If one were to search the term ‘middle class’ on the internet, one would probably find that this term refers to a group of people in the middle of the hierarchy of society. So it is essentially a social term rather than an economic term.
If we were to give the term an economic dimension, in addition to its social one, one would find that it makes reference to people whose incomes fall between the lower income bracket and the higher income bracket.
Once we speak of incomes, it becomes immediately apparent that such persons that form the so-called middle class have different social and family backgrounds and are doing such diverse jobs that one can hardly consider them to be one social class. To reflect this diversity we coined the terms ‘upper middle class’ and ‘lower middle class’.
Maybe this is why in marketing and social research we make reference to a socioeconomic classification that has a different basis.
In marketing research, we speak of the A, B C1, C2, D and E categories and the classification of persons is the result of more than just one factor. Once we introduce the political dimension, in addition to the social and economic one, I believe we also lose sense of what the term really means.
In Malta we hear people speak of ‘the new middle class’. One wonders what will happen to the old middle class. Do we just throw it into a rubbish dump? We also hear others speaking of a classless society. Do we really believe that society can be classless, even though all men are indeed born equal? What happens to income inequalities and different educational backgrounds? However, it is commonly believed that the party that appeals most to the middle-of- the-road people is the party that wins in an election, and the middle of the road is very often associated with the middle class.
It is interesting to note how institutions abroad view the concept of the middle class. In 2010, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that the middle-class population of the world amounted to 1.8 billion, that is around a fourth of the world’s population.
On the other hand, The Economist had claimed that over half the world’s population now belonged to the middle class. It also predicts that it will grow significantly over the next 25 years. The divergence in interpretation as to what constitutes the middle class is probably best exemplified by the fact that in the US, the middle class is estimated to be 45 per cent of the population, while the corresponding figure for China is 62 per cent.
Looking at the local situation, there is general consensus that the middle class has grown significantly over the last 25 years.
This has happened as a result of a number of factors, such as the growth in employment, the increased female participation rate in the labour market, the growth in incomes, a consistently low level of unemployment, the much improved provision of educational and health services, the drive to encourage persons to continue with their studies after secondary education and the availability of a much wider range of career paths.
Statistics show that in 2011, the average household disposable income stood at €22,400. The percentage of the population that lies at the risk-of-poverty level stands at 15.4 per cent. If one compares this statistics with the other 26 EU member states, Malta lies bang in the middle. This makes one believe that we are really a middle-class society. However, what constitutes a middle-class society, rather than the middle class in society?
There are several answers to this question. However, I will venture one myself. In my opinion it is likely to be a society that is entrepreneurial in approach, even if many would be very happy to be employees rather than employers.
It tends to expect better quality services from the state but does not wish to be dependent on the state. It believes that education is the fundamental key to a better quality of life, rather than just wealth. It believes strongly in democratic values, while at the same time expects to live in an orderly environment.
The middle-class society is one that expects empathy but cannot stand being treated like an idiot. The implications of all this for the economy are not small and cannot be taken for granted.