Bollywood’s biggest international success, after many expensive and absurd attempts to break through abroad, was the 2009 film “3 Idiots.” Based on a novel by the Indian writer Chetan Bhagat, the movie follows three engineering students struggling to realize their deepest desires against the punitive strictures of teachers and parents. Meeting young people from China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan early this month at a conference in Hong Kong, I had a clearer sense of why East Asian millennials responded so keenly to the film’s evocation of a life beyond and above conventional notions of success.
Needless to say, the young Chinese I talked to were not among the 61 million kids -- 22 percent of all children in China today -- who, according to a disquieting recent story in Bloomberg Businessweek, live apart from their migrant-worker parents. Growing up amid steady economic growth, the South Koreans and Taiwanese were not nearly as disadvantaged as the fresh-faced graduates I met last year in Spain (a country with almost 50 percent youth unemployment rates), who forlornly inquired about job prospects in the U.K.
Still, the Asian students’ anxieties about the future were deep and genuine. Unlike their parents, they live lives tied to large global processes and exposed to peer pressure of an unprecedented sort. They have come of age in a world of unstable capital and trade flows, in which information about apparently high-achieving rivals in other countries is readily available. And now they find themselves, while still in their late teens and early 20s, coerced into an extensive and often traumatic project of self-remaking.
It was the ruthless modernizer Josef Stalin who first spoke about “the engineering of human souls,” deeming it essential to the creation of a socialist paradise. In recent decades, a more ambitious and truly global attempt at utopia has mandated another kind of retrofitted human being: one that is aggressively entrepreneurial and individualistic, relentlessly boosting his or her portfolio with educational and professional achievements.
The French social historian Philippe Aries famously argued that the expansion of formal schooling during the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe had created the modern concept of childhood by removing children from adult society, and drawing attention to their particular needs and abilities. One could argue that the Asia-wide obsession with vocational education and careers has led to the opposite -- the early exposure of children to the tasks and responsibilities of adult society, and the destruction of childhood.
The freedom and innocence of youth has been cruelly foreshortened by the imperative to train early -- through a joyless regime of coaching classes and entrance exams enforced by tiger moms, dragon teachers and other fierce taskmasters. Many among the striving young then find that success is not guaranteed in the scramble for skills and jobs in an unforgiving new world, where whatever comparative advantage one may have always seems to be slipping away.
This is true in even those societies that have achieved the holy grail of modernization or high income. The strains of the post-development world are most visible in Japan, which long ago achieved the goals that India and China are still inching toward: It completed the rural-to-urban transition, industrialized successfully, and found its own utopia of consumerism.
Two decades of economic recession have since exposed Japan to the challenges of life beyond economic growth. Hundreds of thousands of young people never leave their homes. Bookshops are full of guidebooks advising parents how to prevent their children from becoming freeters -- young men and women moving from one low-paid temporary job to another.
Many of the freeters revel in their relative freedom, and regard it as a great improvement over the robotic routine of their “salaryman” fathers. This should not be so surprising. Most individuals everywhere have ideas of personal fulfillment other than those authorized by the worldwide advertising and luxury industry. They seek lives with scope for greater individual initiative and imagination. Indeed, “3 Idiots” has tapped into precisely this widely shared longing for manageable, modest but satisfying lives.
In any case, modesty in general may soon be a necessity rather than a choice. There are fewer and fewer guarantees for regular and stable employment. Automation is shrinking the pool of jobs worldwide. Most people, it turns out, are not equipped to constantly retrain and relocate themselves in order to match capital and trade flows. Countries with large populations, such as India, are failing to banish the specter of jobless growth. A new report from the International Labor Organization last week put the youth unemployment rate at 13.1 percent, which is more than double that for the entire workforce and is a record for the ratio of youth-to-adult unemployment.
What will happen to the young? Their immense energy could turn malign: India’s much-ballyhooed “demographic dividend” already shows signs of descending into a nightmare of crime and anarchy. It is also true that across Asia young men and women are seeking to improvise new solutions to the problem of permanent joblessness in highly unequal societies. Whatever our immediate fate -- disorder or creativity -- we urgently need different, more varied visions of the good life.
(Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist.)