What is it, then, that hides behind these “people in the middle”. All over the world, and in particular in developing countries, defining the middle classes is quite a challenge. The “Rise of the Middle Classes: Implications for Public Policies in the Emerging and Developing Countries” research project conducted by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), in partnership with the University of Bordeaux (Gretha) and the Bordeaux Political Sciences Institute (Africas in the World laboratory), therefore set itself the objective of analysing the middle classes in four developing countries.
While their development levels and trajectories differ, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Turkey and Vietnam do all share strong growth that has driven the emergence of a middle class. The study of these four countries focused more particularly on the characteristics of their middle classes, their behaviour, aspirations and expectations, not forgetting the influence of the rise of this new social group on public policies in the countries in question. Its conclusions dispel four widely-held beliefs about this category of the population with its protean contours:
- THE MIDDLE CLASSES ARE THE SAME EVERYWHERE: FALSE
The first lesson of the study is that it is difficult to define a common framework in terms of income for the middle classes in different countries, and in particular in the four countries studied here, given the differences in their economic development levels.
While a harmonised definition was found for the upper income limit, the same cannot be said of the lower limit, as “not being poor” corresponds to very different realities in these four countries.
It was shown, however, that the middle class represents a considerable share of the population of households in Turkey (75.4%), Vietnam (72.5%) and Brazil (61.4%). The small weight of the middle class (in income terms) observed in Côte d’Ivoire (26.5%), however, suggests that there is an Ivorian exception, and one that probably applies to the African continent as a whole.
In addition to this, the notion of the middle classes used by economic development stakeholders is based largely on the transposition of the historic experience of western societies. However, the emergence of the middle classes is a historic process that is specific to each society and results in different types of middle classes.
- THEY ARE ALL THE SAME WITHIN A GIVEN COUNTRY, HOWEVER... FALSE AGAIN
Not only are the middle classes very different from one developing country to another, they also differ within each country. The sub-groups that make up the middle classes do not form a coherent group united by a specific social or political conscience.
First and foremost, the “people in the middle” come from different backgrounds and are differentiated and divided by their levels and types of income, lifestyles, forms of activity, intergenerational ties, social representations and affinities. Postulating that the people in the middle, because they are in the middle, are therefore the “middle classes” is highly debatable, judging by the study headed by AFD.
Supposing that on account of their “central” position, they are automatically advocates of universal modernity, democracy and social justice, is a hypothesis that is even more debatable.
The comparative study further highlights the sharp contrasts within each national middle class, notably in terms of employment status, education level and income. Each national group is characterised by the existence of between four and six very specific groups which can be explained by the particular history of each of these societies.
For example, the groups of farmers-planters in Côte d’Ivoire, pensioners in Brazil, Anatolian entrepreneurs in Turkey and specialised farmers on the Mekong in Vietnam have no equivalent in the other countries.
These groups can encompass rural and urban-dwellers, people with a modern, Westernised culture and more conservative populations, some people working in the official realm and others in the informal economy, and some people who are close to poverty, others who have a certain affluence and yet others who are almost rich.
- MIDDLE CLASSES AROUND THE WORLD DO SHARE SOME POINTS IN COMMON: TRUE
The comparative analysis of the four countries selected here identified several aspects of behaviour and aspirations that are common to these intermediate categories.
Despite considerable differences in income, the middle classes can be seen as classes of consumption or consumers, resulting in high consumer spending and in populations that are mobile and invest in education, housing and health.
The relative satisfaction of their immediate needs allows them to aspire to furthering their own situation and that of those around them, associated in all countries with a focus on individual effort. This leads, among other things, to them dedicating a large part of their spending to education and training for their young people, to strategies to diversify their income (via investments in land and real estate), and also to a desire to improve their housing.
Another feature is the high household debt ratio of the middle classes, especially in Brazil and Turkey. At the same time, a tendency towards individualism can be seen in the personal trajectories of the members of the middle classes.
- THE MIDDLE CLASSES ARE AT PEACE WITH THE STATE: TRUE AND FALSE
The different national middle classes have ambiguous and complex relationships with the State, the authorities and public policies, whether in emerging or in industrialised countries, as shown by the Yellow Vests movement in France.
In the four countries studied here, the wide socio-economic disparities within the national middle classes limits their capacities in terms of collective organisation and political influence.
In addition, despite the existence of sectoral policies targeting certain aspects of the middle classes, the study notes the absence of any official policy seeking to promote the middle class as a social group.
It is as if the authorities are seeking not to generate a middle class, but to foster the emergence of diverse groups that are in a position to support it, while not enjoying sufficient ties to unite against it. These sharply contrasting situations lead to complex relationships that are far removed from the collusion that is generally imagined as existing between the middle classes and the democratic authorities.
THE FOCUS OF DEBATE
The middle classes were on the agenda of the 13th AFD international conference on the theme “Inequalities and Social Ties”, organised on 7 December in Paris.
It is impossible to debate about inequalities without making reference to the middle classes. At the Institut du Monde Arabe, the venue of this high-level conference organised by AFD with the support of the European Union, Nizar Baraka, former President of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council of the Kingdom of Morocco, issued a warning about the “exasperation of populations” facing the risk of “downward social mobility of the middle classes.”
This feeling “results in a conviction that those in government are powerless to address the reduction of inequalities” and confirms the feeling of mistrust of those in government that can be felt among the middle classes.
“The middle classes benefit from stable jobs, a regulatory framework, work in the formal sector and stable professions,” summarised Murray Leibbrandt, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Poverty and Inequality Initiative at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
However, in South Africa as in other countries, “this segment of the formal, regulated labour market is threatened by the general spread of precarious employment”, explained the researcher. There is also another factor driving stress among the middle classes, as pointed out by Murray Leibbrandt: “Demand for services is increasing and with it the need, among people at the top of the pyramid, for occupations with skills such as IT, to the detriment of the others.”
A warning shared by Gisela Nauk, a specialist in social issues at the UN Economic and Social Council for Western Asia: “Beware of the fragmented careers that are becoming the lot of the middle classes. Welfare systems need to be reformed to adapt them to growing job insecurity on the labour market.” Failing this, the “people in the middle” may well be taking a few steps down the social ladder.