Business, Economics and Jobs

Global middle class shifts from West to East




Kyle Kim

BOSTON — As the middle class shrinks in America, it swells elsewhere. In Asia, to be exact.

The numbers, according to experts from the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington, DC, are staggering.

"By 2021," write Homi Kharas and Geoffrey Gertz in a chapter of the compilation, "China's Emerging Middle Class," "there could be more than 2 billion Asians in middle-class households."

According to our estimates, by 2015, for the first time in 300 years, the number of Asian middle-class consumers will equal the number in Europe and North America. ... In China alone there could be more than 670 million middle-class consumers, compared with only perhaps 150 million today.

This is not a done deal, they say, since many things depend on as-yet-to-be developed infrastructure, education and health care.

But assuming these systems can rise to the occasion, China could become the world's largest middle class by 2020. Whereas today it accounts for only 4 percent of the global middle class, making it seventh on the list.

Already, global markets are shifting to reflect the changing dynamics of the global middle class. (Data from Kharas and Gertz's chapter.)

Auto sales

In 2000, the US accounted for 37 percent of all car sales, while China accounted for barely 1 percent. Fast forward to today, and China is the world's largest auto market. 13.6 million vehicles sold in China in 2009, well above the 10.4 million that sold in the United States.

Cell phone market

In 2008, Nokia, the largest cell phone maker in the world had net sales of $8.2 billion in China, more than three times its US revenues.


A 2007 survey found that Chinese consumers spend 9.8 hours a week shopping, compared to 3.6 hours for the typical American.