Revolution of rising expectations: Middle-class materialistic surge

Dhaka,  Thu,  21 September 2017
Published : 26 Nov 2016, 21:10:30

Revolution of rising expectations: Middle-class materialistic surge

Imtiaz A. Hussain
Something more than the Marxist revolution of rising expectations, in which machines replace workers, seems to be unfolding. Workers have always been haunted by losing both their measly income and their capacity to buy any of the new products the machine churns out.  Increasingly, however, today's Millennial (often dubbed Generation Y) youths (born after the mid-1980s) still manage to squeeze out their last dime/penny/paisa/yen for a handful of select items, like a smart phone, a sip/drink and/or a bite with their smart-phone buddies in the most gadget-accessible cafeterias/restaurants, or a group package tour somewhere exotic to add to their credentials. True borrowings and loans constantly hit new records, but it is this dramatic surge of materialism that was expected to kill capitalism in the Marxist view that seems to be surging even beyond the capitalist's wildest dream.

Welcome to the global demographic revolutionaries. In another 15-odd years of the same century, the Baby Boomers (born in the decade or so after World War II) will be almost extinct, though they will not go as silently as any of the generations before them; and by then the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates the global middle-class will double from now to about five billion people, of which two-thirds (or more than three billion) will be from the fastest growing corners of the world today: Asia (Mario Pezzini, "An emerging middle class," OECD Observer). Just as the Baby Boomers were able to cultivate every musical chord under the sun, be it expressed through classical, country, folk, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and sitar media, the Millennial flock will have mastered every software translation of all of the above, and then some: they will carry more data in their pocket than available in many libraries across the world today, without necessarily enhancing their own intellectual advancement commensurately; and by exchanging ideas, so freely and rapidly between any two points in the world, or even prying them clandestinely, as Julian Assange did with Wikileaks, they can even hold the media and governments hostages to their own duties and prescriptions. That should not be misinterpreted: born with a sixth sense that we call software, they will be the most intelligent breed to grace this planet, except that that knowledge is less likely to be a cutting-edge tool, directed less, as it will be, at scientific breakthroughs and more at social media frontiers.

No, we will not hear the last hurrah for scientific breakthroughs: they have been so institutionalised throughout the 19th and 20th centuries that only the tiniest of the population minorities will be needed to still startle us with breathtaking technological breakthroughs. Nevertheless, headlines news will be in the social media domain: each middle-class citizen will have more connections, both domestically and internationally than any previous middle-class citizen in human history, meaning that cafeterias and other such get-together venues will boom beyond control domestically, and group-based travels and destinations will run amok abroad.

What do these mean for a country like Bangladesh? Obviously, in spite of the Holey Artisan Bakery incident and the out-migration of foreign visitors in its aftermath, the entertainment and tourist industries cannot help but explode at some point: the longer they take to burst out from their dormancy and apprehension in 2016, the costlier it will become for them, as the saturated Millennial population within the country will ventilate their "rising expectations" privately or by travelling abroad, while the equally saturated foreign tourist flock might cross Bangladesh off their list to explore other new exotic destinations. It goes without saying, the Millennial breed is one of the toughest, having been nurtured against the 9/11-type terror climate; and it makes them also more adventurous than even the Baby Boomers, for whom, though their Hare Krishna-laced trips to India were newsworthy enough, they pale in comparison to surfing the highest wave, snorkeling in the greenest submarine terrain, climbing the highest mountains, crossing the widest oceans, and clicking "selfies" from the most impossible locations that highlight today's agenda and imperatives: none of these are first-time events, but a higher proportion of people will practice and professionalise them than ever before.

If that explains why the traditional time-slot for education will be shrinking (watch out universities: expand with caution, and be open to adopting online training), it also alerts us to the businesses that will thrive, like imparting foreign languages, inviting foreign students, the delayed-marriage or multiple marriage (not simultaneously, though, and mixed-marriage markets, music and movies (all of which can be carried on a smart-phone), low-priced airlines, Uber-type transportation systems, escort and massage services (even as a façade for prostitution, in fact, especially so), health clubs (another cafeteria counterpart as a get-together destination), and so forth.

Mind you, this generation will not be relatively richer, as browsing through this list of activities might lead one to believe; but it will spend far more of its earnings than save (bad news for banks), shift from job to job (either from being fired because of shifting technologies, or by simply getting bored), and depict more clannish behaviour (staying with like-minded cohorts and "known" variables over the "unknown"), than the gregariousness that characterised the Baby Boomers (the "Make love not war" cliché symbolising that spirit), meaning that we might find more inter-group tension and conflicts than in the past. Of course, that raises the stakes for security, another future profitable industry, from any person's neighbourhood to nation-states.

Among the implications: though social wealth will be more distributed than ever before, the gap between the highest and lowest income brackets can only widen. Asian styles, for instance, will mesh with, even displace, their western counterparts (in cuisine, clothing, cinema, and so forth), as a taste of the changing market. More than that, by dominating both production and consumption for the first time in human history, Asia could invert its relationship with Atlantic seaboard-countries: once it fuelled western industrialisation by supplying primary products at first, then increasingly markets for manufactured goods; but now a larger share of manufactured goods produced in Asia find western markets, where producing them has become so much more expensive that western investors prefer shifting production to Asia. The net effect of diminishing western and expanding Asian purchasing power has been unleashing monumental socio-political and socio-economic forces in both domains: the Trump movement exemplifies the former, a growing preference for authoritarianism illustrates the Asian counterpart.

Key among the losers will be democracy, a predictable culprit: its emphasis on equality of sorts does not jive well with material pursuits, a Darwinian exercise. Since the widening income gap that accompanies industrialisation is now unfolding across a larger area than the Atlantic (Asia) with higher absolute population levels, the admixture of economic inequalities and political equalities ultimately undermines even the winners, that is, both those converting innovations into production, and the cosmopolitan youths being mobilised by the new products, either through jobs or as consumers, in essence, the middle class. A lot is at stake, but only a few seem to be sensing it. 

[Articles of the Scopus series are published on Tuesdays and Saturdays. This particular article was scheduled to be published on Friday last, November 25. The inordinate delay is regretted.]  

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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