Introduction: The consumption class
Unlike the post-independence middle class, whose salaried employees of the government, public sector and a few large private enterprises had a largely uniform approach to life, the new middle class is highly heterogeneous.
The middle class can consist of everyone from electricians and shopkeepers to farmers and traders, IT professionals and doctors to teachers and social activists. It could include a yuppie working couple in Gurgaon and a bank clerk brought up in Tirunelveli, whose consumption baskets and behaviours are vastly different. So this group does not have a unifying lifestyle. It could include those who shop at brand-name stores and spend time at wine bars, those who travel by second-class Shatabdi, and extend all the way to those who view a pizza as a gourmet dish.
While the point at which an active consumer qualifies as a member of the middle class might lie in the eye of the beholder, the ability to consume above a threshold, however one defines it, makes someone a bona fide member. Indeed, what this group shares are a disposable income and an aspiration to consume. So it makes sense to rename this group "the consuming class", and try to uncover broad, not necessarily universal, trends.
'I deserve it'
One facet of consumption is as a reward for working hard in a hyper-growth economy with terrible infrastructure and awful weather, toil that is necessary to move up or even just maintain one's lifestyle, given the fact that jobs are no longer secure.
All Indians, rich or poor, share the drive to get to the next level, but this group feels a particularly strong compulsion and social pressure. The discourse of contentment is one for losers: It has changed from 'too bad if you aren't born into money' to 'if you have the talent, the ability to work hard, the coaching, the family support and access to credit, you can make it'.
The rewards could be things that make life more pleasant and interesting, such as a vehicle, a bigger house, a visit to an expensive multiplex, etc. As Indians become more time-poor and money-rich, we will see even more 'I deserve it' reward consumption.
This kind of consumption is driven by the need to save money, time or effort. The most obvious example of a purchase driven by this need is the cell phone, which also widens the footprint of operation by ensuring that you never miss a customer, whether you are a vegetable vendor or a doctor.
It can extend to a real estate broker hiring an SUV so that he or she can offer an add-on service of picking up and dropping off clients, which could be an entire family, so that they can get to the viewing place on time, when the keys are available.
This is driven by the desire to improve the basic quality of life and is seen as essential because the quality of public goods is so shoddy. This leads to purchases like inverters, cars and cell phones.
Driven by women who work and want to pay well for reliable help, the consumption of household gadgets increases. It also includes less obvious products such as television sets because of the lack of outside entertainment in our cities and towns.
Necessitated by the failure of public goods, the biggest categories, however, are education and healthcare.
Signal of success
Using consumption as a means of signalling success, which includes belonging to a new peer group after moving up and widening the social distance from those left behind, is an important part of this consumption agenda, although its importance varies considerably within the group, especially for new entrants.
The signals also change constantly depending on what the peer group is doing. They could be second homes, trips to Disneyland with the kids, home theatres, etc. This theme is what dominates the media and advertising.
Conclusion: The self
Some sociologists argue that consumption defines the new Indian middle class because it draws its identity from a certain lifestyle, reflected in media images. But this suggests that it is culturally homogeneous instead of a disparate group whose members all happen to be consumption-friendly.
Consumption as a means of self-expression isn't a major part of its language, with the possible exception of ring tones and colour choices.
Indian consumption is not purely hedonistic or at the core of a person's identity.
That explains why brands struggle to command a premium for non-functional attributes. It will continue to be this way as we generate the next trillion dollars of GDP with an even more spectacular failure of public goods. Consumer India believes that being a citizen gets it very little but being a customer of private suppliers works.
So when we berate the new middle class for not participating in social and national issues, let us remember that it is not the traditional middle class that we assume but actually a "consuming class" defined by its consumption behaviour.
Rama Bijapurkar is a Mumbai-based market strategy consultant and the author of We Are Like That Only: Understanding the Logic of Consumer India. She has adapted this article from an essay that appeared in Seminar magazine in February.