In the second of three postings on wealth distribution, we look at the mixed fortunes of the world’s middle classes.
“I just had a cup of tea with soymilk,” tweets Dave Ellis. “It was one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made in my life.”
Dave’s tweet, and many, many more, can be found on Middle Class Problems, which makes fun of the daily challenges facing folks in the middle of our societies. In truth, their supposed pretensions and status anxieties have long made the middle classes objects of fun and even scorn. Even John Lennon, raised in fairly comfortable surroundings, turned his back on them and proclaimed himself a Working Class Hero.
Lennon was able to play with his identity, perhaps, because from a social perspective the term that might have described him best – “middle class” – is so vague. By definition, middle class is relative – somewhere between not well-off and very well-off, or rich, but where?
The economic definition is unclear, too (see Box 1): For example, some experts use a relative approach and define a household as middle class if it’s earning, say, between 75% and 125% of median income. (Median income is the point in the income range, after taxes are paid and state transfers received, that separates the top 50% of earners from the bottom 50%.) Other approaches are more global: Goldman Sachs has defined middle class households as having an income of between $6,000 and $30,000 a year. By contrast, experts working in development tend to use a much lower figure – between $10 and $100 a day. Another way to see it is that, after covering the essentials, middle-class households have some money to spare – in other words, they’ve risen above subsistence living and can start thinking about the future.
In any case, defining “middle class” in purely economic terms misses a lot. That’s because to be middle class is as much a question of values as of income or wealth. “Middle class values,” says development expert Homi Kharas, “emphasize education, hard work and thrift.” The goal of all this, adds columnist David Brooks, is improvement – of the individual, family and society: “They teach their children to lead different lives from their own, and as Karl Marx was among the first to observe, unleash a relentless spirit of improvement and openness that alters every ancient institution.”
It’s these values that make the middle classes so important – a reality underlined by recent protest in Brazil and elsewhere. As the OECD’s Horacio Levy wrote, the rallies showed that a “part of the population now feels empowered to demand access to quality services”.
Those calls are only likely to grow: According to Homi Kharas, there were 1.8 billion middle class people in the world (based on the $10 to $100-a-day definition) at the start of this decade. Europe and North America accounted for more than half the total, and the next biggest share was in the Asia-Pacific region, with 28% of the total. By 2030, Kharas estimates that the middle class will total 4.8 billion, and around two-thirds will live in the Asia-Pacific. These, he argues, they will increasingly take over from U.S. consumers as the main drivers of the world economy.
Naturally, any projections like this come with health warnings. It remains to be seen, for example, how the current slowdown in emerging economies will affect the emerging middle classes. Their position is often fragile – $10 a day doesn’t buy a lot of stability – and they are vulnerable to setbacks both in the economy and in their own households in the form of unemployment or illness. But, economic shocks aside, their long-term prospects probably look good.
By contrast, many fear the same can’t be said for developed economies. As Alan Krueger, then-chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in June, “economic forces have been chipping away at the middle class for decades”. As we’ve noted before on the blog, income inequality has tended to rise in OECD countries, fuelled by factors that include technological change, globalization and the emergence of winner-take-all economies. In many OECD countries, middle-class incomes have grown less quickly – or even stagnated – compared to those of high earners. Middle-class jobs, too, are under pressure, increasingly vulnerable to technological advances, even in areas like law and tax accounting that might once have seemed immune.
The result, argue some, is a “squeezed middle” – a middle class that grabs a shrinking share of national income and is losing confidence that its children will do better than it’s doing. In the world of middle-class problems, that’s a very big one indeed.
OECD work on income inequality
Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising (OECD, 2011)
An emerging middle class – Mario Pezzini in the OECD Observer
The hurting middle class – Arianna Huffington in the OECD Observer
A hollowing middle class – Peggy Hollinger in the OECD Observer
Regular Insights blogger Brian Keeley is in Beijing, from where he sends this dispatch.
A recent afternoon brought one of those classes that all lecturers dread: Glazed eyes from one side of the room to the other, and mouths opening and closing in syncopated yawning. Time to tear up the lesson plan and throw out a question: “Hey, did you see the story about the rich kid who beat up that nice couple?” Dull eyes sharpen, slack jaws tighten. Yes, the students have heard about it and, what’s more, they have something to say.
In case you missed the story, here’s what happened: On a recent evening, a middle-class couple was driving home in Beijing. Quite reasonably, they slowed to take a corner, forcing a couple of cars behind them to stop. Incensed, the drivers of the two following cars got out and beat them up.
Road rage, but that was only the half of it: It turned out that one of the drivers was just 15 years old, which meant he was driving his car – a BMW – illegally. Not only that, he warned onlookers against intervening: “Who dares to call the police?” he supposedly shouted. His cockiness can probably be explained by his family connections: The boy is the son of a celebrity army general, Li Shuangjiang, who shows up regularly on TV to sing patriotic ditties.
In the wake of the incident, Major-General Li was put through the media wringer. He visited his son’s victims in hospital, apologized abjectly, and said of the boy, “I didn’t him give a good upbringing.” As for Li junior, Chinese media reports that he’ll go to a correctional facility for a year, but will escape criminal charges because of his age.
The affair was startlingly reminiscent of another incident last year, when the well-connected son of a senior security officer knocked down and killed a university student. That young man, too, shouted a warning to onlookers: “My father is Li Gang.” His words became a national catchphrase, epitomizing what many Chinese seem to feel is the attitude of an arrogant elite that feels itself above the law.
Certainly, that was the feeling of most of my students. But there was a second strand of opinion: They felt that media reporting of these incidents, and subsequent online commentary, was sensationalist and served no bigger purpose than stirring up bitterness and resentment. “The media should ask itself, ‘why are we reporting this?’,” said one student. “It should think about the bigger social question, and try to make China better.” That, of course, was one of the traditional role assigned to the media by the Chinese Communist Party. But in today’s China, it’s sensationalism – not worthiness – that sells papers.
As for the “bigger social question,” the student isn’t alone in seeing the incident as symptomatic of more than just Beijing’s awful road manners. Many in China worry about the impact of widening inequality on social stability, even if these concerns are expressed in careful language. But whenever you hear China’s leaders referring to the need for a “harmonious society,” it’s usually inequality that’s being talked about.
China was not the only country that got a reminder last week of the risks of “unharmoniousness”. In the United States, there was fresh evidence of how society there has been reshaped over the past decade or so. The middle class, once the solid core of American life, is being hollowed out, leaving a class structure that’s now shaped more like an hourglass. Indeed, some retailers have reportedly rejigged their product lines to focus on either the top, or the bottom, of the economic pile.
The impact of this social shift goes beyond determining what’s on Walmart’s shelves. As the historian John Gray notes, there’s a real danger in undermining the middle class (a risk first identified by Karl Marx): “In the process of [capitalism’s] creative destruction,” says Gray, “the ladder has been kicked away, and for increasing numbers of people a middle-class existence is no longer even an aspiration.” The result, he argues, is the destruction of “the way of life on which capitalism in the past depended”.
That’s not true of China, or at least not yet. The middle class may be under pressure in many developed countries, but in China it’s growing by leaps and bounds. But as Gray suggests – and as the financial crisis of the past few years has shown – the economic impact of capitalism’s forces are less easy to tame than we might wish. And as recent news from both China and the United States suggests, their effect on our societies can be just as tricky to manage.
Find out more