This article was published in the 8th November 2009 Sunday Observer
Generally, the middle class is the driving force of an economy and most influential segment of a society. They unite to make active representation in forming opinions.
Comparatively our middleclass is highly educated, ambitious and career conscious. But the majority of them are selfish and competitive in nature to grab limited resources of the country without contributing and neither do they address the controversial issues of the country. This could be a reason for the industrial and technological backwardness of our country compared to its neighbors.
Our motherland has again been brought to a historical juncture by the courageous military measures taken by our leaders wiping off 30 years of the brutal terrorist conflict and taking over the total administrative control of the entire land. Without any reservation we must honour our leadership and armed forces for defeating the world’s deadliest and most brutal terrorist organization. Now it is the time for consolidation and the commitment and sacrifices from all Sri Lankans is required. Especially the commitment of the middle class is extremely vital in this process. The middle class of Sri Lanka being identified as highly educated and intelligent element of the society and most of them have proved their capabilities in other parts of the world as well. Thus, it is important to analyze the contributions made by the middle class on our national issues and also their sensitivity towards our burning national problems.
The Sri Lanka middle class emerged from the Colebrooke returns introduced by the British: it abolished the main features of the Sinhala Feudal system called Rajakariya and gave the people the right to choose an occupation they like rather than one determined by their caste. The Government’s monopoly in trade was abolished and it was opened to anybody who wanted to practice it.
The rapid expansion of school education also, created a middle class white-collar workforce. White- collar employment opportunities were created for locals in plantation, banking, schools, and government departments (Paradise in Tears)
As per Maslow’s Theory in Hierarchy of Needs Based on earnings the middleclass can be grouped as the income group layer in-between the poor and the elite class, and they represent the majority of the workforce. Abraham Maslow’s “Theory in Hierarchy of Needs” grouped the needs of different income levels according to following categories:
- Physiological needs (basic needs): food, clothing, shelter, other biological needs
- Safety/Security: job security, secure the income level
- Belongingness: networking, belonging to a social group
- Esteem : recognition from others
- Self-actualization: achieve the highest level of recognition
An individual can be positioned in the Maslow’s hierarchy based on his/her level of income.
The poor is only concerned on basic needs and the elite are aiming at self-actualization needs, but the middle class has much diversified needs such as: security, social belongingness, and esteem needs compared to others (Abraham Maslow, 1943)
The needs of the middle class are contradictory in nature and therefore they have become the most ambitious segment in any society.
Middle class behavior in different political nature
Until 1977, the Governments of Sri Lanka adopted close economic policies and the middle class had a simple living style. Certain professions such as teachers, bankers, and the Government clerical service earned a reasonable income compared to their living expenses and were treated respectably in the society.
After 1977 the economy was opened to the international market and a free flow of imported goods came to the country and the consumption pattern of the middle class changed. A new breed of entrepreneurs such as importers, retailers, building constructors, and private transporters emerged.
Multinational companies, foreign investors, and foreign banks came to the country and offered highly paid jobs to the local middle class.
These new opportunities created an income disparity within the middle class.
Further, a competition was created within the middle class to share resources such as: primary and secondary education, university education, employment, land and housing and as a result unrealistic prices were created for most of these services. The middle class changed its spending pattern and got adapted to indebted culture such as living on consumption loans and credit cards. Most of the fixed income earners and government servants were unable to maintain a competitive life in society and lost recognition in the society. Some were determined to migrate to a developed country or to seek overseas employment.
The low remunerations deteriorated the quality and productivity of government service and also, the level of bribery and corruption increased in private and public sectors.
The majority lost their values and ethics due to this fierce competition.
Even in social life some thought of short- term partnerships for “win-win” situations for both parties. Their social belonging and self-esteem needs are focused with selfish motives such as personal image building and not merely for the benefit of the general public.
Achieving security needs appears to be the main concern of Sri Lanka’s middle class, i.e., excessive spending on children’s education, building a luxury house, and dreaming about expensive motor vehicles.
Middle Class attitudes at workplace
Forming power groups at a workplace or in society hasbecome a very common attribute of the middle class. In certain instances, these power groups behave as vicious office mafias and obstruct the formal organization structure and their decisions.
Certain employees’ loyalty towards a mafia is much greater than their loyalty towards the company. Some are prepared to do damage to his institution with the intention of getting a short- term benefits for such mafia.
The emergence of informal leaders from power groups is a common phenomenon in most of such organizations.
The majority slavishly follow these informal heroes with the intention of boosting their career path in a given company.
In most organizations informal communication (Grape vine) has become more powerful and effective than the formal communication channels.
A considerable part of office time is spent on discussing salary anomalies and what others have got from the company. Some affiliated to trade unions or political parties get pay rises or explore fast tracks to rise in the corporate ladder.
Can the middle class be excluded from country’s responsibilities?
The majority of political leadership and regulators represent the middle class. The middle class is directly or indirectly involved in most of the decisions taken during different regimes. The so-called middle class has adequately benefited from the system.
The saddest part is that our middle class tries to camouflage themselves as a neutral innocent group and points a finger at the political leaders and regulators as culprits for all today’s problems.
This self- centered and introvert middle class attitude are unique to Sri Lanka; in contrast the middle class of our neighboring countries and most of other countries are highly organized and actively involved in forming genuine opinions on their national issue. Before independence the country’s decision-making was restricted to the Sri Lanka aristocracy, but after independence the middle class got actively involved in the national development process. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, J.R. Jayewardene, and R. Premadasa encouraged and brought the middle class into active politics. Most senior Government and private sector officials and bureaucrat positions were manned by the middle class. Now we have come to a most crucial time and the active involvement of the middle class has become paramount factor in national development.
E. Jayewardene: “The Last kingdom of Sinhalay” R.Hoole, D. Somasundaram, K. Sritharan, R. Thiranagama;” The Broken Palmyra”
M.R.N. Swamy, “Tigers of Sri Lanka”
V. Ivan, “Paradaise in Tears”
R. Gunaratne: Sri Lanka, a Lost Revolution” U.B. Ramanayake ; “Organizational Behaviour” K Jayawardana ; “Nobodies to somebodies”