In the fast lane to the middle class

A world with more middle class than poor by 2022 may be a challenge to social values. A rising middle-class materialism needs a spiritual response.

Humanity is only a decade away from a major milestone: By 2022, it is forecasted, more people will be middle-class than poor.

And this shift is moving swiftly: The size of the global middle class may also double in two decades.

A world that is mostly urban and well-off will bring added freedom and new ideas to more people. But with that come challenges to social values, especially a keep-up-with-the-Joneses materialism and new uncertainties.

Those challenges are most acute in Asia, home to more than half of the rising middle class. China itself has lifted 300 million of its current 1.2 billion people out of poverty in three decades. India’s middle class will boom to nearly the same size soon.

India still has strong traditions, such as family fealty, that may constrain nouveau-riche pressures on
values. But China, with its rush to riches, clearly does not. So says the prime minister, Wen Jiabao.

Last month, he warned that “the fostering of the moral culture is lagging.” He cited recent scandals over deliberate contamination of food, such as infant formula. “A country without the improved quality of its people and the power of morality will never grow into a real mighty and respected power,” he said.

China’s leaders, wary of the people’s worship of money, hint that religion and democracy (especially rule of law) may be needed. But so far they’ve only revived Confucius as an icon of virtue (e.g. social harmony and self-refinement). Even that is contentious. A statue of the sage erected near Tiananmen Square in February was secretly removed last month.

A moral vacuum can strike any rising middle class. Battles for status erupt in a competition for consumption. (In China, it’s Louis Vuitton that defines prestige.) Material goods are seen as a ladder to upward mobility.

A consumer culture can also leave young people with a lack of purpose, as China knows well. And youth often have bicultural identities: one in tradition and one in the global market of high-tech communications and Western media. They may feel no kinship to either and can easily become alienated.

So cheers for the newly well-off. But they need a spiritual foundation before they build those McMansions.

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