Are middle classes drivers of social change?
As a clear sign of increasing growth of the so called 'emerging economies', a 'new middle class' is emerging. By 2030, Asia's middle class will account for 70% of the global middle class, and take up 60% of the world middle class consumption. Depending where one lives, this can be also seen as the rebirth of an 'old middle class'.
The development community is turning its attention to this new middle class to understand its potential role and what kind of development actor this may become. Two initial questions arise from the outset of the debate: What do we mean by middle class (whether it is old or new)? and how do we define it?
Regardless of whether it is defined by education, occupation and income levels, or by consumption attitudes or access and use of IT, it emerges clearly that not only the identification of middle class but also the aspirations and behaviours of its members are very diverse worldwide.
Many members of China's new middle class are closely associated to the State through employment, or access to opportunity and capital, and are therefore not expected to become the vector of change championing democracy and civic liberties. Being a creation of the State and the direct beneficiary of its policies, it is more likely to preserve the status quo in the name of stability.
Latin America is on the way to becoming a middle class society. In Africa - beyond the diversity among countries - middle class is internally conflicted with - for instance - higly educated earning low salaries. However there is a broad agreement that growth is key for middle class to grow and expand.
What kind of growth are we then talking about? What kind of demand and consumption might this growth generate? Who are the consumers who can support this new growth? Is (more) growth really what we need?
When it comes to the real life of people, is it realistic to expect middle class pursuing and driving development within communities and society? Is it going to become the new vanguard or might it remain conservative and interested only in protecting its privilege and ability to pursue even more own wealth?
Arguably, if larger portions of population are going to join the new middle class, as has happened most dramatically in China, this could imply a greater positive impact on the society to which it belongs. So its role might become a significant one even just by pursuing its own interests.
However, growth is increasingly accompanied by rising inequalities. This prompts questions about the quality of such growth. The challenge is how to foster equality not only among countries but also across generations. It is a sustainability question. Many questions, few answers. Lots of food for thought.
Commentary by Angela Zarro (SID) based on the EADI 14th General Conference, Plenary I, 24 June 2014, Bonn.