The Increasingly Turbulent World of the Middle Class

  • National Newswatch

The headlines dominated the world's economic news for most of the past two decades:
  • The Uprising of the Global Middle Class – Atlantic (2017)
  • How a Growing Middle Class Could Save the World's Economy – Pew (2016)
  • A global tipping point: Half the world is now middle class or wealthier – Brookings (2018)
For many, it appeared as though the heady days of global capitalism were just around the bend, but that was highly misleading.  For every article claiming a better future for the middle class, there were many more alluding to the tough days ahead.Much of the rhetoric concerning middle-class gains was indicative of the developing world, not the more advanced economic nations.  Employment/under-employment, high public and private debt, housing prices going through the stratosphere, climbing prices for both health and education – these, and more, were already lowering the possibilities of middle-class families long before COVID arrived to drive them down even further.For political parties in affluent nations, this is increasingly becoming an acute problem.  The sweet spot in any political campaign has always been the moderate middle class, but as prosperity falls further out of reach for citizens, politics becomes more unsure.  Or, as The Economist noted last year: “If there's anything that current events tell us, it's that the person on the street is angry and wants change.”  Can politicians deliver in a way that can assuage that collective distemper?  That's the issue, and the answer isn't clear.Prices are climbing in many sectors.  Inflation is the highest it has been in three decades.  And while politicians attempted to show leadership at the recent climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, they were aware that any efforts to reach effective levels of carbon reduction will necessitate belt tightening measures that could turn citizens away from their environmental responsibilities.To believe that a middle-class economy will recover following an emergency such as COVID begs the question: Return to what?  For years, Canadians have been increasingly using their credit cards to make up the difference for what they have lost over time.  We knew jobs were precarious long before a virus travelled from Wuhan to circle the globe and land in Canada.And then there was the belief that Donald Trump represented the core of the world's problems, and the Biden victory caused many to claim ebulliently that the middle class was on its way back.  No one is betting on that anymore.  Throughout Europe, the United Kingdom, America, and Canada there is the worry that mountains of debt, a hyper-partisan political landscape, and a world unwilling to come to grips with climate change will continue the downward spiralling of middle class hopes.The world that existed in the decade leading up to the pandemic represented economic systems that forced a growing gap between the rich and the rest, a metastasizing breakout in poverty in prosperous countries, and — perhaps the most worrying of all – the middle class, upon which so much of peaceful populations depended, discovering it was on its way out.  That cohort of citizens required good jobs, affordable homes, access to universities and hospitals, and a passing on of wealth from parents to their children, in order to function.  Always present was the abiding belief that our kids would be better off than we were.  It was a covenant between generations that required progressive economies to work.That practical dream had turned into a domestic nightmare long before COVID arrived.  And to blame the pandemic for our economic woes is to get our recent history backwards.  The dream that Ayn Rand wrote about not all that long ago is now seriously fraying around the edges: “Upper classes are a nation's past; the middle class is its future.”  Again, there is the gnawing feeling that an unequal history, which we had escaped, has caught up to and overtaken us.This the world that Trudeau, Biden, Johnson, Macron, and so many others now confront.  Their citizens are not complacent; neither are they ambivalent.  They are increasingly restive and angry.  They had believed Li Fan's prophesy when she declared: “The middle class is growing and that's the reality that nobody can stop.”  They don't share that outlook anymore.And they are about to endure economic realities that will seek to square the requirements of carbon and debt reduction with the seemingly empty promises of growing prosperity.  The stability of every democratic nation will depend on the outcome.Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 35 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.