Are you serious? Cobblers are history to me! You got to buy new pairs of shoes every now and then; getting them mended is not so desirable these days. Your outfit speaks to others of your persona, class and trend. And, I need to maintain my trendy-self!” This came as an abrupt response from Jai Kumar, an aspiring youth living in Karachi, when asked about how important a cobbler’s role is in these times.
Speaking to Kumar for the next couple of hours, I concluded that the mindset pertains to a host of other consumables. His father is a college professor and earns to save for a prosperous future of his two daughters and a son, while his mother is a housewife. With such a lifestyle, the bourgeoning middle class in South Asia is expanding and that too in a way that it is anticipated to spend $32 trillion per annum by 2030 and break all records of worldwide consumption.
The term middle class may seem to be an easy concept to comprehend at first but quantifying it is a tricky task. Unlike poverty, which has an absolute definition in terms of caloric requirements, there is no standard definition of middle class. Making it more complex are the substrata that divide it further into three segments, namely lower-middle, middle-middle and upper-middle class. The consumption range of $2-$20 per day per person, however, is an approach generally used to describe this segment of society by researchers to base their studies on and that too is subject to variations in different countries.
A developing region’s middle class is the most desirable target for manufacturers and producers as they are aspiring and purposefully inclined towards becoming modernized and have a considerable amount to spend. The rich have always had well-defined consumption patterns while the frustration and misery that prevails in a poor man’s life keeps him away even from longing for things that the middle and upper classes enjoy. Thus, the only segment that have desires to the extent of getting better everyday with gradual and steady growth and transforming today’s worries to tomorrow’s accomplishments, are the ones that are technically known to be ‘the bourgeoning middle class.’ Likewise, the emphasis on the term ‘developing region’ is a reference to the same evidence as the rich representing the developed bloc and the poor being described as underdeveloped.
Studies have shown that South Asia’s middle class is the fastest growing population group in the world, with India and Pakistan being the two major contributors. Their middle class, that made 1.4% of the overall global population in 2000 is likely to swell manifold and is expected to grow to as much as 8.9% in three decades. This growth is not comparable with other developing regions as there has been a more than two-fold increase in the region’s population from 1990 to 2010. As they say, the larger the middle class a country has, the more likely it is to increase its economic stability, thanks to the growing consumer market and expanding consumer culture in this segment.
It is generally observed that the young and the restless – the youth – ‘conveniently’ fall prey to the lures of consumerism. Consider, for instance, an hour’s television transmission in the two large cities - Karachi and Delhi. The ever growing innovation in communication tools that are used to appeal to the middle class market segment has hit new heights. This is because needs have surpassed basic requirements in food, mobile services, television and other electronic gadgets, accompanied by marketing schemes that offer loans and credit services that assist the young in achieving immediate gratification of their growing desires.
It is quite surprising to note that it merely took little less than a decade for mobile phones to become the dominant means of accessing information in South Asia since its introduction in 1995-96. For example, in India the number of mobile subscribers reached 90 million in comparison to 50 million subscribers for landlines. In Pakistan, 62,000 mobile users on an average are being added daily. Moreover, the improvement in educational standards in the urban sectors of the two cities and rise in incomes allows more discretionary spending driven by the available variety opportunities.
With the availability and accessibility of resources, middle classes in India and Pakistan have always been active in setting consumption trends of goods and services. India, with its massive population, has the largest share of the middle class segment overall in the region. The social trends and lifestyles in both countries have historically been influenced by one another. The young in the two major cities are also influenced by their exposure to mass media on both sides.
Karachi is described as the fastest growing mega city in Pakistan. It is not surprising then that foreign brands are penetrating the city’s market due to the increase in the sophisticated consumption habits of its middle class. There is evidence that retail sales that were $57 billion in 2005, had hit $80.4 billion in 2010.
Brand-consciousness was a term used with reference to the upper strata. Now brands like Armani, Gucci, Dockers, Levi’s, KFC, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut are quite well-known in the middle class segment. These are desirable and accessible and a part of their lives. Richard Robbins, the author of Global Problem and the Culture of Capitalism, says that the more that is produced and the more that is purchased, the more we have progress and prosperity.
Too many people spending money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like, defines today’s exponentially growing middle class of South Asia.
Published in SOUTHASIA magazine in its issue of August 2011.