The term middle class was coined by James Bradshaw in a 1745 pamphlet Scheme to prevent running Irish Wools to France. The term has had various, even contradictory, meanings. In medieval European feudal society (8th-12th centuries), a "middle class" composed primarily of peasants who formed a new "bourgeoisie" based on the success of their mercantile ventures, eventually overthrew the ruling monarchists of their society and ultimately led to the rise of capitalist societies.
The middle class is a class of people in the middle of a social hierarchy. However, it is oversimplification to consider this term as an easily identifiable category that falls between "x" and "y" on one specific, agreed-upon continuum with established criteria. The definition of the term "middle class" is highly political and vigorously contested by various schools of political and economic philosophy. Modern social theorists—and especially economists—have defined and re-defined the term "middle class" in order to serve their particular social or political ends. The definitions of the term "middle class" therefore are the result of the more- or less-scientific methods used when delineating the parameters of what is and isn't "middle class."
Within capitalism, "middle-class" initially referred to the bourgeoisie; later, with the further differentiation of classes as capitalist societies developed, the term came to be synonymous with the term petite bourgeoisie.
Marxism defines social classes according to their relationship with the means of production. The "middle class" is said to be the class below the ruling class and above the proletariat in the Marxist social schema and is synonymous with the term "petite-" or "petty-bourgeoisie." However, in modern developed countries, Marxist writers define the petite bourgeoisie as primarily comprising owners of small to medium-sized businesses, as well as the highly educated professional class of doctors, engineers, architects, lawyers, university professors, salaried middle-management of capitalist enterprises of all sizes, as the "middle class" which stands between the ruling capitalist "owners of the means of production" and the working class.
The common measures of what constitutes middle class vary significantly among cultures. On the one hand, the term can be viewed primarily in terms of socioeconomic status. One of the narrowest definitions limits it to those in the middle fifth of the nation's income ladder. A wider characterization includes everyone but the poorest 20% and the wealthiest 20%. Some theories like "Paradox of Interest", use decile groups and wealth distribution data to determine the size and wealth share of the middle class.
In modern American vernacular, the term "middle class" is most often used as a self-description by those persons whom academics and Marxists would otherwise identify as the working class, which are below both the upper class and the true middle class, but above those in poverty. This leads to considerable ambiguity over the meaning of the term "middle class" in American usage. Sociologists such as Dennis Gilbert and Joseph Kahl see this American self-described "middle class" (working class) as the most populous class in the United States.
In 1977 Barbara Ehrenreich and her then husband John defined a new class in the United States as "salaried menial workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor ... [is] ... the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations;" the Ehrenreichs named this group the "professional-managerial class."
There has been significant global middle-class growth over time. In February 2009, The Economist asserted that over half the world's population now belongs to the middle class, as a result of rapid growth in emerging countries. It characterized the middle class as having a reasonable amount of discretionary income, so that they do not live from hand-to-mouth as the poor do, and defined it as beginning at the point where people have roughly a third of their income left for discretionary spending after paying for basic food and shelter.
History and evolution of the term
The term "middle class" is first attested in James Bradshaw's 1745 pamphlet Scheme to prevent running Irish Wools to France. Another phrase used in Early modern Europe was "the middling sort.
The term "middle class" has had several, sometimes contradictory, meanings. Friedrich Engels saw the category as an intermediate social class between the nobility and the peasantry of Europe in late-feudalist society. While the nobility owned much of the countryside, and the peasantry worked it, a new bourgeoisie (literally "town-dwellers") arose around mercantile functions in the city. In France, the middle classes helped drive the French Revolution. This "middle class" eventually overthrew the ruling monarchists of feudal society, thus becoming the new ruling class or bourgeoisie in the new capitalist-dominated societies.
The modern usage of the term "middle-class", however, dates to the 1913 UK Registrar-General's report, in which the statistician T.H.C. Stevenson identified the middle class as those falling between the upper-class and the working-class. The middle class includes: professionals, managers, and senior civil servants. The chief defining characteristic of membership in the middle-class is control of significant human capital while still being under the dominion of the elite upper class, who control much of the financial and legal capital in the world.
Within capitalism, "middle-class" initially referred to the bourgeoisie; later, with the further differentiation of classes as capitalist societies developed, the term came to be synonymous with the term petite bourgeoisie. The boom-and-bust cycles of capitalist economies result in the periodic (and more or less temporary) impoverisation and proletarianisation of much of the petite bourgeois world, resulting in their moving back and forth between working-class and petite-bourgeois status. The typical modern definitions of "middle class" tend to ignore the fact that the classical petite-bourgeoisie is and has always been the owner of a small-to medium-sized business whose income is derived almost exclusively from the employment of workers; "middle class" came to refer to the combination of the labour aristocracy, professionals, and salaried, white-collar workers.
