Looking Back, Looking Forward - The dwindling middle class
Brian-Paul Welsh, Guest Columnist
Jamaica is in a state of flux, with most persons realistically falling in the less distinguished category of working poor or underemployed. The year 2014 began, much like I anticipate it will end, with me standing somewhere alone in a crowd in deep contemplation about the development trajectory of my beloved country.
The cause of my pensive mood at that time was a reasoned reflection on my attendance at a function that has been a staple event on the entertainment calendar of Jamaica's elite for quite some years now. Having been schooled and socialised among the children of the organisers, I did not feel out of place with the hundreds of other partygoers, but the reason I looked at this event through a new lens that night was my acute awareness of the considerably impoverished state of the majority of my countrymen, in direct contrast to the opulence I was relishing. It made me uncomfortable.
Beyond coming to terms with the fact that my net worth at the moment clearly precludes me from comfortable participation in this kind of event, I felt a pang of guilt once I realised I had just spent more than my domestic helper's weekly salary to gallivant with my friends at a property most other Jamaicans are never likely to lay eyes upon in their lifetime. In that moment, the party felt frivolous, my appearance seemed ostentatious, and I kicked myself for participating in this non-essential tribute to Jamaica's wealth oligarchy.
However, in retrospect, that moment was a very important glimpse into Jamaica's inner workings that has forever altered my perception about who really runs this show.
As a university-educated, late 20-something, private-sector employee, I know very well that most economic models would place me squarely in the middle class. According to the fountain of knowledge, that is Wikipedia, the term 'middle class' represents, "a class of people in the middle of a societal hierarchy".
In Weberian socio-economic terms, "the middle class is the broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socio-economically between the working class and upper class. The common measures of what constitutes middle class vary significantly among cultures".
What many people have long accepted is that Jamaica's middle class is in a state of flux, with most persons realistically falling in the less distinguished category of working poor or underemployed. Of course, 'poor and boasy' so often go hand in hand and it should, therefore, come as little surprise that many of the newly acquired luxury vehicles you see around town have an extra little light in the dashboard illuminating the fact that this house on wheels is being fuelled on mere fumes from its reserve tank.
I'm sure windshield wipers have long made the astute observation that there isn't really much of a middle class anymore, just varying degrees of relatively low income bolstered by the transient and artificial comfort of mortgaged and inherited privilege like a new car or a comfortable shelter that belonged to their parents or grandparents. That's perhaps why they are so quick to 'style' the 'poor and boasy' when they so rudely shoo them from their cars.
While at this party sipping a glass of wine I couldn't have otherwise afforded, I looked on with heavy consternation wondering whether it even made sense to continue the path set out by my hard-working civil-servant parents which says that hard work, high grades, and the right social network will necessarily result in a lifetime of financial security.
This is because it has become increasingly obvious to me and many of my contemporaries that even the highest paying private-sector job cannot provide the level of income needed to truly live comfortably in Jamaica, especially with all the comforts we became accustomed to in our youth.
To understand the despair facing the increasingly dwindling middle class in this country, one needs only to look at the number of university graduates in the workforce relative to the number that have left the workforce and the country altogether.
The World Bank says that 85 per cent of Jamaica's tertiary-educated population lives abroad. This is certainly an alarming figure that is still shocking, even if it is only partially correct. The political ideology that has governed this country for the longest while is built on the idea that an educated, prosperous middle class will propel this nation forward.
Instead, what seems to have happened is that, through jet propulsion, they have found themselves in faraway places like Toronto, New York, and Miami. They have little interest in helping to develop a country they barely have one foot firmly planted in, worse when they see their childhood friends struggling to maintain the façade of comfort and satisfaction.
These migrants, many of who possess technical expertise that would be critical to nation building, drop a few coins a few times a year enjoying the paradise so few of us can appreciate, then flit back to cooler climes where they build their real lives.
So with a large struggling majority, and a small but prospering minority, we are left with a dwindling and frustrated middle class which does not seem motivated or empowered to live up to the expectation placed upon them to steer this country in the right direction. They (or perhaps I should say we) are heavily burdened with a high cost of living, high taxation relative to income, high debt, and the niggling feeling that whether by home invasion, car crash, or 'shoot out', any day could be their last.
This insecurity relative to economic stability, personal safety, and self-actualisation is the root of the 'brain drain' as it is so vividly described. It is also the cause of the apathy that has kept the middle class from making a political footprint. The middle class is leaving the country in droves, and those that remain are certainly not voting; just venting on social media or in privileged spaces such as this newspaper.
The articulate minority who will read and understand the words in this piece perhaps have not yet come to grips with the fact that Jamaica is not as sophisticated a democracy as they idealise. Many others, however, recognise that Jamaica is still a 'plantocracy', and, as such, when Kingston 6 and 8 (hitherto referred to as Drumblair) express considerable dismay in closed circles about the way politicians show contempt for the intelligence of the electorate or otherwise 'tek wi fi fool', they are laughed to scorn.
This is because, in actuality, the articulate minority is not really part of the electorate. The electorate is personified by those whose wine I was sipping at this posh party as well as the sea of working-class Jamaicans clad in orange and green that flood polling stations every five years: The financier and the voter. Elections in Jamaica are won or lost on financial as well as human capital, not really on issues, especially not the type that make for good fodder on Twitter.
So as a member of the politically emasculated middle class with big dreams but meagre pockets, how does one live comfortably in Jamaica?
Get two degrees, work a lifetime in the bank, get a car loan and struggle with a mortgage for a matchbox somewhere on the plains of St Catherine? Or join your contemporaries in the metropole where you curse the weather every day, but watch your children blossom in ways you couldn't facilitate at home?
Many will be contemplating these things as the year draws to a close. I expect I'll be doing the same while taking my annual peek behind the curtain at the rich people; it has become somewhat of a guilty pleasure of mine to at least momentarily indulge in the paradise I mightn't inherit.