Will the world’s largest democracy create a new kind of consumer?

As India transforms, a new generation of millennial consumers is emerging.

A new consumer is emerging in India. With GDP growth at 8.2% in Q2 of 2018, the country has the world’s fastest growing big economy — faster even than China’s. It is also home to the world’s largest population of millennials. As their aspirations, entrepreneurial drive and hard work transforms India, how will the future consumer evolve? How will their needs and behaviors change?

India has made incredible progress over the last 25 years to 2018. The average citizen is better educated — more than 95% of children go to primary school now, as compared with less than 80% 25 years ago — and lives longer: over the last 25 years, life expectancy has increased by almost a decade. The economy has become more modern and globally integrated. Growth rates have been higher and more stable.

But making the income level of at least 50% of Indians comparable to that of the global middle class will be a big ask. According to the World Bank, the economy would need to grow at more than 8% a year for three decades.

For India to succeed, we need to unlock the productivity of a nation where hard work and entrepreneurial spirit are deeply embedded. How do we build on those strengths, and change the things that need to work better, without harming the rich cultural diversity, the history and the traditions that make India uniquely India?

Those were just some of the questions at the front of my mind when I hosted our FutureConsumer.Now hackweek in Mumbai earlier this year. During an intense and exhilarating week of creative ideation, we generated three contrasting “future Indias” that gave us multiple new perspectives on the challenges and opportunities ahead.

  • How are we hacking the future consumer?

    With FutureConsumer.Now, EY is helping business leaders make their organizations fit for a very different future, by thinking differently about the future.

    Research and interviews with global innovators, futurists, business leaders and EY professionals identified more than 150 drivers that could shape the future consumer.

    We used those drivers to create eight powerful hypotheses. Each one relates to a key aspect of the future consumer: how people will shop, eat, stay healthy, live, use technology, play, work and move.

    We then held a series of innovative hackweeks around the world to explore these hypotheses further and to model the kind of future worlds they might create. These took place in Berlin, London, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Mumbai.

    We invited an eclectic mix of futurists, entrepreneurs, business leaders and EY professionals to these events. Over the course of a week, they used the 150 change drivers and eight hypotheses to model three alternative versions of the future.

    The experience of creating these “future consumer worlds” helped participants anticipate the direction of travel and the implications — and opportunities — for business today. It challenged all their assumptions about what it takes for a consumer-facing business to succeed — today and in the years ahead.

    By the end of the hack, they were better prepared to stay relevant as consumers evolve, and to shape that evolution.

One of our teams modeled a world in which consumers in rural economies no longer had to move to the city to improve their lives; smart farming platforms and an emerging sharing economy make agriculture more productive and less labor intensive. In the second, emerging technologies, such as virtual reality and e-commerce, enable consumers to thrive within a conflicting mix of languages, cultural practices and belief systems. And, in the third, consumers use new ways of working together to transform their collective productivity.

Spice market central Bangalore India
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Chapter 1

Diversity harmonized

Consumers are able to thrive within a conflicting mix of languages, cultural practices and belief systems.

To the visitor, India can seem like a country rich in chaos. Its people speak more than 780 languages and write in 66 different scripts. On the one hand, there are plenty of opportunities, but on the other, there are many hurdles. In Mumbai, there are roughly the same number of cars on the road as London, but there are four times the number of road fatalities. Its trains are full to the bursting point. Its ports are heavily congested.

Chaos can cause confusion and frustration, and slow economic growth. But it can also be a source of great creativity. One of the teams at our Mumbai hack modeled a future India in which consumers thrive within a conflicting mix of languages, cultural practices and belief systems, because new technologies turn the messy complexity of daily life into a source of productive energy, which drives prosperity.

The country becomes a better-planned, more technologically advanced urban transport system. GPS-enabled vehicles or Uber-like air taxis become more prominent. Smarter algorithms enable more efficient scheduling of public transport facilities, and government investments under the “UDAN” scheme improve air connectivity and bring smaller towns closer to the megacities. People can move at different speeds toward different destinations; everyone can get where they need to go. Everything is faster and more efficient.

This harmonious movement through space becomes a metaphor for wider social change. People can “get on with life” and adopt new behaviors, to the extent they want to. Traditions and cultural practices do not have to be sacrificed in the name of progress and efficiency. Everyone can be proud of where they have come from and of where they want to go.

  • Questions for leaders

    • How will the government foster innovation among India’s entrepreneurial community?
    • Will key foundational sectors evolve through domestic development, or will foreign players drive change?
    • What will influence consumers to move from “accepting their destiny” to “defining their destiny?” How will this fundamental change impact consumption?
    • Is frugal innovation an advantage or a problem in framing Indian consumer thinking?

