Surging BRIC middle classes are eclipsing global poverty
By 2022, those living in poverty will be a minority for the first time, as the global middle class – particularly from BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations – surges. Does new affluence signal shifting global power?
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In just one example of the rising clout of this new global middle class, in a mere seven years China has gone from buying 1 General Motors car for every 10 sold in the US to becoming the American automaker's biggest customer – not to mention becoming a big competitor at the gas pumps.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures The Rising Global Middle Class
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But today's middle-class boom is unlike the Industrial Revolution, in which rising prosperity became a catalyst for increased individual and political freedom. Those in the emerging global middle classes – from an Indian acquiring a flush toilet at home to a Brazilian who can now afford private school to a Chinese lawyer with a new car in the driveway – are likely to redefine their traditional roles, and in doing so, redefine the world itself.
"I would expect that as the global middle class gets transformed by the entrance of hundreds of millions of Indian, Brazilian, and Chinese families, the concept of what we see as the middle-class values may change," says Sonalde Desai, a sociologist with the National Council of Applied Economic Research in Delhi (NCAER). "Historically, sociologists have defined 'middle class' as those with salaries…. I think 'middle class' is very much a state of mind."
Who are they?
From Aristotle to Alexis de Tocqueville, Western thinkers have championed the middle class as essential for prosperous, enlightened societies. They held it up as the engine for economic growth, the guardian of social values, and an impelling and protecting force for democracy.
The new members of the middle class have been praised for their work ethic, like the shopkeepers, tradesmen, and professionals who spurred the Industrial Revolution.
But they also differ in fundamental ways. They come from communal societies that rein in the individualism prized in 1800s America. Their exposure to the pitfalls of the West's extravagant consumerism often makes them more frugal and environmentally conscious. And they are hesitant – for now, at least – to risk prosperity for political freedom.
"China's rapid growth has been a kind of anesthetic that keeps political discontent manageable," says Brink Lindsey, whose book "The Age of Abundance" links America's post-World War II prosperity and its mind-opening educational opportunities to the social and political upheaval of the 1960s and '70s. "But already [in China] things are dramatically different. People have much more freedom in their lives."
That's a sneak preview, he says, of what lies ahead for developing countries – particularly the awakening giants of the middle class: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, the so-called BRICS economies.
Far from Rio de Janeiro's beaches and boutiques, Shopping Jardim Guadalupe is emblematic of the global economic boom fueled by Brazil, India, and China. "I want your store in my mall," reads a recent ad for the megacomplex due to open in November. It will be a hub of middle-class aspiration with not just a food court, eight anchor stores, six "megastores," and 250 smaller shops, but also a university, private high school, gym, medical center, movie theaters, and a bowling alley. More than 84 percent of the property has been sold.