Thursday, June 30, 2011

TODAY'S CHILD IS INDEED THE FATHER OF MAN!

WHEN WILLIAN WORDSWORTH PENNED THOSE LINES, IT WAS A DIFFERENT WORLD. TODAY, IN A DRAMATIC ROLE-REVERSAL, KIDS ARE TRULY THE BAAP IN THE DECISION-MAKING PROCESS, DRIVING INDIA'S CONSUMPTION IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS.

Once upon a time, children were bhagwan's den – little, cute and cuddly bundles of joy designed and created to provide parents and their immediate orbit, joy unlimited! Sweet & lovable, they were meant to be seen, not necessarily heard. Their lives were chalked out and monitored closely by their all-knowing parents and mostly circled around a simple, uncomplicated, predictable activity base. They were not meant to challenge status quo or step out of line. And their opinions, if any, were usually dismissed with bemused indulgence. Didn't Mama and Papa know what was best for their off springs? What would kids know anyway about life?

Effective the '90s, there has been a cataclysmic shift in this idyllic playpen. The bachcha has suddenly morphed into miniature adult and started making uncomfortable noises, which are taking on dangerous surround – sound dimensions! Statistics indicate that today, some 400 million kids (below the age of 15) are new-age India's most conspicuous consumers lapping up a range of products and services that include – not just Barbie dolls and toys – hi-end gadgets, phones, clothes... you name it! Powering an astounding Rs.4.5 trillion market, this gigantic constituency (who make up 20% of the world's youth space) is on a red-hot turbo-charge mode! But what happened to the world of sweet kids being led along the path of follower-ship? Is their world of bachchelog parties, ice-cream & colas, fancy birthday cakes & cute games over?

As the genius author and film-maker Woody Allen once said about startling generational changes that ambush the na├»ve, uninformed, blinkered and unguarded people, “While you were sleeping, lotsa things have changed, Pops!” And that is god's truth, with economic reforms being the single biggest catalyst. This dramatically altered the very contours of the way we live and interact with the world around us and willy-nilly, propelled child-into-client zone! Technology, here, has been the greatest driver. The Internet, TV and Mobile, for example, have transformed a hitherto simple, tunnel-viewed, limited-focus constituency into a sharp, clued-in, consumer-products-friendly group that constantly raises its hands to be counted and be vocal about brand knowledge and preferences based on facts!

The insightful marketing expert and social commentator Santosh Desai hits the nail on the head with his sharp observations. “Today's kids articulate desire more openly, candidly and innocently than any other segment because they are unburdened by personal memories of a scarcity-plagued yesterday. Hence, in the family unit they play a critical role as navigators through the shining, unfamiliar world of choice, newness and – most importantly – abundance. They are arbiters between the older generation and the new and give the rest of us a map on which to plot our new selves. Fluent in the language of technology and consumption, (the two biggest drivers of behaviour of today's India) they exude a worldliness that the older generation are unfamiliar with and find useful, It also helps that the parents of today are the first generation that sees self-conscious parenting as a job that needs to be accomplished,” Desia tells 4Ps B&M.

Social psychologist Ashish Nandy takes the case forward. “Desai is absolutely right! The profile of today's parents have drastically changed to allow this shift,” says Nandy. He elaborates, by explaining that unlike the previous generation's template of presumptive wisdom and effortless knowledge-of-the bones instinctive parenting, for this generation parenting is a very serious task; it needs to be constructed with care and precision. This means that a child's desire is heard with greater attention. Overall, the child is seen as a performer who needs investment, training and personalized attention. The easiest way to fill up the gap between parental ambition and performance is invariably through acts of consumption. “The child is constantly being equipped for the road ahead and the equipment takes a variety of forms,” adds Nandy.

Mumbai-based Meera Gupta, a veteran artist, however is unmoved and believes too much is being made of Pester Power, today's whiz kids and modern-day parenting. The mother of two grown-up kids aged 15 & 12, who comes from Ranchi says that “like our local hero M.S. Dhoni, I say, keep it simple and concentrate on the basics! Sociologists, Psychologists, Behavioral Scientists... kids, parenting and their interaction with the world has suddenly become a hysterical spectator sport! Why on earth is it so complex & complicated? Sure, today's world is different from the ones we grew up in, but any sensible, responsible, intelligent and evolved parent must know how to de-code it for the kids, in a way that is meaningful.” In other words, this big hoo-haa about children pestering their parents to buy stuff on influencing purchase patterns across categories is apparently hugely exaggerated! Admittedly, today's kids are much more clued-in about products and services, “but their making life hell for their parents through badgering or muscling in with opinions relating to brand preferences are, mostly media hype,” says Meera. Love them, trust them, mentor them intelligently and kids perhaps should turn the right path without developing complexes.

Strong words, but is it that simple in a space increasingly blitzed by information over-kill riding on mouth-watering seductive, media avenues and technology? Ad veteran Esha Guha believes that Meera is just spectacularly lucky, brilliant – or being too naive and simplistic. “Sure, there are exceptions, but even if you forget the media hype, studies, reports and surveys, a look at the world around us is proof enough. Today's kids are different , influenced as they are by the environment. They do have their own ways to get what they want and their knowledge-base on technology-driven products are far superior to their parents, which often acts as a clear advantages. As for love, trust and all that... the battle with technology will be a tough one!” Esha tells 4Ps B&M.

Brand Specialist Anmol Dhar offers his own expert take. “Marketers have closely seen this paradigm shift both in the profiling of new-age parents and kids and continue to be hugely excited by it! With the emergence of this new phenomenon, KGOY – Kids Growing Older Younger – the market for entrepreneurs just got larger. From kids wear to fashion, toys to beauty care, a clutch of brands are consciously targeted towards the 0-15 age group. We live, clearly, in an age of brands and perception is the new reality,” says Dhar. Advertisers, hawk-like haven't missed a beat. Noticing the rise n' rise of the universe, children are featured prominently across areas as diverse (and unthinkable) as financial planning and insurance, acting not as dumb and obedient recipients of adult-gyaan but know-alls teaching the oldies a trick or two!

So, at the end of the day, this is indeed a turbulent transition and maybe an objective review is in order. Should more time be spent with your digital child, so that along with his cyber muscle, creativity and imagination are also addressed? Should one be more judicious about basic decisions like whether your child really needs a phone at age 8? Finally, introspect. Are we giving and expecting too much in this new-age parent-child jugalbandi? Were our parents ever expected to play the combined role of father, guardian, tutor, moral police, friend, guide, mentor, cheer-leader in this deadly game of reward and expectation?

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