the slow erosion

Numbers, as a rule, are context-blind. And those from the OECD suffer from this limitation, points out sociologist Elísio Estanque, author of the book “Middle Class: Rise and Decline” (ed. FFMS). “The criteria used for measuring the middle class are a little perverted.”

The problem, notes Elísio Estanque, is related to “the lack of indicators that are a little more elaborate than the mere criterion of salary income”. Factors such as education or consumption habits, for example, are also important to have a real picture of the country.

Even so, the sociologist admits: wages are a fundamental element for analysis. The ratio between the SMN and the median salary in Portugal (924 euros) is currently at 85%. If the minimum wage continues to increase at the same pace as since 2015, by 2030 the ratio could reach 100% – that is, the value of the median wage in Portugal is equal to that of the national minimum wage.

THE Renaissance, Elísio Estanque also recalls that there has been a relative approximation of the national minimum wage (760 euros) to the national average wage (1,361 gross euros) in recent years. By the end of the legislature, in 2026, the Government intends to increase the SMN up to 900 euros.

“This means that the classes that until then were more stable and felt more protected, with expectations of advancement and recognition and economic improvement, have suffered perhaps even more than those at the base of the social pyramid, which due to social policies have been more object of attention than the intermediate sectors”, he says.

According recent Eurostat data, the average gross salary per year in Portugal was 19,300 euros in 2021, while the European average was 33,500 euros; the tenth lowest figure in the entire European Union. “The average salary in Portugal is one of the lowest in OECD countries. This means that the economy has not been able to keep up with what is a qualification process for the younger generations in Portugal”, he says.

Frederico Cantante, university professor at ISCTE and researcher at the Collaborative Laboratory for Work, Employment and Social Protection (COLLABOR), subscribes to the same theses as Elísio Estanque. In recent decades, “there has been an accelerated recomposition of the Portuguese population”, particularly in terms of higher education, but “in the field of income there has been a gap”, he argues.

The sociologist even finds a contemporary reflection of this problem in the teachers’ strikes in recent weeks.

“What we are seeing right now in the teachers’ strike is in fact a good example of what we can call the social or symbolic disqualification of a group of people who, objectively, fit into the Portuguese middle class, from a socio-professional point of view. But, from an income point of view, they are people who have been losing a lot”, he points out.

Ten years ago, a teacher’s salary could easily be seen as a middle-class salary. Today, it is unlikely. Salary growth below GDP, galloping housing prices and inflation have meant that the income of “a good part of the Portuguese population is quite conditioned, quite meager”.

There was “a great compression” between the value of the minimum wage and the average wage: a difference that varies between 250 and 300 euros, as indicated by the study “Wages in Portugal: patterns of evolution, inflation and inequalities”, published in December 2022, and of which Frederico Cantante is co-author.

For various reasons, Frederico Cantante is not surprised that only 32% of Portuguese people told the OECD that they felt middle class. “People tend to position themselves below, to underestimate their income position”, in societies where the level of social inequality is higher, he explains.

As a rule, belonging to the middle class is something that people associate with being in a position of security, with predictability about the future. A scenario that does not match the “increase in job insecurity in Portugal” in recent years.

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