In recent decades, hundreds of millions of people in the developing world have moved from poverty to the middle class. These numbers are only expected to grow in the coming years:
The world will, for the first time in history, move from being mostly poor to mostly middle-class by 2022, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projects. Asians, by some predictions, could constitute as much as two-thirds of the global middle class, shifting the balance of economic power from West to East. Already, some analyses of International Monetary Fund data suggest that the size of the Chinese economy could eclipse that of the United States in just five years…
But today’s middle-class boom is unlike the Industrial Revolution, in which rising prosperity became a catalyst for increased individual and political freedom. Those in the emerging global middle classes – from an Indian acquiring a flush toilet at home to a Brazilian who can now afford private school to a Chinese lawyer with a new car in the driveway – are likely to redefine their traditional roles, and in doing so, redefine the world itself.
“I would expect that as the global middle class gets transformed by the entrance of hundreds of millions of Indian, Brazilian, and Chinese families, the concept of what we see as the middle-class values may change,” says Sonalde Desai, a sociologist with the National Council of Applied Economic Research in Delhi (NCAER). “Historically, sociologists have defined ‘middle class’ as those with salaries…. I think ‘middle class’ is very much a state of mind.”
As the article suggests, it will be fascinating to see what this majority global middle class will act like: will they follow the individualistic and consumeristic American model or chart a new course? And might the American middle class also change in response to or in conjunction with these global changes?
It is interesting that this article contains very little discussion of why the global middle class is surging. Is it because of capitalism? Globalization? Specific policies from groups like the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund?
In an editorial on the same topic, the Christian Science Monitor argues there is a need to maintain social values and avoid a “moral vacuum”:
A moral vacuum can strike any rising middle class. Battles for status erupt in a competition for consumption. (In China, it’s Louis Vuitton that defines prestige.) Material goods are seen as a ladder to upward mobility.
A consumer culture can also leave young people with a lack of purpose, as China knows well. And youth often have bicultural identities: one in tradition and one in the global market of high-tech communications and Western media. They may feel no kinship to either and can easily become alienated.
So cheers for the newly well-off. But they need a spiritual foundation before they build those McMansions.
It is revealing that the McMansion is the exemplar here of a soulless middle class.