The New European Middle Class

The people of Central Europe dream of becoming ordinary, average inhabitants of Europe, its middle class. This dream is driving CEE countries - but it is also coming true more and more.

Many people crossing the street
Photo: iStock.com / bee32

“Rent a flat above a shop/Cut your hair and get a job,” sang British band Pulp in one of their biggest hits, “Common People,” from 1995. With these words, this rock group described the so-called middle class. But they not only described it. They went further, presenting it as a reference point for the vast majority of the population. “I wanna live like common people/I wanna do whatever common people do,” sang Jarvis Cocker, the leader of Pulp, in the refrain. What exactly did he have in mind?

According to Cambridge Dictionary, the middle class is “a social group that consists of ordinary people who usually have good jobs and are neither rich nor very poor.” Of course, you may find different definitions of this term, but they all share a single denominator: common people who are as far from any extremes as possible, leaning neither plus nor minus. Average – a word that fits this group like a mirror does a dressing table.

Meeting halfway

The “middle class” is the term describing this specific social group. Generally, this is not used when describing differences between nations and states- it is an entirely different category. But if one were to bend the rule? To which countries would the term “European middle class” best fit? In many ways, it would be the states of Central Europe.

The confirmation comes from the latest survey carried out by Eurobarometer in October and November 2022. Respondents were asked how they would rate their personal standard of living (e. g. the goods and services they can afford) – and how it had changed as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The answers were mostly negative. On average, 46% of EU inhabitants said their standard of living had already been reduced, and 39% expected it would happen soon. Only 15% acknowledged that their standard of living had stayed the same or even improved. It is apparent that the mood in Europe as a consequence of the war and the pandemic is blue.

But as usual, the point of view depends on where you sit. Residents of rich, economically prosperous countries are much less concerned about the changes brought about by the recent crises – the opposite of those in countries that have already experienced various problems. Among people feeling most affected by war and the pandemic are citizens of Cyprus (70% said that their standard of living had decreased, and 18% expect that to happen), Greece (respectively 66% and 29%), Malta (respectively 65% and 30%), France (respectively 62% and 26%). On the other side of this axis, you may find Sweden (only 29% of Swedes have to cope with a lower standard of living), Finland (respectively 27% and 40%), Netherlands (respectively 33% and 35%) and Austria (respectively 33% and 45%).

Most Central European countries can be found in the middle of this axis. Only Austria has gone to the “positive corner”; other states stay neutral, close to the EU average. For example, 48% of Czechs say their standard of living has been reduced, and 42% fear it will happen soon. Negative changes have already been noticed by 46% of Estonians and Croatians, 44% of Hungarians, and 41% of Slovakians. They all meet halfway – the middle-class lifestyle.

A similar situation was observed when respondents were asked about their expectations for the future. Generally, Europeans have a bleak vision of the economic situation at a national level in one year’s time – on average, only 11% of EU citizens believe it will be better. Most respondents who have a positive attitude toward the future live in Malta, Romania (both 19%), Italy (18%), and Denmark (17%). The biggest pessimists are Germans (only 6% expect their situation to improve in a year’s time), Slovakians, French, and Portuguese (7%). Central Europeans (apart from Romanians and Slovakians) generally stay in the middle, with 10% of Slovenians, 12% of Bulgarians and Lithuanians, or 13% of Poles expecting progress in the next 12 months.

Creating the future

This pattern repeats when Europeans estimate the employment situation in their countries (data from Eurobarometer, summer 2022). On average, 44% of EU citizens see the labor market as being in good condition, and 51% say it is in bad shape. But looking at the extreme ends of this axis, you do not see Central European countries on them. The highest ratings for the labor market in their countries are Denmark (92% of positive answers), Malta (83%), Luxembourg (81%), and the Netherlands (79%). The lowest are in Greece (94% of negative answers), Italy and Spain (both 78%), and Portugal (68%). CEE states are between these two extremes; for instance, 48% of Slovakians say that the situation in their labor market is good – as well as 53% of Hungarians, 56% of Austrians, and 38% of Romanians.

The latest autumn Eurobarometer proves that a similar distribution of opinions also applies to other areas of life. For example, assessments of democracy. Europeans taking part in this survey were asked how democracy works in the EU. On average, 54% of respondents had a positive image of democracy in the EU, and 40% had a negative opinion about democracy in Europe. The highest level of satisfaction is in Denmark (89%), Luxembourg (85%), Ireland (84%), and Finland (83%). The lowest is in Greece (35%), Slovakia (36%), Cyprus (43%), and France (45%). CEE states – apart from Slovakia – are close to the EU average. Satisfied with the democracy in the EU are 54% of Hungarians and Romanians, 53% of Croatians, and 58% of Czechs.

Europeans for Ukraine in the EU

And yet another confirmation of this pattern – results from a survey about the EU’s reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On average, 74% of Europeans approve of EU support for Ukraine. The highest level of approval was recorded in Sweden (97%), Finland (95%), Netherlands (93%), and Denmark (925). The lowest was seen in Greece and Bulgaria (48%), Slovakia (49%), and Cyprus (53%). Most countries creating the Three Seas Initiative are close to the EU average. The European reaction is approved by 68% of Czechs, 69% of Slovenians, 75% of Croatians, and 76% of Estonians.

Important note: the figures quoted above are the results of opinion polls. They should not be confused with statistical data. If one were to analyze “hard data” on the level of salaries, assets, or size of wealth at the disposal of the inhabitants of individual EU countries, it would quickly become apparent that the inhabitants of Central Europe are still far from being considered the actual middle class of the continent.

But you can’t put everything down to account balances, either. As famous management consultant Peter Drucker used to say: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Central Europeans are constantly creating their future. They started in the previous century acting according to a rule that he has brilliantly defined by Václav Havel: “If the West does not stabilize the East, the East will destabilize the West.” This dream of joining the West, of achieving Western living standards led to the collapse of communism in this part of the continent in the 1980s. And this dream continues to drive CEE countries. The people of the region still dream of becoming ordinary, average inhabitants of Europe, its middle class. “You are what you think,” wrote James Allen, a British philosopher, in his famous book “As a Man Thinketh” from 1903. Eurobarometer surveys show very well in which way Central Europeans try to create their future.

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