February 12, 2009

The Global Middle Class

Chapter 4. Life Satisfaction

Overall, the Pew Global Attitudes analysis of middle-income countries found a linkage between economic prosperity and life satisfaction. To gauge life satisfaction, respondents were asked to place themselves on a “ladder of life,” where zero represents the worst possible life and 10 the best possible life. Middle-class respondents consistently gave more positive ratings to their current, past and future lives.

Rating Current Life

In 11 of the 13 countries included in the analysis, the middle class was more likely to give their current life a “high” rating (7-10). Differences in the level of personal contentment between members of the middle- and lower-income brackets were the greatest in South Africa (25 percentage points) and Malaysia (22 points). Similar differences were evident in parts of Eastern Europe, specifically in Bulgaria (21 points), Poland (18 points) and Russia (17 points).

In Egypt, more than one-third of the middle class (37%) described their current lives positively, but many fewer among lower-income Egyptians (22%) agreed.

In the four Latin American countries included in the analysis, middle-class respondents were more likely to give high ratings to their current life than were the less wealthy. In particular, middle-income earners in Brazil and Chile reported higher levels of personal satisfaction (13-percentage-point gaps). Solid differences were also evident in Mexico and Argentina (11 points gaps).

Income had no effect upon levels of satisfaction in Venezuela and Ukraine. Roughly six-in-ten Venezuelans and three-in-ten Ukrainians from both income categories rated their lives positively.

Rating Their Lives in the Past

Memories of their lives five years ago generated greater feelings of satisfaction for the middle class than for those in the lower-income category. In nine of the 13 countries, more middle- than lower-income respondents reported high levels of satisfaction with their lives five years ago.

Majorities across income groups in Mexico reported high levels of satisfaction with their lives in the past, although middle-class respondents were much more likely to do so (16 percentage point gap). Similar income group differences were found in South Africa, Egypt, and Chile.

Regardless of income, fewer than half in the Eastern European countries of Poland, Bulgaria and Russia said their lives of five years ago rated a 7-10 on the scale, but middle-class earners still rated their lives higher than the less-affluent.

Less substantial gaps between members of the middle class and the less well-off were also evident in Argentina (seven percentage points) and Malaysia (five percentage points).

Rating Their Lives in the Future

While both income groups in most countries looked optimistically at the next five years, the middle class typically saw a brighter future. Middle-income respondents in nine of the 13 countries included in this analysis were more likely to predict higher levels of personal contentment in five years than were lower-income respondents.

Middle- and lower-income Bulgarians exhibited the greatest gap in expected future personal satisfaction among the countries analyzed (34 percentage points). Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, upwards of six-in-ten middle-class Russians (61%) envisioned a high quality of life in five years, but considerably fewer of those with lower incomes (34%) had the same opinion. A less substantial income gap was found between the income groups in Poland (13 points).

Solid differences between middle- and lower- income respondents were apparent in Malaysia (22 points), Egypt and South Africa (17 point gaps).

Optimism for the next five years ran high across income categories in several of the Latin American countries included in this analysis. However, substantial gaps were found between members of the middle- and lower-income categories in both Mexico (14 points) and Chile (13 points). In Argentina, a less pronounced gap of only five percentage points was found between the middle- and lower-income earners. However, while majorities in both income categories in Venezuela predicted better lives, optimism for the future was actually more common among poorer Venezuelans.