To ensure that we are all on the same page on the subject of middle class, it is important to attempt an explanation of the phrase ‘middle class’ in the Nigerian context. The reason being that the phrase which was popular in Nigeria in the seventies, and probably the early eighties may not mean so much to today’s generation, who go by other social group names and classifications including YUPPIES (an acronym for young, urban and upwardly mobile professionals).
There are also other classifications which have been popularised by marketers abroad such as Buppies (Black urban professionals), DINKS or DINKYS (married couples or partners earning dual incomes with no kids yet), and SCUPPIES (Socially conscious upwardly mobile persons). Others include Baby Boomers and Generation X, phrases made popular in the West by the political and economic successes of the likes of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, former United Kingdom Prime Minister, Tony Blair and most especially by the election of President Bill Clinton as the 42nd President of the United States of America.
Lately, there have been some other additions to the increasing family of names used to describe social groups, and these for strategic reasons are being driven by the guys in marketing who seem bent in pigeonholing consumers into one or several categories either for convenience or to make target messaging and marketing easier. The new additions include Digital Natives and I-Pod Generation (phrases that refer to consumers whose lives are intertwined with technology). Members of these groups exhibit similar characteristics such as regular internet shopping and online transactions, active participation on social networking sites such as bebo.com, myspace.com, facebook.com etc. They are regular users of emails and the internet and may not go through the day without paying multiple visits to their virtual world (they call it browsing), it could be just to quickly update their blog and tell the world what they had for breakfast, or to chat on their Yahoo or MSN messenger.
The Digital Natives will rather watch videos on YouTube and other file hosting and sharing websites through which they also get their information than relying on established news channels such as BBC, CNN and NTA. They are also early adaptors of new technological products and services and were the ones that first went to town with their I-POD portable music devices to the envy of the Digital non-natives and technology laggards who may have wondered what the little earpieces stuck to their ears with distinctive white ropes were. Now the same group could be seen with their brand new I-PHONEs as if to say that they were indeed separated at birth with APPLE’s Steve Jobs.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that Digital Natives also reside in Nigeria. Some but not all of them belong to the group we have come to know, and refer to in Nigeria as the middle class. Members of the group typically will have studied at a university, polytechnic or other institutions of higher learning both in Nigeria and abroad, thus making educational qualification as minimum standard or expectation. It is the qualification achieved that opens other opportunities for the group members into the world of work, the economy as well as into being positioned to play active parts in the political process in Nigeria.
It may be difficult to attempt to define age boundaries for people in this group, the reason being that the stifling economic conditions which Nigerians operated under in the past, and which they are just recovering from turned Nigeria into a nation of late achievers. This meant that many Nigerians were not able to make the expected smooth transition into the world of work or business from the time they graduated from school.
A conservative and fair view may suggest the age bracket for people in the middle class group to be between 25 and 50. Other characteristics of members of this group include possession of degrees and other qualifications having undergone a process of professional training in specialised disciplines, thus qualifying them to be called professionals as suggested by Friedson (1994) and Downie (1996).
They may probably be mid-level and senior level managers or their equivalents at their places of work, (they could also be junior level managers and employees). They have steady incomes which may seem to set them apart from members of other social groups. They may desire to spend their annual holidays with members of their families in several places within and outside Nigeria. It may be travelling to Cross River state to experience the magical pleasures at Obudu Cattle Ranch and Tinapa Business Resort, or even to Shere Hills Jos, and Ikogosi water springs. While some may wish to be more daring and take seek to explore other exotic locations in the Caribbean, the underlying characteristic amongst this group is the desire to enjoy life with their family and friends, to be compensated adequately for their talents and skills and to be appreciated and with respect and dignity.
The Middle class classification as presently used in Nigeria is only a representative descriptor; it is not completely exclusive in any way, members of this group in Nigeria will probably fit into the B (Middle Class - Intermediate managerial, administrative or professional), C1 (Lower Middle Class - Supervisory or clerical and junior managerial, administrative or professional) and C2 (Skilled Working Class - Skilled manual workers) social group classifications as used in marketing. The other groups are A (Upper Middle Class - Higher managerial, administrative or professional), D (Working Class - Semi and unskilled manual workers) and E (Those at the lowest levels of subsistence - Entirely dependent on state, family and friends for long-term income).
It is not just for the fact that individuals in this group find themselves sandwiched in the middle of the socio-economic scale that they are described as the middle class, but also because of the key role that they are expected to play in the economy and also in the socio-economic lives of the groups above (A), and the ones below (D and E). They serve as both feeder group to the group above (A), and also serve as some kind of check, helping to keep the big guys above on their toes as the knowledge that the young guns are coming could help drive them to do more at work and for the country else their position will be taken, and the carpets pulled from under their feet. This group could also be seen to be aspirational, thus helping to motivate and challenge members of the groups below them (D and E) to work harder towards also stepping up the social ladder.
Kemi Gasper, Head of Retail and Consumer Banking at Oceanic Bank says that the bank’s Middle – Class Products are targeted at this unique group. "Our research showed that these group of highly skilled Nigerian professionals desire a set of products that satisfies their desire to enjoy comfortable lifestyles without having to wait for a couple of years until they have saved up enough money to buy a car or other household goods and appliances that will enrich the lives of their families".