The size of the middle class depends on how it is defined, whether by education, wealth, environment of upbringing, social network, manners or values, etc. These are all related, but are far from deterministically dependent. The following factors are often ascribed in the literature on this topic to a "middle class:"
- Achievement of tertiary education.
- Holding professional qualifications, including academics, lawyers, chartered engineers, politicians, and doctors, regardless of leisure or wealth.
- Belief in bourgeois values, such as high rates of house ownership, delayed gratification, and jobs that are perceived to be secure.
- Lifestyle. In the United Kingdom, social status has historically been linked less directly to wealth than in the United States, and has also been judged by such characteristics as accent (Received Pronunciation and U and non-U English), manners, type of school attended (public or private school), occupation, and the class of a person's family, circle of friends and acquaintances.
In the United States, by the end of the twentieth century, more people identified themselves as middle-class than as lower or "working" class (with insignificant numbers identifying themselves as upper-class). The Labour Party in the UK, which grew out of the organised labour movement and originally drew almost all of its support from the working-class, reinvented itself under Tony Blair in the 1990s as "New Labour", a party competing with the Conservative Party for the votes of the middle-class as well as those of the Labour Party's traditional group of voters - the working-class. By 2011 almost three-quarters of British people were found to identify themselves as middle-class.
Marxism defines social classes according to their relationship with the means of production. The "middle class" is said to be the class below the ruling class and above the proletariat in the Marxist social schema and is synonymous with the term "petite-" or "petty-bourgeoisie." Marxist writers have used the term in two distinct but related ways. In the first sense, it is used for the bourgeoisie (the urban merchant and professional class) that arose between the aristocracy and the proletariat in the waning years of feudalism in the Marxist model. V. I. Lenin stated that the "peasantry ... in Russia constitute eight- or nine-tenths of the petty bourgeoisie". However, in modern developed countries, Marxist writers define the petite bourgeoisie as primarily comprising (as the name implies) owners of small to medium-sized businesses, who derive their income from the exploitation of wage-laborers (and who are in turn exploited by the "big" bourgeoisie i.e. bankers, owners of large corporate trusts, etc.) as well as the highly educated professional class of doctors, engineers, architects, lawyers, university professors, salaried middle-management of capitalist enterprises of all sizes, etc. – as the "middle class" which stands between the ruling capitalist "owners of the means of production" and the working class (whose income is derived solely from hourly wages).
Pioneer 20th century American Marxist theoretician Louis C. Fraina (Lewis Corey) defined the middle class as "the class of independent small enterprisers, owners of productive property from which a livelihood is derived." From Fraina's perspective, this social category included "propertied farmers" but not propertyless tenant farmers. Middle class also included salaried managerial and supervisory employees but not "the masses of propertyless, dependent salaried employees. Fraina speculated that the entire category of salaried employees might be adequately described as a "new middle class" in economic terms, although this remained a social grouping in which "most of whose members are a new proletariat."
In 1977 Barbara Ehrenreich and her then husband John defined a new class in the United States as "salaried menial workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor ... [is] ... the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations;" the Ehrenreichs named this group the "professional-managerial class." This group of middle-class professionals is distinguished from other social classes by their training and education (typically business qualifications and university degrees), with example occupations including academics and teachers, social workers, engineers, managers, nurses, and middle-level administrators. The Ehrenreichs developed their definition from studies by André Gorz, Serge Mallet, and others, of a "new working class," which, despite education and a perception of themselves as middle class, were part of the working class because they did not own the means of production, and were wage earners paid to produce a piece of capital. The professional-managerial class seeks higher rank status and salary and tend to have incomes above the average for their country.
Recent global growth
It is important to understand that modern definitions of the term "middle class" are often politically motivated and vary according to the exigencies of political purpose which they were conceived to serve in the first place as well as due to the multiplicity of more- or less-scientific methods used to measure and compare "wealth" between modern advanced industrial states (where poverty is relatively low and the distribution of wealth more egalitarian in a relative sense) and in developing countries (where poverty and a profoundly unequal distribution of wealth crush the vast majority of the population). Many of these methods of comparison have been harshly criticised; for example, economist Thomas Piketty, in his book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century", describes one of the most commonly used comparative measures of wealth across the globe – the Gini coefficient – as being an example of "synthetic indices ... which mix very different things, such as inequality with respect to labor and capital, so that it is impossible to distinguish clearly among the multiple dimensions of inequality and the various mechanisms at work."
In February 2009, The Economist asserted that over half the world's population now belongs to the middle class, as a result of rapid growth in emerging countries. It characterized the middle class as having a reasonable amount of discretionary income, so that they do not live from hand-to-mouth as the poor do, and defined it as beginning at the point where people have roughly a third of their income left for discretionary spending after paying for basic food and shelter. This allows people to buy consumer goods, improve their health care, and provide for their children's education. Most of the emerging middle class consists of people who are middle class by the standards of the developing world but not the developed one, since their money incomes do not match developed country levels, but the percentage of it which is discretionary does. By this definition, the number of middle-class people in Asia exceeded that in the West sometime around 2007 or 2008.
