In her most recent column for the Financial Times (Which middle class, which squeeze?, 8th-9th February 2014), the always-readable Gillian Tett makes an important observation: notwithstanding the declining numbers of people in the United States and the West more generally who regard themselves as economically middle-class – and the rising number who consciously define themselves as lower class – the global middle class is expanding at a furious pace. Citing a 2013 report from EY (formerly Ernst & Young) entitled Hitting the Sweet Spot, Tett notes that over the next two decades this segment is expected to increase by three billion people; even in today’s Asia, 525m people can already count themselves as middle-class consumers, those with ‘disposable incomes that will allow them to buy the cars, televisions and other goods’.
Reading this prompts one obvious question: if this is the case, then why – the odd acronym aside – do we hear and know so little about this phenomenon in much of the developed world? After some contemplation, we at Mediolana think there may be five key reasons behind this silence:
1. A West-centric Media. What happens in New York City, London and Paris is still deemed to be more important than occurrences in Beijing, Rio de Janeiro and Jakarta. This is as understandable as it is ultimately untenable.
2. A Media-centric Media. Most of the world’s most prominent journalists are from or based in Western countries. They are human, too – and their anxieties are reflected in much of their coverage.
3. Hegemony. At the time of the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, it became clear that there were some in Western policymaking circles who were deeply hesitant about the rise of Japan and did not wish to see its model replicated. Have we moved on from this mindset?
4. Uncertainty. Many in Europe still struggle with Middle America and the idea that its values are in many ways very different from their own; the same is true vice-versa. Are we ready to comprehend and contend with the values of Middle Malaysia?
5. Not My Problem. With Peak Oil and resource crunches looming over the horizon, it is becoming increasingly clear that the middle-class dream is not necessarily sustainable – at least as it is currently constituted. Through largely ignoring the immense shifts taking place in today’s world, are we deferring this debate to the next generation?