The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

I think I read about this months ago in the New York Times, but I'm glad Reuters has taken a fresh look at how the lucrative call-center outsourcing industry is creating massive changes for India's young adult population.
Graduates entering the industry earn between 8,000 and 10,000 rupees (RM675.98 to RM855.98) a month, only a tenth of their US counterparts, but a decent sum in a country where the average annual income is about US$500.

So each night, while the rest of India is fast asleep, thousands of young men and women wearing headsets talk to customers around the world in call centres in New Delhi, Bangalore and Pune. Most are hip dressers and drink in pubs until dawn after their shifts.

"Youngsters in call centres have big spending power and this gives them the sort of independence young people in India usually do not have," said psychiatrist Anjali Chhabria.

Reuben Fernandes, 20, earns 13,000 rupees a month, and says he will settle for nothing but the best. His shopping list includes the latest mobile telephone, a car and the best liquor.

"And now, I want to live on my own," he said firmly.

This is rebellious talk in India, where the family is considered the bedrock of society and young people are often expected to live with their parents until they get married.

"Indian parents tend to be doting and demanding," said 23-year-old Lakshmi, who works in a call centre in the country's technology hub, Bangalore. "Parents threaten to commit suicide or jump off buildings, but in the end they come around."
A plain example of the scales of global wealth distribution. In the U.S., being a call-center drone means you're nowhere near the top of the economic food chain; in India, it allows you to spend mad money and have plenty left over to at least start a life of your own.

You'd think this economic boon would set in motion a base of prosperity for India's twentysomethings, but there is an apparent dark side:
But for students barely out of their teens, the money is great, so many wonder why they should "waste time" getting a university degree.

"No other job in India offers this kind of money to graduates and undergraduates fresh out of college," said Harmeet Singh, a 23-year-old car owner whose father has never owned a vehicle.

Middle-class Indians have traditionally scrimped and saved for decades to send their children to the best universities, but 19-year-old Karen Fernandes managed to convince her parents it was a good idea to drop out of university after a year.

"She (Karen) is earning a good amount and taking care of all her expenses, so I won't insist on her going back to college," said Wanda Fernandes, her mother.

Father Emmanuel, in the suburban church, takes a longer-term view, however.

"A good college education is vital in the long run for career growth," he told his congregation.

"What if the call centre bubble bursts one day?"
And the bubble will certainly burst in India, one way or another. Either wages will rise to keep up with demand, resulting in jobs getting re-outsourced to some other area with even lower standards of living (sub-Saharan Africa, someday?); or the talent pool in India opens up to tons more lower-level candidates, which will keep jobs on the subcontinent but drive wages way down. Bottom line is that these call-center jobs are nothing to base a long-lasting career upon. They're more properly viewed as a way to make a good sum of cash in a relatively short period of time.

That's where a college degree comes in: For when the call-center party ends. Unfortunately, it seems some of these Indians are mortgaging too much of their futures for the immediate benefits of the present. As valuable as this liberating experience is right now, it's not an end unto itself.