This future world is still complex and diverse, like India today, but it is more rational. People know it is within their power to make themselves happier and more prosperous; it is not just a matter of luck or fate. As a result, people feel encouraged to set goals and aspire to something better. They can make their own decisions about what they want to do with their lives, what they want to buy and how they buy it.

Sometimes they will enjoy immersive shopping curated by artificial intelligence that gives them access to the latest product and brand experiences. Other times they will choose to buy from auntie in the flat downstairs, as it is more convenient and better value for their money.

It is a world where frugal rickshaw entrepreneurs and local manufacturers can thrive, despite their small scale. That is possible, thanks to technologies such as digital connectivity and 3D printing.

Other important aspects of this world include:

  • 85% smartphone penetration, enabling consumers access to new opportunities
  • Augmented reality and virtual reality democratize access to learning
  • A government that protects privacy (a privacy bill is due to be tabled by 2020), encourages social mobility, and invests in the infrastructure improvements that drive society forward
  • Infrastructure allows for services to be integrated into a national system; a future blockchain unifies and integrates production and distribution

Automation through machine learning supplements human productivity as the nature of work moves toward a more creative gig economy; according to EY, by 2022, close to 10% of the Indian workforce will have jobs that do not exist today and close to 35% of the workforce will work in jobs that have radically changed skill sets.

Girl walking to school with mother
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Chapter 2

Productivity unleashed

A world in which consumers use new ways of working together to transform their collective productivity.

By 2027, India will have a bigger working-age population than either the US or China. There will be more than a billion people aged 15 to 64 years, accounting for 18.6% of the global labor force. That is because the country’s population today is young and growing, in sharp contrast to the world’s other large economies.

India will have a powerful engine of economic and social development if it can harness the aspirations, creativity and productive potential of this millennial generation. This would accelerate the emergence of a new generation of middle class consumers.

At our Mumbai hack, one of our teams modeled a world in which future consumers use new ways of working together to transform their collective productivity. In the world they imagined, technology, such as augmented reality, digital wallets and voice-enabled shopping platforms, enables smarter behaviors and drives social change. Technology will overcome the cultural barriers that stop people from participating fully in the economy, such as inequality and discrimination. There is open and equal access to education and capital. Everyone has the opportunity to flourish.

When the deep-rooted problems of society such as poverty, infrastructure, access to basic health and primary education are addressed, everyone benefits. So everyone plays their role in solving those problems. The productive power of each member of society is ignited and harnessed. Nobody fears failure.

  • Questions for leaders

    • What efficiencies and enhancements will the removal of social barriers unlock?
    • How will the Indian culture of work evolve with mounting automation?
    • As connectivity and technology improve, what niche will India be able to carve for itself in the global knowledge economy?

This future world is a land of a million startups, with open-source technology and frugal innovation enabling a plethora of new opportunities. Low barriers to entry and high connectivity fuel a growth in entrepreneurialism. New technology platforms facilitate innovation by connecting people and sharing skills.

Consumers in this world do not limit themselves to the choices and aspirations traditionally associated with their caste or religion or rank in the social hierarchy. People remain price and value- conscious, and look for pragmatic solutions to their needs.

Other important aspects of this world include:

  • The government offers universal education and creates a digital infrastructure platform that combines banking with mobile and biometric identification to enable frictionless transactions. 
  • Access to education and reduced inequality drives a wave of human capital towards creative and innovative jobs.
  • Menial jobs with long hours are replaced with work that requires expertise and efficiency.
  • Slums are eliminated; the spaces they occupy are repurposed for affordable housing and office space.
Farmer watering plants on field
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Chapter 3

Rural rebooted

Rural consumers no longer have to move to the city to improve their lives.

More people in India are choosing to live in cities. There is nothing uniquely Indian about this trend. More than half of the global population is now urban. Yet in India, the rate of urbanization is slowing.

Perhaps that is because India’s urbanization has been “messy,” as the World Bank puts it. When 14% of the urban population live below the national poverty line, a move to the city is less appealing.

With the majority of people still dependent on agriculture, India needs to create employment in rural areas and up-skill people who could be replaced by technological development.

In Mumbai, one of our teams modeled a world in which consumers in rural economies no longer have to move to the city to improve their lives. Smart farming that leverages technologies such as drones for spraying insecticides, precision irrigation for improved yield, shared platforms for tractors and other big-ticket agri-equipment makes agriculture more productive and less labor intensive. Huge investment in rural infrastructure and job creation generates new opportunities for people who used to work on the land.

In this world, people in rural areas move beyond the old constraints of tradition and necessity. They are proud to become micro-entrepreneurs, working in a broader ecosystem of like-minded people. Together, they create value for themselves, their community and the environment.

