Rise of the Global Middle Class Rise of the Global Middle Class
Issue 014

Rise of the Global Middle Class

by Thomas P.M. Barnett

January 17, 2009

America has had the biggest demand in the global economy for so long that we can't remember what it was like when that wasn't the case. But that's all about to change.

I'll let you in on a little secret about globalization: It is demand that determines power, not supply. Consumption is king; everybody else serves at will. So it ain't about who's got the biggest military complex but who's got the biggest middle class. Everybody's got the dream. What matters is who can pay for it.For as long as we can remember, that's been America-the consumer around which the entire global economy revolved. What's it like to be the global demand center? The world revolves around your needs, your desires, and your ambitions. Your favorite stories become the world's most popular entertainment. Your fears become the dominant political issues. You are the E. F. Hutton of consumption: When you talk, everybody listens. That was the role the Boomers played for decades in America and-by extension-around the world through their unprecedented purchasing power. But that dominance is nearing an end.In coming decades, it won't belong to Americans, but to Asians. So say hello to your new master, corporate America: Mr. and Mrs. M. C. Chindia.The rise of the Asian middle class, a binary system centered in China and India, alters the very gravity of the global economy. The vast sucking sound you hear is not American jobs going overseas, but damn near every natural resource being drawn into Asia's yawning maw. Achieving middle-class status means shifting from needs to wants, so Asia's rise means that Asia's wants will determine our planet's future-perhaps its very survival. And as any environmentalist with a calculator knows, it isn't possible for China and India to replicate the West's consumption model, so however this plays out, the world must learn to live with their translation of the American dream.As for the new middle class's relative size, think bread truck, not breadbasket: Over the next couple of decades, the percent of the world's population that can be considered middle class, judging by purchasing power, will almost double, from just over a quarter of the population to more like half. The bulk of this increase will occur in China and India, where the percentage shifts will be similar. So if we round off China and India today as having 2.5 billion people, then their middle class will jump in numerical size from being roughly equivalent to the population of North America or the European Union to being their combined total.
The vast sucking sound you hear is not American jobs going overseas, but damn near every natural resource being drawn into Asia's yawning maw.
No, it won't be your father's middle class-not at first. Much of that Asian wave now crests at a household income level that most Americans would associate with the working poor, but it will grow into solid middle-class status over the coming years through urbanization and job migration from manufacturing to services. And for global companies that thrive on selling to the middle class, this is already where all the sales growth is occurring, and it's only going to get bigger. As far as global business is concerned, there is no sweeter spot than an emerging demand center, because we're talking about an entire generation in need of branding-more than 500 million teenagers looking to forge consumer identities.There are also essentially two unknowable wild cards associated with the rise of China's and India's middle classes: First, how can they achieve an acceptable standard of living without replicating the West's resource-wasteful version? And second, what would happen if that middle-class lifestyle was suddenly threatened or even reversed? The planet must have an answer to the first question, even as it hopes to avoid ever addressing the second. Here's where those two fears may converge: As their income rises, their diets change. Not just taking in more food, but far more resource-intensive food, like dairy and meat. Right now, China imports vast amounts of food and India is just barely self-sufficient in the all-important grains category. Both are likely to suffer losses in agricultural production in coming years and decades, thanks to global warming, just as internal demand balloons with that middle class. Meanwhile, roughly one-third of world's advanced-lifestyle afflictions-like diabetes or cancer-will be found in China and India by 2030. Toss in the fact that much of the population lives along the low-lying coasts, and our notional middle-class couple could eventually cast the deciding global votes on the issue of whether or not global warming is worth addressing aggressively.Whoever captures the middle-class flag in coming years will have to possess the soft power necessary to shape globalization's soul in this century, because humanity's very survival depends on our generation's ability to channel today's rising social anger into a lengthy period of social reform. This era's global capitalism must first be shamed (populism) and then tamed (progressivism), just as America's rapacious version was more than a century ago. Today's global financial crisis simply marks the opening bell in a worldwide fight that is destined to go many rounds.
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Rise of the Global Middle Class