The Economist's article pointed out that in many emerging countries the middle class has not grown incrementally but explosively. The point at which the poor start entering the middle class by the millions is alleged to be the time when poor countries get the maximum benefit from cheap labour through international trade, before they price themselves out of world markets for cheap goods. It is also a period of rapid urbanization, when subsistence farmers abandon marginal farms to work in factories, resulting in a several-fold increase in their economic productivity before their wages catch up to international levels. That stage was reached in China some time between 1990 and 2005, when the Chinese "middle class" grew from 15% to 62% of the population and is just being reached in India now.
The Economist predicted that surge across the poverty line should continue for a couple of decades and the global middle class will grow exponentially between now and 2030. Based on the rapid growth, scholars expect the global middle class to be the driving force for sustainable development. This assumption, however, is contested (see below).
As the American middle class is estimated by some researchers to comprise approximately 45% of the population, The Economist's article would put the size of the American middle class below the world average. This difference is due to the extreme difference in definitions between The Economist's and many other models.
In 2010, a working paper by the OECD asserted that 1.8 billion people were now members of the global "middle class." Credit Suisse's Global Wealth Report 2014, released in October 2014, estimated that one billion adults belonged to the "middle class," with wealth anywhere between the range of $10,000–$100,000.
In 2012, the "middle class" in Russia was estimated as 15% of the whole population. Due to sustainable growth, the pre-crisis level was exceeded. In 2015, research from the Russian Academy of Sciences estimated that around 15% of the Russian population are "firmly middle class", while around another 25% are "on the periphery".
Since the beginning of the 21st century, China's middle class has grown by significant margins. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, by 2013, some 420 million people, or 31%, of the Chinese population qualified as middle class. Based on the World Bank definition of middle class as those having with daily spending between $10 to $50 per day, nearly 40% of the Chinese population were considered middle class as of 2017.
Estimates vary widely on the number of middle-class people in India. According to The Economist, 78 million of India's population are considered middle class as of 2017, if defined using the cutoff of those making more than $10 per day, a standard used by the India's National Council of Applied Economic Research. If including those with incomes $2 - $10 per day, the number increases to 604 million. This was termed by researchers as the "new middle class". Measures considered include geography, lifestyle, income, and education. The World Inequality Report in 2018 further concluded that elites (i.e. the top 10%) are accumulating wealth at a greater rate than the middle class, that rather than growing, India's middle class may be shrinking in size.
According to a 2014 study by Standard Bank economist Simon Freemantle, a total of 15.3 million households in 11 surveyed African nations are middle-class. These include Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. In South Africa, a report conducted by the Institute for Race Relations in 2015 estimated that between 10%-20% of South Africans are middle class, based on various criteria. An earlier study estimated that in 2008 21.3% of South Africans were members of the middle class.
A study by EIU Canback indicates 90% of Africans fall below an income of $10 a day. The proportion of Africans in the $10–$20 middle class (excluding South Africa), rose from 4.4% to only 6.2% between 2004 and 2014. Over the same period, the proportion of "upper middle" income ($20–$50 a day) went from 1.4% to 2.3%.
According to a 2014 study by the German Development Institute, the middle class of Sub-Saharan Africa rose from 14 million to 31 million people between 1990 and 2010.
Middle-class shares by income and wealth
The numbers below reflect the middle, upper, and lower share of all adults by country by net wealth (not income). Middle class is defined here for the US as those adults with a net wealth of between US$50,000 and US$500,000 in mid 2015. Purchasing power parity is used to adjust these number for other countries. Unlike that of the upper class, wealth of the middle and lowest quintile consists substantially of non-financial assets, specifically home equity. Factors which explain differences in home equity include housing prices and home ownership rates. According to the OECD, the vast majority of financial assets in every country analysed is found in the top of the wealth distribution.
The median disposable (after-tax) income of middle-class households in the U.S. was $60,884 in 2010. With the exception of Luxembourg – a virtual city-state where the median income was $71,799 – the disposable incomes of middle-class households in the other 10 Western European countries in the study trailed well behind the American middle class.
^ *1: (Middle class and above) - (Middle class)
^ *2: 100 - (Middle class and above)
- Lower middle class
- Upper middle class
- African-American middle class
- British class system
- Lower class
- Occupational prestige
- Social environment
- Rational-legal authority
- Normalization (sociology)
- Iron cage
- Habitus (sociology)
- Cultural determinism
- One-third hypothesis
- Middle-class squeeze
- Dominant culture
- Cultural hegemony
- Cultural imperialism
- The Media Elite
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- Contains estimates on the size of the middle class in Latin America and other countries
- Contains Contains estimates on the size of the middle class in Africa, based on various definitions