Colombia Table of Contents
Courtesy Embassy of Colombia, Washington
The emergence in the twentieth century of a fairly large middle class paralleled the development of urban society and of the modern institutions of government, education, and social services. Although Colombia had always had a small element of self-employed shopkeepers, clerks, and overseers, they had been limited in number and had no sense of shared identity.
Most of the modern middle class had developed since the 1920s. As a class, the various middle groups distinguished themselves from other members of society by regular employment in occupations that generally did not qualify them for membership in the elite.
The nucleus of the middle class was in the most highly industrialized urbanized areas--the departments of Antioquia, Caldas, and Cundinamarca--where institutional changes had been most pronounced. These areas had the highest percentage of people employed in professions, government, business, and trade--all predominantly middle-class occupations.
The middle class owed its heterogeneity to its late development and continued expansion. It consisted of self-employed small businessmen, professionals, salaried employees (including office workers), other white-collar personnel, and some members of organized labor. The expansion of the government bureaucracy provided a number of positions for the middle class. Teachers were usually included in the middle class, as were most military officers, most of the clergy, and some intellectuals, artists, journalists, and musicians.
Owners of medium-sized farms, primarily in the agricultural departments of Caldas and Antioquia, made up most of the rural middle class. They derived the greatest benefits from governmental efforts at agricultural credit, technical training, community development, and expanded primary education. In addition, they possessed a relatively modern outlook in contrast to other farmers in more remote areas who had accumulated enough wealth to be placed at the top of the middle class but preferred a modified peasant existence and traditional outlook.
The diversity of the middle class, which placed some of its members scarcely above the lower class in life-style and income and others on the lower edge of the upper class, was striking. Infinite status gradations characterized the internal structure of this class. However, by linking several of the most important status or prestige factors, the middle sector can be divided into two main parts: an upper middle class and a lower segment in transition from the lower class. The sectors were differentiated primarily on the basis of the attitudes and values they held and on their origin in the social system.
The upper middle class gradually merged into the elite class and was composed primarily of professionals, medium-sized landowners, entrepreneurs, managerial personnel, and some government bureaucrats. Some of these were descendants of the traditional elite who had fallen on the social scale and clung to the illusion of their families' former status. They often did not consider themselves members of the middle group and continually attempted to regain a place in the upper class by modeling their manners, behavior, and attitudes on those of the elite.
The members of the upper middle class tended to share a concern for culture and outward appearance, exhibited by conspicuous consumption. Standards of social behavior were stringently observed, and active support was given, particularly by women, to the Roman Catholic Church and numerous religious associations. The completion of academic secondary school was considered essential for the child of upper-middle-class parents, and a university degree was becoming increasingly necessary. Whereas membership in the elite was still determined primarily by family background and values, upper-middle-class status was largely determined by a good secondary education.
The lower middle class, constituting the bulk of the middle class, came primarily from upwardly mobile members of the lower class. A large number were clerks or small shopkeepers. Many had only a precarious hold on middle-class status and tended to be less concerned with imitating upper-class culture and behavior than with making enough money to sustain a middle-class life-style. Families at this level tended to be just as concerned as those at higher social levels with giving their children an education. Many hoped to send at least one of their children through a university, regardless of the financial burden.
Data as of December 1988
Colombia Table of Contents