Anxieties of the middle class

Mahmoud Mohieldin
Tuesday 20 Feb 2024

The middle class is no longer the dominant class of some countries, raising fears of growing social fragmentation and frustration, writes Mahmoud Mohieldin


Moving into the middle class is the dream of many poor people who long to escape the grip of destitution and humiliation at the doorstep of donors and aid providers. Many wealthy people might also prefer to belong to the middle class out of an inclination towards humility, as a way of having pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, or as a shield against criticism or sometimes prying authorities.  

The middle class is widely recognised as the guardian of stability and peaceful competition, a love of learning and culture, the backbone of social norms, and an enthusiastic supporter of progress.

In his seminal work on the middle class, British historian Lawrence James describes it as pragmatic, adaptable, and peace-loving. It embodies the genius of the nation to which it belongs. Its members know what they need to do and work to achieve it. They also expect the state to protect them and their property, to safeguard their liberties, and to make sure that they and their ambitions can advance unimpeded.

Members of the middle class are keen to educate their children and equip them with what they need to achieve a better life for themselves than that enjoyed by their parents.

Some social scientists define the middle class in terms of income, possibly because such data are readily available. Others rely on a basket of indicators for some of which it is not as easy to find available data. This article will opt for a practical approach to determining what it means to belong to the middle class as reflected in public-opinion surveys.

In November last year, the Washington Post conducted a survey of 1,280 US adults and asked them what they thought was needed to be considered part of the middle class. According to the results, the conditions were: a secure job (93 per cent of the respondents), the ability to save money for the future (91 per cent), the ability to afford to pay $1,000 in an emergency without going into debt (90 per cent), having health insurance (89 per cent), the ability to retire comfortably (87 per cent), having a job with paid sick leave (73 per cent), having time and money for vacations (67 per cent), owning a home (60 per cent), the ability to eat in a restaurant whenever you want (46 per cent), and a college education (31 per cent).

The survey found that most Americans would rank a family of four with an annual income of $75,000 to $100,000 as middle class. This  range is different from the formal estimates which have slightly lower band and much higher upper band.

We can conclude that the middle class, as public opinion in the US understands it, is associated with guarantees of a decent and stable standard of living now and in the future. Yet, the Washington Post survey also found that only 35 per cent of Americans meet the top six criteria for belonging to the middle class. One of the respondents’ main worries was being able to retire comfortably even after having made provisions for changing social security regulations and health insurance over the period of post-retirement.

Similar surveys conducted in Japan during the period of steady growth in the 1970s and 1980s found that when asked what their ambition for the future was, most respondents answered that it was simply to be like everyone else.

Japan at that time had earned the reputation of being a society in which 90 per cent of the population was middle class. A more recent poll conducted by the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training reflected the fate of the country’s middle class after decades of low growth. Only 60 per cent of Japanese respondents identify as middle class today based on the criteria of having a regular job and owning a house and car. Fifty six per cent of those polled said they lived below a middle class lifestyle, while six per cent said they enjoyed a higher standard. Only 38 per cent matched the respondents’ relatively simple definition of middle class.

What this means is that the middle class is no longer the dominant class in society in Japan. Even if the condition of having a regular job is met, that is not enough to ensure a secure future. According to the Japanese survey, 41 per cent of the country’s regular wage-earners said they could barely afford to make ends meet every month, and 11 per cent said they could not afford to live well despite having a regular job.

Experts in Japan fear that if this trajectory continues, it will lead to lower consumption and declining birth rates in a country with an aging demographic and may impact relative productivity and economic competitiveness. There is also a risk of social fragmentation due to growing frustration and a decreased sense of social solidarity.

The experts have urged the Japanese government, employers, and the labour movement to join forces to break the downward cycle. There is a need to revise pay scales, invest in human resource development, and improve taxation, pension, and social security systems, they say, all of which will help to boost the labour market dynamics.

The period from the late 1980s before the fall of the Berlin Wall to the 2008 world financial crisis brought a global shift in patterns of income distribution. Fast growing countries, such as China, India, and the East Asian countries saw the rise of ambitious middle classes. In the West, by contrast, the middle class came under pressure as its relative competitiveness shrank and the income gap between rich and poor broadened. In the developing nations, the middle classes have been assailed by the costs  various crises as well as reform measures  put forward as their countries have reeled under a succession of shocks and the strains of mounting debt.

I will discuss the impacts of these changes and ways to cope with them in a following article. Helping people who are plagued by entrenched destitution requires a different approach to helping those who have only recently fallen into poverty’s clutches. Clearly, the first step is to take measures to pre-empt the fall in the first place. As an old Arab proverb counselled us, we should have mercy on the rich man who has become poor and the proud man who has been humbled.

* This article also appears in Arabic in Wednesday’s edition of Asharq Al-Awsat.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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