Consumption patterns and the rise of the middle classes

Inclusive Economy26 Jun 2014Annemarie van de Vijsel

A rising middle class changes consumption patterns, but not all assumptions about the behaviour of this class can be applied across the board.

The rise of the middle classes in emerging and developing countries has implications on different levels. Their role in democratization processes is not unambiguous and, as the first plenary session of the conference made clear, depends partly on the level of democracy that already exists in a country.

But a growing middle class also has implications in other areas, as became clear during panel sessions on the new middle classes. It brings about a rise in purchasing power and therefore a change in consumption patterns and this, in turn, affects the environment.

Because of its interrelationship with the middle classes, consumption is sometimes used as a way to define this population group: for example, whether an individual owns consumer products like a car, combined with characteristics such as whether they do white collar work or have completed tertiary education.

In the panel sessions, alternative ways of describing the middle class were presented. For her case study in Kenya, Lena Kroeker of Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies, Germany, used a categorization based on social milieus. She concluded that a definition based on income is not appropriate for people with insecure income, such as the ‘creative milieu’ of artists in Kenya. In another panel session, Sissel Egden of Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences added that a good yardstick would be whether people consider themselves to be part of the middle class.

The presentations also proved that the impact of the rising middle class is not clear cut. Assumptions on the roles and behaviour of this population group do not always hold true in all countries and cases. For example, it is widely assumed that there are many entrepreneurs in the middle class. Elisabetta Basile of University of Rome La Sapienza agreed that the formation of the middle class is partly determined by entrepreneurship but, in another working group, Antoinette Handley of the University of Toronto pointed out that a significant part of the African middle class has paid employment. Another assumption, Handley said, is that the middle class saves more and cares more about education. However, more detailed data are needed before anything can be said about the truth of this assumption in Africa: where does the African middle class save money and what does it spend it on?

The impact of new consumption patterns in the rising middle class on the environment is not unambiguous either. While a growing middle class leads to more consumption of meat, for example, it does not (as yet) lead to increased purchases of environmentally friendly products. In the words of Imme Scholz of the German Development Institute (DIE), “values and culture do not automatically change as people become more affluent”.

Once these middle classes have become even more affluent, they may start to demand certain environmental and social norms in their consumption behaviour. Peter Knorringa of the International Institute of Social Sciences explained the norm life cycle model, the process from the emergence of a norm (such as seeing child labour as immoral) to its institutionalization and, even later, its expansion.

The Broker reports from the EADI conference ‘Responsible Development in a Polycentric World: Inequality, Citizenship and the Middle Classes’, 23 – 26 June 2014 in Bonn, Germany. The Broker is main media partner during this conference.