The likes of Professor Patrick Utomi, political and change activist have for long decried the near dearth of the middle class in Nigeria. In an interview he granted in late 2007, Prof. Utomi had warned that "No nation will make meaningful progress unless it adequately caters for the emerging middle class who are expected to help drive the local economy".
Many Nigerians may still remember with nostalgia life in Nigeria in the sixties, seventies and early eighties, when product leasing and hire purchase schemes were standard business practices. At this time civil servants and other office workers could buy cars and other products on hire purchase or through credit financing, dignity of labour was also a big part of working life then. Rising inflation as a result of economic downturn led to the withdrawal of such schemes and triggered the long, sad and depressing years when the qualities of life enjoyed by several key workers in Nigeria hit rock bottom.
It is therefore great news, and something of joy to see that these groups of professionals who were neglected during our ‘lost’ years are gradually re-emerging. It is not really that they all went away or perhaps migrated en masse with their talents to other countries (while some did in search of greener pastures, most remained back still toiling and putting in the shift towards rebuilding Nigeria. Even some of those who left are now relocating back to Nigeria to contribute to the Nigerian project armed with new skills, new thinking and greater expectations). For a long time, it seemed that there were no constructive and targeted policies put in place by successive governments aimed at recognising the contributions of the middle class towards Nigeria’s socio-economic development, and rewarding them accordingly. Also due to dwindling economic fortunes, some business organisations did not consider them a lucrative target market segment.
It is therefore interesting to note that things are changing; there are now products and services on offer by product vendors financed by banks targeted at Nigeria’s working and middle class. Such products range from car financing, home furniture and electronics goods financing to home ownership schemes. At Oceanic Bank for example, there are a bouquet of products targeted at the middle-class, there is the Oceanic Savings Liability Generating Product consisting of Oceanic Executive Savings Account, Oceanic NEST Domiciliary Account and Oceanic Pearl Account. Other products targeted at the middle class are The Oceanic Quality Education Plan, The Oceanic Quality Life Scheme incorporating Auto loans, Household appliances loan, Share purchase loan, Auto loans etc. The Oceanic Consumer Loans incorporates personal loans, rent loans, home improvement loans etc. Another exciting product from the bank is the Oceanic Pay Advance Salary Scheme incorporating the direct salary advance and the extended salary advance scheme. Everyone one of us would have fallen short of cash at some point or the other and the wait for the next salary may indeed seem long. These are indeed good products from Oceanic Bank as these services to the hardworking members of the middle – class will greatly enrich and empower them as is the case in the developed economies where financial institutions as catalysts for change and socio-economic empowerment.
There is therefore an urgent need to not only maintain, but also increase the momentum and heighten the excitement currently being experienced by the middle class in Nigeria. It is also good to see that some state governments and the federal government are rising to the challenge through offering government employees improved conditions of services, even in some cases closing the disparity in conditions of service and pay structure which exist between workers in the private and public sectors. Several business organisations are also keying into the middle-class thinking, having realised their strategic importance to the development of Nigeria.
Dr. Mrs Cecilia Ibru, the CEO and managing director of Oceanic Bank says that Oceanic Bank is ready and prepared to meet the needs and expectations of Nigeria’s re-emerging middle class, likewise the banking needs of all Nigerians. "I am happy with the several ongoing initiatives in the area of Private Public Sector Participation (PPP). Oceanic Bank is helping to build a stronger Nigeria through several of the bank’s products which are aimed at different socio-economic segments. We are a strong financial services company with product offerings ranging from mortgages, health, insurance, trusteeship and so on. We encourage organisations and even individuals to take advantages of our unique product offerings", Dr. Mrs Ibru said. .
So what do members of middle class group themselves think? What are their expectations from banks, government institutions and other organisations wishing to key into the Nigerian middle-class market?
For Emmy Collins, London and Lagos based fashion designer whose flagship store on Awolowo Road is a favourite of Lagos socialites, he thinks that it is not yet celebration time, "Until the prosperity extends to all Nigerian citizens in other states, I don’t think that Nigerians should celebrate just yet. What you have now is more a Lagos thing, perhaps Abuja and a few other major towns where it does appear that people’s standard of living is improving but still, this is a good starting point", he concluded.
Nze Sunny Ogbu, an Abuja – based businessman wonders if business people like him will fit into the middle class description, "It is important that both the government and the middle class act in ways that also protect the interests of other members of the society. You don’t want to create a situation where only a certain group will be perceived to be doing well and progressing economically, while the other groups remain static. An even spread and balance will ensure that there is no revolt from the proletariats (masses) as a result of anger, envy or even perceived oppression". Nze Ogbu said.
Charles Ikechukwu Okoli, a Lagos based banker who returned to Nigeria in 2007 after several years living in the United Kingdom wants the government to intensify efforts in the area of security of lives and property, and also in power generation "That will greatly enrich the quality of life in Nigeria and complement the efforts of the banks", Okoli said.
It may seem therefore that provision of infrastructure, particularly affordable and decent housing, security of lives and property, adequate social amenities etc are key to satisfying the demands and tastes of the re-emerging middle –class in Nigeria. The task before the various governments and financial institutions is to work together to ensure that the present momentum is sustained. This is because the middle class as suggested by Prof Utomi are key to Nigeria’s socio-economic renaissance.
Nworah wrote in from Lagos.