South Asia's Gen Z: Coming Of Age In Turbulent Times

As Gen Z in South Asia reaches the age of majority, it behooves governments and policymakers to take stock of the varying influences on their upbringing and education, and to realize that parochial curricula and education that seeks to homogenize is ill-suited for ...

Pakistan youth

Growing under the shadow of 9/11, whilst witnessing diverse conflicts in Middle East, the war on terror, climate change-driven disasters, the Great Recession and global pandemic, Generation Z has become sensate to the local and global surroundings it inherited and pensive about its future. Therefore, to empower themselves, Zoomers count on building connections and acquiring information through social media so as to actively promulgate their priorities of human rights, combatting climate change, health security, economic security and cyber security, instead of spade working for great power competition. Nonetheless, this makes it comme il faut for Gen Z to be well educated and equipped with global perspectives during their formative years to better understand and connect to the interconnected world.

About half of the world’s Gen Z’s population resides in South Asia, with an even larger student population in India and Pakistan. Gen Z in both countries has experienced the telecom revolution along with rise of social media, highway network (connectivity), nuclear tests, terrorism, India-Pak crises, Kashmir uprising, Article 370, politics of narrative and populism, and climate change-driven disasters. With the pace of technological development, the future generations of both states would be living practically with existing and emerging communications technologies under an atmosphere where the politics of narrative and regression would continue to plague both states with unresolved disputes and unsettled animosity. This raises a question: is Gen Z in the South Asian nuclear rival states an outlier on key global and foreign policy issues? The social science teaching and curriculum during formative years in both states is inadequate to produce critical thinkers and active learners.

Students, throughout history, remain instrumental in spearheading social and political movements and have had significant impact on domestic and foreign policies of countries where these movements originated. Traditionally, student activism was limited to university level, but this started to change from 1990s onwards with demonstrated political activism of secondary school and first-year undergraduate students. Moreover, research showed that children form images of political figures during their primary school years and based on this political socialisation and learning, they develop certain political attitudes in later years. This makes schools curriculum key in not only fostering political socialization, but transmitting political knowledge to students as well. This is especially important in context of socialisation and learning of Gen Z.

Gen Z in India and Pakistan demonstrated exemplary political activism in domestic politics, be it a university students’ protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or students’ role in the restoration of the Chief Justice. But the Zoomers in both countries are not capable of engaging with foreign policy and global politics, primarily because of their limited and restricted worldview built by the textbooks or syllabus they are being taught in a primordial teaching style.

In the presence of exciting TED Talks and podcasts on key history subjects and several different sources of information, Gen Z prefers active learning based on engagement with experienced scholars and practitioners as well as to explore independently. To meet 21st century education demands, both countries have incorporated technology in their educational systems. The educational technology (EdTech) start-ups and e-learning flourished in India and Pakistan over the last decade, with the Covid-19 pandemic providing a further boost to EdTech and proving the worth of online educational and learning activities in times of crises. Therefore, the introduction of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in social science teaching and learning, for instance at Indian schools, made students learning “interesting, motivating as compared to the traditional method of teaching.” The Indian NEP 2020 emphasis on integrating artificial intelligence (AI) in education and the use of ICT in Pakistani classrooms is an encouraging step; nonetheless, the statistics still present a bleak picture.

According to 2020-21 statistics, there are 1.5 million schools in India. However, according to the UNESCO 2021 report, there is high pupil-teacher ratio and lack of professionally trained teachers that is hindering progress in education system. In Pakistan, according to 2022 statistics, there are more than 270,000 schools. Despite an increase in hiring, the pupil-teacher ratio is high because there is vast shortage of qualified and well-trained teachers. Furthermore, the social science syllabus includes topics from geography, history, economics and political science whereas school teachers teaching this syllabus in India have under-graduation in one or two of these subjects. The schools installed new technologies in classrooms but teachers’ qualification and training still requires focus.

