The middle class: Where is it going?

2014-09-21 15:00

Changing patterns of growth, employment and the organisation of work have rendered obsolete many of the traditional assumptions about working and middle classes.

This does not necessarily mean that these labels have lost any of their power to shape people’s expectations of and for themselves, and to influence the political and policy agenda. The “middle class” has become fashionable.

Politicians, organisations such as the World Bank and global experts of all kinds celebrate its growth and predict positive consequences from the strengthening of democracy to a new consumer revolution. But there are many competing and often confusing definitions.

Apart from measuring it, what does the focus on the middle class actually deliver? Is it helpful to talk about “rising middle classes”, “rising per-capita incomes” or “changes in consumer behaviour”?

Much of the interest in the “rising middle class” stems from the assumption that people who achieve this status will support and strengthen democracy. As academic Barrington Moore once said: “No middle class, no democracy.”

While global surveys have repeatedly demonstrated that people tend to hold more positive opinions about democracy and social issues once they reach a certain level of wealth, the fit between incomes and attitudes is actually quite loose.

Attitudes are influenced by many other factors and it would be a mistake to assume an inevitable or direct association between middle class status and unwavering support for democracy.

Those who recently achieved middle class status and have limited savings but many obligations are vulnerable to falling back down the income ladder if they lose their jobs. The historical experience of some societies warns that they may therefore demand greater state protection and restrictions on freedom if they feel it will keep them from sliding back into poverty.

To make clearer sense of the ways in which middle classes impact on democracy, it is important to understand how they relate to the state. Do they rely on it for employment, economic support or services and law enforcement? Or have they become more self-reliant, relying predominantly on private sector jobs, and private provision of security, health and education?

The middle classes most likely to impact positively on the state are those based in the private sector with the economic independence and motivation to demand better public services and less corruption.

Middle classes that have given up on the state as a “lost cause” or depend wholly on the redistribution of state resources are unlikely to wage effective battles for democracy, growth, accountability and value for money in state expenditure.

Despite the need for caution with respect to definitions or assumptions, focusing on expanding the middle class is very important for building a better future.

Rather than just measuring poverty then finding ways to increase incomes above a poverty line, a more dynamic focus on social mobility or how to get people out of poverty is absolutely vital.

Assessing progress towards middle class status requires a detailed understanding of what holds people back in their attempts to become middle class and to consolidate and keep rising.

Once these barriers are identified, remedies need to be put in place to create an environment in which people are able to get ahead. In our view, the middle class should be an important focus in how countries think about promoting development.

Raising people above the poverty line is a vital starting point. But this needs to be coupled with far more attention to the dynamics of how to encourage social mobility and the expansion and consolidation of middle classes.

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