Are There Bobos in Kazakhstan? If so, Where Are They Headed?

In 2000, David Brooks, a prominent New York Times columnist, wrote a book called “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” in which he chronicled the emergence of a new upper class of bourgeois bohemian (hence bobo).

In that bestselling work of satirical sociology, Brooks coined a new word to describe those in the United States and beyond, including himself, who have reconciled the seemingly irreconcilable hippie values of the bohemian counterculture with the bourgeois world of capitalist enterprise and money making.

Providing historical insights into how the two classes fought each other in Western societies for ideological supremacy over centuries and especially in recent decades, Brooks explains how the two opposites combined to create a uniquely peculiar: an educated class that wants to and knows how to earn and spend money, while at the same time seeking to and trying to be seen seeking to save the whales, save the Amazon forests and engage in other altruistic acts. These are new hiking boots- and khaki-wearing CEOs of software companies and bankers, writers and high-flying analysts, news anchors and actors and even politicians from affluent regions who earn big money and enjoy all the benefits of modern life in a first world country, yet who are socially conscious, tolerant and who want to contribute to the betterment of their own communities, their country and, yes, the world.

While some would disagree with such a characterization, this is a new generation that came to dominate political, social and cultural life in the United States in the 1990s and who, arguably, continue to do so now. With some extension and a good dose of extrapolation, one can say that such a class has also emerged in Europe.

Now, let’s fly several thousand miles east and look at Kazakhstan, a country that reached the adult age of 21 only last year. Thanks to the legacy of the Soviet system and the efforts that went into maintaining and developing education since independence, modern society in Kazakhstan has a very large, educated class, which includes people such as teachers, engineers and other professionals. These people, by virtue of their high level of education, can roughly be referred to as the “old” middle class.

There emerged, as well, a large class of entrepreneurs who have come to form the backbone of the new affluent class and to epitomize the face of the new Kazakhstan capitalism. In December 2012, Reuters shared statistics that there were 12,000 people in Kazakhstan worth more than $1,000,000. For many of them, earning money the fastest way they could has for years been the main paradigm of professional and business development. Only in recent years, have people in this group started to realize the importance of social responsibility, community building and other activities geared toward the social good. And only in recent years has it become common place for business people to want to share with and develop the communities in which they work and to be seen doing good at the same time they are doing well.

There emerged, too, a rather sizeable group of people, Bolashak scholarship graduates including, who have studied in the West, who have been exposed to foreign cultural codes, including to those of bobos, and who have come back, bringing their education and changed minds with them (see story on B1).As Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has said several times, these individuals apply their newly gained knowledge and life attitudes in their home country, changing it along the way in many different ways. They, too, constitute part of the newly emerging middle class, if not yet by virtue of their wealth, than by their education and potential.

There has emerged then a very diverse and mixed middle class in Kazakhstan. And in that class there has emerged what looks like a small, but growing group of people who can roughly be qualified as the newly creative class, which can otherwise be called bobos. These are the people that earn good money, try to be hip and up-to-date, try to spend their vacations in untrodden places, and, importantly, try to be and to be seen as community leaders. In fact, in an increasingly digitalized country, these are the people that come to dominate the bandwidths in the country’s social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. (Look at the self-proclaimed Legends of Facebook, a tongue-in-cheekly named community in Kazakhstan’s segment of the network, for an idea of what drives such a community.) These are also the people that, along with countless expats, frequent business social events, such as those organised by FryDay and InterNations in Astana and Almaty (see stories in Section B). In fact, by virtue of their qualities, these are the people that seem to be more likely to live in the two capitals, as well as large cities such as Karaganda, Pavlodar, Ust-Kamenogorsk and Shymkent.

By subjective accounts and feelings, it seems the numbers of such socially-concerned intellectuals, while relatively small, are growing and will continue to grow, thanks to the appeal of the opinion leaders among their ranks and thanks also to factors that include, say, Hollywood and its projection of the bobo cultural codes on the global scene.

Yet, it is hard to put a number on the relative influence of such new self-made trendsetters in a country that is also seeing a major revival of traditions.

Right now, they are probably not even close to dominating the nation’s psyche as is the case with bobos in America. Given the differences between Kazakhstan and the United States and their different trajectories of development, it is also hard to say if bobos in Kazakhstan will ever come close to the position bobos in the US occupy today. Still, in a post-post-industrial age, in an age of mobile communications and hip culture, it seems like a safe bet to say their appeal is likely to grow.

For an early indication of how this will transpire and of whether the influence of such intellectuals can transcend the world of online communications, which is where they seem to be mostly focused, just watch the fortunes of a soon to be launched, self-billed “network magazine for the new people” rather boldly called KULT.

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