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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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The world will, for the first time in history, move from being mostly poor to mostly middle-class by 2022, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projects. Asians, by some predictions, could constitute as much as two-thirds of the global middle class, shifting the balance of economic power from West to East. Already, some analyses of International Monetary Fund data suggest that the size of the Chinese economy could eclipse that of the United States in just five years.

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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.

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."

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