T-shirt turn into a well-tailored suit, he turns the TV on, there is no HD subscription and the entire fantasy vanishes. Advertisements are selling aspirations to young consumers, they always have been and the millennials who never had to think about where the dinner was coming from while growing up are easy bait.

Capitalism, writes Jyotsna Kapur in The Politics of Time and Youth in Brand India: Bargaining with Capital, “deploys youth as an engine that animates fashion cycles of commodity culture” and that conspicuous consumption and the unapologetic self-centeredness are the aspirational ideal. Add to this internalised recklessness, the allure of ‘easy monthly instalments’, the average Indian is deep in debt, according to the National Sample Survey, urban areas have seen an unprecedented 620 percent rise in debt. And to make matters worse, there are those profiting from this apparently raging hunger to stay in vogue, if the number of companies offering (otherwise unaffordable) aspirational commodities at EMIs is anything to go by.

Latest iPhone in 12 easy instalments anyone? Or how about that head-turning and eye-catching orange Ford EcoSport?

Responses to Jayaraman’s piece by Scroll and DNA have failed to acknowledge the real problem at hand — an increasing number of young adults are battling the pressures of living ‘the life’ and chasing success — by making it about social inequality, class differences and rich versus fake poor and fake poor versus real poor. There is no hierarchy of problems, they are relative. The millennial is troubled, she has qualifications and ambitions because she was raised in a sound financial environment and faces stiff competition; this millennial, as unfortunate as it may be, finds comfort in the pleasures of material possessions — those that help her lie to herself and others that things are going great.

The millennials are negotiating with the commodified experience of everyday life. What have we bred? A generation of anxious individuals trying to follow their passions in a highly competitive atmosphere, keeping up with their peers and colleagues, who are chasing a mythical carrot.

But hey! They’re at least dressed sharp.

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