|The Middle-Class Family and the Economy
The Nehruvian economy of the 1960s created its own kind of middle-class family life in the city. The urban families of the 1960s were often first generation city people whose parents owned land somewhere. The sons found employment in public sector undertakings and their wives, who had not got past school, did the household chores. The mother’s role in those days was also to get the children ready for school. Even good schools in the 1960s were inexpensive and hardly ‘elitist’; free tuition was made available if the students were indigent. The students who came out of these schools were the ones who eventually made it big in the new economy in the 1990s. Children finished school around 4pm after which it was play - inexpensive and in public spaces like streets. Schoolteachers, in the 1960s, were usually men since the number of educated women were fewer. Sometimes, when the parents had money but did not live in the city children were sent off to boarding school in the city - in the ‘convents’ as they used to be called – and even these were not prohibitively expensive. The urban joint family in the 1960s was largely a business-community phenomenon since the assets of the family were in the city and the brothers had to stay together. Joint families need large bungalows and, by and large, only businessmen had large city houses.
By the mid-1970s more and more women had received college education and many of them were becoming teachers in schools and colleges. One recollects private conversations from those days when men with wives who stayed at home argued that income tax should be levied on family incomes and not on the income of the individual – a viewpoint unlikely to be heard today when most women work at something or another. By the mid-1970s a man who was a teacher a school could no longer count himself as well-placed. One needed to pass a ‘competitive examination’ in the 1970s to belong firmly in the ‘four-figure-salaried’ class. Where, in the 1960s, very few people even owned two-wheelers, one needed to own a car in the 1970s to see signs of envy in other people. The Fiat was the car symbolizing the small well-to-do family, the Ambassador the emblem of the business family and the Standard Herald, the most obvious symptom of upward mobility. Mrs Gandhi’s ‘radicalism’ may have bypassed the middle class because, despite all her anti-American rhetoric, sending their sons to be educated in the US or getting their daughters married to NRIs was the best that middle-class parents could hope for. Until the 1990s wages in India had not become globalised and earning in dollars had an advantage which could hardly be ignored. But everything changed with the advent of the new economy and India’s growth story of the 1990s and after.
It is family life in the global age that this editorial is really focused on. Idle leisure time was actively allowed until the economy learned through the example of the United States, that the time left over from earning livelihoods could be absorbed in spending. This meant that idle time was eliminated altogether as ‘wasteful’. People bemoan the pressures put on children by contemporary education but there is more than a humanist concern here since most education today is itself a wasteful consumption precious time. Teaching is not a matter of merely providing inputs but also allowing time and leisure for them to sink in and be reflected upon. Unless rain water is allowed to percolate, it will be drained away and not increase the water table. While it was once a truism to say that children learn only a small portion in the classroom, so much is now fed to students that they have no option but to continue ‘studying’ at home after school. While the benefit of this kind of force-feeding to learning is doubtful, it has been good for the economy – an explosion of expensive educational facilities, tutorial classes for the IITs and IIMs and private tuition at all levels.
As long as students were given leisure, how they prepared for their examinations was their business and only after the exams would their progress be estimated. Now, however, preparing their children for examinations has become part-time work that parents need to do – so much has the anxieties awakened in children been transferred to their families. Apart from their studies, children are ‘encouraged’ to take up sports coaching – usually cricket and tennis – as well as extra-curricular activities: creative writing, investment, photography and even film-making. Children are encouraged to become ‘all-round’ personalities but, from the poor state of Indian sport, culture and cinema, one wonders how useful this has been. The children, naturally, feel that by attending to themselves they are doing work useful to their families. When they emerge as adults they are patently unfit for household work, cannot manage their own finances - despite having attended classes about the financial markets - and lack the capacity to articulate issues. They might have learned more if they had been made to imbibe less. Although this has not yet been measured, the usefulness of IIT education (the gold standard in learning) in the work-place - after deducting the student’s natural ability from his/her performance - is also doubtful. Statistics are not forthcoming but one’s supposition is that while the IITs were once the best facilities for technical education, the cracking of the IIT system by the tutorial institute network has ruined it. When students take a year off to prepare for an ‘aptitude test’ something must be seriously wrong with the test.
Salaries in new economy businesses (although not at the lower levels) are high but are working conditions leave employees vastly depleted. With both spouses working 12 to 14 hours a day and not working towards an early retirement, their savings are being spent on objects useless to them like professional level movie cameras and skiing equipment. This has resulted in the reappearance of the joint family in a new avatar. Since both spouses are economically on equal footing, men have moved in with their parents-in-law. Grandmothers therefore cook for large families, pacify howling grandchildren while grandfathers prepare them for their examinations. There is more than a chance that the new economy pays well because the unpaid labor of grandparents - previously free time now used to manage the household - has been secretly taken into account by employers. No time needs to be allowed for the household because someone else is at it. When young people fly to the US for their PhDs, they are not going there to gain proficiency in any field. They are going there simply to avoid the drudgery of a 14 hour day. Their incapacity for articulation left them unable to protest and fleeing to the US was the only way out of misery. Once they are there, it is cheaper for them to fly their parents there to manage the children than to hire local babysitters.
Boredom was a state that one was accustomed to in the 1960s and 1970s but it has been disallowed now – so much has one’s time been taken up by furious but unedifying activity like surfing the internet and texting. “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience,” writes Walter Benjamin, who warned about the disappearance of boredom’s ‘nesting places’ – activities associated with it. But if idleness and boredom disappear because of the extinction of the ‘dream bird’, the ability to make something tangible and worthwhile out of experience and pass on stories could itself evaporate. Grandparents furiously cooking for their families and coaching grandchildren for the exams will surely have no opportunity to pass on their experiences to their descendants.