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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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That has benefits in terms of educating children and feeling socially connected. But even as Indians become wealthier, they are unlikely to gain full autonomy to decide careers, marriages, and major purchases.

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"Being independent is not really in the concept of Indian social fabric in that way that being independent is in the Western fabric," says Yashwant Deshmukh, an Indian pollster.

That's particularly true in the case of women, despite their becoming more educated.

"We have this conflicting push-pull going on – education and modernizing," says Ms. Desai. "One is getting education, one has a social status, but it is meant to be used in the service of the family rather than in individual freedom."

That contrasts with the Industrial Revolution, in which economic freedom spurred a growing sense of individualism and freedom of thought that transformed everything from gender roles to political rights.

But Mr. Lindsey is confident that today's middle-class explosion will also result in similar personal and political freedoms, though perhaps the process will be more gradual – and thus involve less upheaval.

"If you're a poor peasant, you're not in charge of anything in your life [from where you live to who you marry]," he says. "[S]o why would you presume to have anything to do with how the laws in your life are made? It's just completely out of your hands."

But people start thinking differently when they can choose their work and "it's something that requires thought and judgment, not manual labor," he adds. "Politically it manifests itself in democratization."

An opening for democracy?

But there's no political revolution waiting to happen in China – perhaps just new inklings of what it means to be a citizen.

Much of the generation joining the Chinese workforce now, who are shaping the aspirations of the middle-class bulge, were just toddlers during the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. Young Chinese at that time were seeking political reform to match the economic reforms introduced by the Communist Party in the late 1970s, but they were infamously put down in a massacre by the government.

Frances Sun, a Chinese senior vice president for the international public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, describes today's prosperous generation as more talented but less interested in its country's history and government. "They did not experience the hard time of China," says Ms. Sun, who oversaw the massive public relations effort for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "They have no memory of the hard time. So they care less about politics, the country, the big issues."

It's typical historically that as people gain economic freedom, they seek a stronger rule of law, based on principles rather than personalities. While nothing like the Tiananmen consciousness is brewing today, the middle class is, however, spawning a small but growing number of activists who look beyond their own relative prosperity to the growing social inequalities that mar Chinese society.


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