Middle-class life satisfaction rests on two pillars. The first is the idea that hard work and self-initiative will lead to prosperity. The second is that thanks to this prosperity, the children of middle-class families will enjoy even more opportunities for the good life. Both pillars are shaking.
Joining the middle class has been a ticket to the good life for two centuries now, a history I trace in a new book “The Rise of the Global Middle Class.” The American Dream, the glorious years of European reconstruction after World War II, miracle economic growth in Japan and other East Asian countries, Xi Jinping’s great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and India’s software revolution each brought hundreds of millions of people into the ranks of the global middle class. Today, thanks to this progress, most of the world, upwards of 4 billion people, enjoy a middle-class or better lifestyle for the first time ever.
Yet, across the world there is a clear sense of disquiet in the middle class. In the U.S., Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have documented the prevalence of “deaths of despair” due to suicides, opioids, and alcohol poisoning among non-college educated white middle-class males. The Japanese have coined a specific word, karoshi, to describe deaths due to overwork among salaried professionals. China is seeing a campaign of tang ping, or lying flat, to protest the “996” expectations of employers—9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 6 days a week. India ranks 126th out of 137 in the rankings of the 2023 World Happiness Report.
What is amiss? Middle-class life satisfaction rests on two pillars. The first is the idea that hard work and self-initiative will lead to prosperity. The second is that thanks to this prosperity, the children of middle-class families will enjoy even more opportunities for the good life. Both pillars are shaking. The first is threatened by the effects of technological change on jobs. The foundations of the second are being undermined by climate change, pollution, and the destruction of nature.
For most of history, technology has changed the nature of work by reducing repetitive, routine, and manual labor. During COVID-19 and the ensuing recovery, many workers changed occupations. Those with good jobs, requiring cognitive, non-routine tasks, did better than those engaged in manual, repetitive tasks. There are pathways to high-wage work, but, as my Brookings colleagues Maria Escobari and co-authors have shown, access to these paths is unequal, and that is creating stress and mental health problems for many middle-class workers.
Stepping-stone occupations that serve as a bridge between low-and higher-wage occupations, and even high-wage occupations themselves, are increasingly under threat from artificial intelligence. When the Writers Guild of America went on strike in May 2023, they demanded that ChatGPT be used only as a research tool, not for actual script writing, the creative process that is at the heart of their jobs.
The wobbly second pillar of middle-class satisfaction is that young people are worrying that the mass consumption of the middle-class is responsible for unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and species extinction. On current trajectories, children born today will live in a world that is at least 3 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels. The impact of such changes, according to the best available science, is terrifying.
Is a middle-class lifestyle consistent with a livable planet? Thankfully, the answer is yes, but only if there is significant change in economic policies.
This science forces the middle class to confront an existential question. Is a middle-class lifestyle consistent with a livable planet? Thankfully, the answer is yes, but only if there is significant change in economic policies. Consider the case of Switzerland, one of the richest economies in the world. The Swiss emit only 5 tonnes of greenhouse gases per person per year, less than one-third the U.S. level. One reason is that Switzerland buys a lot of electricity from France’s nuclear reactors. But on other measures, too, such as building efficiency, moving people on electric trains and buses, and insulating homes, the Swiss middle class outperform many of their peers. True, this is not enough. The 5 tonnes must be reduced to zero by 2050, but Switzerland’s case shows that most of the current levels of carbon emissions are not tied to middle-class standards of living but simply to bad or thoughtless policies in rich countries that can be readily corrected.
In similar vein, pollution is a man-made problem, not a necessary corollary of high living standards. In its current form, recycling is not effective. A new concept of a circular economy offers much more promise. The idea is to “design out” waste and pollution, recycle materials and regenerate nature. One of the first problems the circular economy concept is tackling is the issue of plastic packaging. Because of its ubiquity, plastic continues to accumulate in our oceans (and increasingly in our bodies). There are, however, alternative materials that can be used for packaging, and already the European Union is on track to make all packaging recyclable by 2030.
A third area of concern is human encroachment into nature. The current global system of food production is based on expanding croplands to grow feed or as pasture for animals, especially cattle and sheep. This system has a double cost. It contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, and it destroys wildlands and biodiversity.
The simplest option would be to encourage the middle class to switch to a vegetarian diet. If this magically happened in the world, a land area stretching from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego could be returned to nature. In a less extreme version, if beef and lamb were taken out of our diets, an area the size of North America could be re-wilded.
These examples are not offered as realistic policy options in the medium term. They do, however, serve to make a point. If the middle-class is serious about preserving nature, it will require a major change in diet. That could come about through taxes on land-intensive foods or through technology—lab-grown meat is available but only at a higher price point, and it has yet to scale.
The common theme in these threats to a middle-class lifestyle is that the values of hard work and personal responsibility that are the hallmark of middle-class success are no longer enough. Policymakers are caught in trying to deliver higher living standards to their citizens and more sustainable living standards for their children. There are long-run strategies where economic growth and sustainability go hand-in-hand, but no countries have yet shown how to manage the transition onto these low-carbon pathways in a rapid, credible way. So the future is uncertain, and the middle-class, which hates uncertainty, will remain disquieted until they are clear about how to best secure the lifestyles and progress to which they have become accustomed.