India’s middle class is not a homogenous group. It can include a farmer in rural India, a taxi driver in Mumbai, a trader in Mysore, an umbrella-maker in Kochi, or an engineer in Bangalore. The McKinsey Global Institute, which defines India’s middle class as households with real annual disposable incomes between 200,000 and 1 million rupees ($3,606 to $18,031), estimates the ranks of middle class will soar from 50 million in 2005 to over 250 million in 2015; and by 2025, it will more than double to 583 million—41 percent of the population.1
Wherever they are, the members of India’s new middle class share dreams of upward mobility. They draw their inspiration from the success of professionals such as software engineers and entrepreneurs who, through their pursuit of education and hard work, emerged from small towns and simple homes to become billionaires. Education, once a privilege afforded only to the Brahmins (the priestly caste), is now the single-minded pursuit of all. With 570 million Indians below the age of 25, the demand for university education—the golden ticket to well-paying private-sector jobs and entry into the middle class—is the highest it’s ever been. According to the Ministry of Education, the percentage of 18-24-year-olds in India enrolling in university has shot up 63 percent in the past four years.
This is a dramatic change from the middle classes of post-independence India, for whom a permanent government job was the pinnacle of slow but stable upward mobility. The opening of India’s economy in 1991 has resulted in private-sector career opportunities, both at home and abroad—unimaginable a few decades ago.
The rise of India’s middle class also heralds a rise in consumption, especially in urban areas—including emerging middle-tier and smaller cities. According to McKinsey, India will become the world’s fifth-largest consumer market by 2025 (after the U.S., Japan, China, and the United Kingdom).
Today, India’s middle class is more optimistic, more confident and globalized. Rural or urban, middle-class Indians expect the best education, the latest products and, increasingly, a place for India among the world’s major powers.
Hari Seshasayee is a researcher on Latin America for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations in Mumbai, India.
1 McKinsey Global Institute,“‘The Bird of Gold’: The Rise of India’s Consumer Market” (San Francisco: McKinsey & Company, 2007).