Politicians, marketing consultants, economists and sociologists share an obsession with the “middle class” — whatever that is. Depending on who and where you ask, the middle class is either growing or shrinking, anxious or optimistic, getting richer or getting poorer, politically engaged or opting out. You can define who’s middle-class by income, occupation, level of education, ownership of property, spending patterns, or cultural affinities. Abandoning such a slippery and freighted term entirely might be wise, but time has shown it’s irresistible. The main thing is to note that there’s no single definition: It depends on the question you’re asking.
In the U.S., Europe and other rich countries, the crash of 2008 hit many people in the middle of the income scale hard. Forces predating the recession (automation, outsourcing to low-income countries, falling employment in high-wage manufacturing) have added to fears that economies are being hollowed out and that lost middle-class jobs aren’t coming back. Frustrated middle-class voters have fueled populist political movements that led to the U.K. splitting from the European Union and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. In emerging-market economies, a new middle class is growing fast, heralding further economic change and demands for political reform. In the rich world, governments are struggling to counter middle-class anxiety; in the developing world, they’re challenged by new middle-class aspirations. The contrast is arresting, but also misleading: The middle class under pressure in the U.S. and Europe is different from the expanding middle classes of India or China.
Economists usually define the middle class in terms of income or spending. A 2010 international study defined the “global middle class” as households spending between $10 and $100 per person a day — a range, it says, that excludes “those who are considered poor in the poorest advanced countries and those who are considered rich in the richest advanced country.” That would put the global middle class at about 2 billion people. Using this approach, though, many people considered middle-class in India, for example, would be too poor to qualify. According to India’s official definition, the middle class starts at roughly $4 a day — and about 40 percent of middle-class Indians lack piped water, flushing toilets and a reliable electricity supply. The meaning of middle-class varies among rich countries, too. Statisticians in the U.K. have long divided people into five main classes not by income but according to their jobs, with “higher managerial and professional occupations” at the top and unskilled workers at the bottom. A skilled manual worker is seen as working-class; a clerk is middle-class. Companies are more interested in purchasing intentions than social status. In rich countries, the middle class can afford cars; in India or China, refrigerators and washing machines. Americans tend to regard themselves as middle-class across an unusually wide range of income, even amid rising concern about inequality. So U.S. political campaigns are often fought over competing appeals to “middle-class values” shared across a wide spectrum of income and wealth.
The definition of middle class is unavoidably arbitrary and, even within a given country, means different things to different people. As shorthand, taken in context, it’s useful nonetheless. Good jobs once thought secure are indeed under pressure in the U.S. and other rich countries. Anxiety across the wide middle of these economies is well-founded. In the emerging-market countries, a new class of consumers is connected to the world economy, with interests and choices that don’t arise for the poor; they want to be heard in politics, too. Everywhere, people who are neither rich nor poor guide their nations’ destinies. The middle class will always be with us.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg View published a series of editorials in May 2015 on the problems of the U.S. middle class. And Bloomberg interactive explores why “Everybody Thinks They’re Middle Class.”
- A detailed study by the Pew Research Center defines the global middle class more narrowly.
- A report on the U.S. “middle-class squeeze” by the Center for American Progress.
- The BBC sponsored a survey of Britain’s changing attitudes to class. The traditional categories, it says, no longer work. Academics discuss the findings.
- The U.S. has four middle classes, according to a Pew Research Center essay.
- “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on middle-class values.
First published April 24, 2015
To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Clive Crook in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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