They are frugal innovators, skilled at creating more with less. They use their human ingenuity to solve the biggest challenges. The business solutions they develop create a virtuous circle, where value stays in the local community.

Sharing is at the heart of this way of life: people share information, resources and products so that everyone has the basics of a good life and the opportunity to grow.

  • Questions for leaders

    • How will employment be balanced between the job losses caused by increased agricultural efficiency and the rising wealth that these gains bring to communities?
    • What affordable technology will overcome India’s language barriers?
    • Will farming communities retain their rural identity or will they and their consumers become urbanized?
    • What role will companies play in facilitating a sharing economy that potentially undermines the need to buy their products?

As rural consumers prosper, they start to adopt the consumption choices and behaviors of urban consumers. But the traffic is not one-way; urban consumers in this world aspire to some aspects of the rural lifestyle. For example, they favor Indian products that are grown, sourced or made locally. It is a virtuous circle that will attract greater interest from companies seeking to engage with a wealthier rural consumer base.

Other important aspects of this world include:

  • Inexpensive or free smartphones give isolated farming communities inexpensive access to information and education.
  • New smart-translation technologies enable people to overcome language barriers and communicate easily. They translate not just written and spoken language, but the gestures and facial expressions that are an integral part of being understood in India.
  • People are more connected, better informed and technologically literate.
  • New manufacturing technologies help communities to meet their own needs; improved infrastructure means they can distribute their goods to cities.
  • Rural communities become more attractive places to live and work.
  • Government participation means that jobs lost in agriculture are repurposed for infrastructure. Corruption is eliminated, and the tax purse grows, driven by rising wealth and more efficient collection methods.

Indian boy studying under lamp light
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Chapter 4

Business implications

The future worlds we modeled in Mumbai are full of optimism.

Our hack teams envisaged an India characterized by social and cultural mobility, driven by a young, aspirational population eager for change:

Work will change, but India will not become a robot economy

India has a huge and growing workforce. There is little appetite — or need — for machines to replace jobs that are today done by humans. Instead, future technologies will focus on facilitating or improving work. Consumers will be more empowered by new professions. Automation will face strong cultural resistance from some quarters. But talent pools will evolve and grow in new industries and areas such as contract employees in infrastructure, micro-entrepreneurs, employer-entrepreneurs in technology-enabled employment models, and freelance workers on on-line platforms.

Infrastructure will improve, but do not wait for it

India will improve its infrastructure. Better physical infrastructure will create more efficient logistics and connect isolated rural communities. Better digital infrastructure will drive innovation and virtual connectivity. But it will take time.

Companies will need the agility to exploit the opportunities that infrastructure improvement delivers, while minimizing the constraints and frustrations of doing business in India compared to other markets.

Shorter supply chains and localized manufacturing will help to resolve some of the challenges posed by India’s poor physical infrastructure. A slowdown or decline in urbanization will establish new geographic markets, as rising incomes create opportunities outside cities.

Business leaders can learn from India’s frugal innovators

Frugal innovation is an important part of India’s future. This is about taking ideas that could be high-tech, inaccessible or exclusive and delivering them at an affordable price.

This approach to innovation will focus on practical problem solving and cost-effective solutions, fueling the emergence of new microbusinesses and subject-matter resources. Innovative solutions created in this way could be adapted to other markets. And ideas developed at high cost outside India could be simplified and scaled by Indian innovators.

One India, with a billion voices

India’s millennial generation — the largest in the world — will drive social change. Today, Indian society is fragmented and hierarchical. Communities are isolated. Social and economic inequality persists, and access to goods and services remains uneven between different communities and classes.

The aspirations of future consumers will increase social mobility and challenge a fatalistic view of society. Technology will break down barriers through automated translation, social connectivity, education and digital health care. This leveling of the playing field will drive consumption of goods and services that target an emerging and rapidly growing middle class.

The worlds we modeled in Mumbai are aspirational, optimistic and profoundly — and proudly — Indian. They are founded on behaviors and attitudes that are deeply rooted in India’s culture: hard work, pragmatism and entrepreneurialism. And they seek to address challenges that are, sadly, an integral part of India today: corruption, poor infrastructure, extreme inequality and poverty.

India will transform and, as it does, the leaders of consumer-facing businesses will have a central role to play. How can their companies shape and serve the future consumer that will emerge, without compromising the deeply felt and increasingly confident sense of Indian identity?


India’s young aspirational population will be enabled by technology to drive social mobility. They will seek the benefits of technology to modernize while incorporating it into India’s rich heritage of micro-entrepreneurs.

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