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In absolute terms, India has wealth roughly comparable to Switzerland (population 8m) or South Korea (51m). Although India’s population is almost the size of China’s, it is central Europe, with a population about the size of India’s top 10% and boasting roughly the same spending power, that is a better comparison. Global companies pay attention to markets the size of Switzerland or central Europe. But they do not look to them to redefine their fortunes.
Confronted by this analysis, India bulls concede the middle class is comparatively small, but insist that bumper growth is coming. The assumptions behind that, though, are not convincing. For a start, the growth of the overall economy is good—the annual rate is currently 6.3%—but not great. From 2002 China grew at above 8% for 27 quarters in a row. Only three of the past 26 quarters have seen India growing at that sort of pace.
Another assumption is that past patterns will no longer hold and that the spoils of growth will be distributed to a class earning decent wages and not to the very rich or the very poor. Yet the sorts of job that have conventionally provided middle-class incomes are drying up. Goldman Sachs, another bank, estimates that at most 27m households make over $11,000 a year—just 2% of the population. Of those, 10m are government employees and managers at state-owned firms, where jobs have been disappearing at the rate of about 100,000 a year since 2000, in part as those state-owned enterprises lose ground to private rivals.
The remaining 17m are white-collar professionals, a lot of whom work in the information-technology sector, which is retrenching amid technological upheaval and threats of protectionism. In general, salaries at large companies have been stagnant for years and recruitment is dropping, according to CLSA, a brokerage.
Might those below the current white-collar professional layer graduate to membership of the middle class? This happened in China, where hordes migrated from the countryside to relatively high-paying jobs in factories in coastal areas. But such opportunities are thin on the ground in India. It has a lower urbanisation rate than its neighbours, and a bigger urban-rural wage gap, with little sign of change. It is not providing jobs to its young people: around a third of under-25s are not in employment, education or training.
There are other structural issues. Over 90% of workers are employed in the informal sector; most firms are not large or productive enough to pay anything approaching middle-class wages. “Most people in the middle class across the world have a payslip. They have a regular wage that comes with a job,” points out Nancy Birdsall of the Centre for Global Development, a think-tank. And women’s participation in the workforce is low, at 27%; worse, it has fallen by around ten percentage points since 2005, as households seem to have used increases in income to keep women at home. Households that might be able to afford luxuries if both partners worked cannot when only the man does.