Millions are tumbling out of the global middle class in a historic setback

Posted by Shawn Donnan, Vrishti Beniwal, Marisa Wanzeller, Shannon Sims, Prinesha Naidoo, Randy Thanthong-Knight, Suttinee Yuvejwattana, Phil Kuntz and Michelle Jamrisko

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An estimated 150 million slipped down the economic ladder in 2020, the first pullback in almost three decades.


One of the most economically significant trends of the past few decades has been the emergence of a global middle class. The expectation that this cohort of consumers would continue to grow relentlessly, as rising incomes in developing countries lifted millions out of poverty each year, has been a central assumption in multinationals’ business plans and the portfolio strategies of professional investors.


You can now add that to the list of economic truths that have been upended by this pandemic. For the first time since the 1990s, the global ­middle class shrank last year, according to a recent Pew Research Center estimate. About 150 million people—a number equal to the populations of the U.K. and Germany combined—tumbled down the socioeconomic ladder in 2020, with South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa seeing the biggest declines.

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