Middle-class angst in a globalised world

News that income growth is at its slowest pace since the 2009 recession is worrying. However, a key issue here - the effect of poor productivity growth on wages - is amenable to policies aimed at raising skill levels in all areas and improving productivity. It is these policies that will come into focus increasingly as Singapore restructures its economy.

More disturbing from a generational point of view is that the sense of security associated with being middle-class has given way to anxiety, as technology and globalisation widen income gaps and take away jobs. The anxieties of the middle class are instructive because they reflect not only the condition of the middle 60 per cent of income-earners - the bedrock of social coherence and political stability - but also the aspirational expectations of Singaporeans below who are busy climbing the economic ladder. A sense that economic advancement is being foreclosed would dent the confidence of the middle class and blunt the belief of others who want to make their way up to a better life. Both would wonder if their children could hold on to it or even arrive there.

This situation is not exclusive to Singapore. The fear of falling present in the American middle class, for example, was described graphically by the social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich. She invoked one essential reason for the fear, which is that, unlike wealth or property, the professional expertise of the middle class cannot be handed down automatically to the next generation. Hence the middle class' fear of maintaining its privileged social position over time as demand and supply curves changed contours.

What technology has done is to accelerate the creative destruction through which capitalism advances. The difference now is that the destruction of old class positions and the creation of new orders are occurring on a global scale. Singapore's middle class is no more immune to challenge today than was its New York counterpart yesterday or its Shanghai competitor will be tomorrow. Globalisation is creating a worldwide middle class, and the only way to survive its arrival is to globalise with it.

At the personal level, this means tempering expectations associated with an earlier phase of growth. Pricey homes and cars, as symbols of middle-class stature, might then give way to sustainable aspirations - say, when knowledge, fine sensibilities and the support of worthy causes mark the arrival of people at the next social rung. These attributes could help Singaporeans connect with like-minded people in a new global class system - connections that might prove invaluable in many ways. Notions of middle-class living must change with the times.