Moreover, there is a noticeable increase in private schools in both India and Pakistan. In private schools, the medium of instruction in English; whereas, in government schools, it is either Hindi, Urdu or the state or provincial language. This dual system is enabling social stratification, which impedes education system to produce students with a sense of inclusiveness and a sense to acknowledge and value diversity.

Besides the introduction of technology, what is being taught in classrooms is of critical significance. Regrettably, there is no education of comprehensive international relations in South Asian secondary and high schools that could meet the Gen Z’s voracity for activism and inclusiveness. Subjects like international relations, global politics and regional politics are not offered at high school level. Hence, these subjects are not part of the requirements for undergraduate in social sciences. This demonstrates how underrated these programmes are, the thorough study of which has implications for country’s foreign policy. More so, the challenge here is that the subjects related to history and international relations are designed with national and identity frame, and have not been adapted to the changing world and changing needs of Gen Z.

After 34 years, the Indian government released the National Education Policy (NEP) of 2020 that designs an education system that India to have by 2040 aiming to address new demands of a changing world. The NEP 2020 aims to develop an education system that enable students to be “good human beings capable of rational thought and action, possessing compassion and empathy, courage and resilience, scientific temper and creative imagination, with sound ethical moorings and values.” However, the BJP’s government changes to social science curriculum are a watershed for the NEP 2020. As per recent order, the sections related to the Mughal courts, Dalit writers, the Emergency, the communal riots in Gujarat, the Naxalite movement and the fight/struggle for equality are removed from the curriculum of grades 6-12.

This is widely criticised as an attempt to reinvent Indian history that will impede students’ worldview, but the government justified the deletion of these sections as “syllabus rationalization” and termed those sections as “irrelevant” and overlapping.” These deletions demonstrate the BJP government’s priorities “to foster a particular spirit of nationalism among school students”, and could “maximum electoral dividends,” but it would undermine provision of comprehensive understanding to students about their past based on which they can build and/or modify their worldviews. It would further restrict their classroom understanding of authoritarianism and social oppression; thereby, disempowering the young pupils from participating in their everyday lives to learn and reveal political dimensions that is necessary for Gen Z.

The natural inclination to engage with global issues and community has made Zoomers liberal in their thinking; they genuinely believe in social inclusion and value diversity. The social science related curriculum at primary and secondary levels in South Asian countries lacks the content to satisfy Gen Z’s urge for inclusiveness. For instance, national curriculum textbooks in Pakistan have been criticised as excessively applauding the military and portraying its role as critical for the preservation of Pakistan, and promoting religious intolerance.

Pakistan Studies is a compulsory and assessed subject at secondary and higher secondary levels. After 9/11, the Pakistan Studies syllabus was criticised for transmitting national attitude of hatred towards Hindus and British. During the 2006 revision of the National Curriculum, the revised Pakistan Studies syllabus aimed at creating awareness among pupils and learners about multicultural heritage of the country to enable students to embrace cultural diversity and “the idea of unity in diversity.” This idea of unity in diversity could better position Gen Z in today’s social media world; nonetheless, the actual Pakistan Studies curriculum aspires to bring homogeneity.

Gen Z understands images, reason and sentimental appeals. Reason alone without compassionate message, and compassion alone without underlying truth and reason cannot convince Zoomers. Furthermore, being aware of their local and global surroundings, this generation conducts quick research before making decisions. This habit of fact-checking is important to evade fake news and disinformation; however, this instilled an inherent trust deficit in this generation. Therefore, syllabi based excessively on national images and sentiments without reason and historical facts of their continued existence in contemporary world would not make Gen Z and future generations believe and practice in what is being taught to them. Likewise, the application of the “rhetoric of silence” in textbooks, that is largely determined by regional environment and reinforced by political and religious pretexts, is useless.

The Gen Z of India and Pakistan is the first generation to grow up with technology and to experience the bitterness of past decades. This transformed environment for the Gen Z’s activism and urge for inclusiveness. Hence, a comprehensive understanding of global affairs during formative years would help Gen Z not to remain an outlier on global issues.

Dr. Salma Shaheen teaches at the Defence Studies department at King's College London. She can be reached at