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Increasing Social Differentiation

Traditional fur-lined coat and cap
Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Mongolia's economic development in the 1970s and the 1980s produced a population increasingly divided along occupational, educational, and regional lines. There were growing distinctions between workers and white-collar administrators; between urban and rural residents; between factory workers and pastoralists; between professionals, such as teachers and engineers, and the politically elite generalist managers; between those with only a primary school education and the graduates of post-secondary institutions in Mongolia or the Soviet Union; and, perhaps, between residents of the economic core in north-central Mongolia and those of the larger, but more sparsely populated, peripheral regions. All these distinctions entailed differences in income, life chances, prestige, and power, and they indicated potential strains in the social and political system. The strains took the form both of increased competition for the more desirable occupations and of concern within the government and the party over the way policies and practices favored some segments of the population over others, such as industrial workers at the expense of pastoralists, or urban universities at the expense of rural primary schools.

The 51 percent urban population reported in the 1979 census reflected rapid migration to the cities in the 1970s. The influx of rural people created housing problems, among them long waits for assignment to an apartment, expansion of ger districts on the edges of built-up areas, and pressure to invest in more housing, roads, and other urban infrastructure. The 1979 census showed Mongolia's class structure to consist approximately 40 percent of workers, 39 percent of herders in cooperatives, and 21 percent of intelligentsia. The last term was not defined but presumably referred to those with at least secondary schooling and non-manual occupations.

Woman in sheepskin-lined coat
Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Mongolia has suffered from a continual shortage of skilled labor and has had to rely on foreign workers. They come from the Soviet Union and the member countries of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) on short-term contracts. At the same time, the ranks of Mongolian clerks, accountants, and low-level managers grew many fold, and Mongolian leaders occasionally alluded to problems in persuading young people to aim for careers as skilled workers or engineers rather than as office workers. The result of the government's great efforts to expand education has been a society very conscious of educational credentials; in some instances, the diploma is more significant than any substantive knowledge or skill it might represent.

The elite consisted of bureaucrats and ranking members of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party. Such people were usually male graduates of universities or military academies; they possessed a good command of Russian, had experience studying or working in the Soviet Union, and tended to live in Ulaanbaatar. They held positions in the nomenklatura, the Russian term denoting, narrowly, the elite administrative positions the ruling party filled by appointment and, more broadly, the elite "New Class" that dominated Soviet society. They had urban apartments, scarce consumer goods, opportunities for foreign travel, the use of official vehicles, and access to first-rate medical care; they probably sent their children to universities and into professional occupations.

Under the managerial elite were technical specialists, such as engineers, doctors, professors, and financial and planning experts, who also were university-trained, fluent in Russian, and predominately urban. Below them were the comparatively large categories of industrial workers, employees of state farms, and administrative and clerical personnel. Such people had an occupational title or certification, and they received a regular wage from the state payroll.

At the bottom, or the edges, of the system were the nomadic herders, the arads. They had no vocational certification or formal job titles, and their incomes and livelihood still depended to a large extent on the vagaries of the weather. Although they were honored publicly as the prototypical Mongolian working class and the repository of traditional values, they were a shrinking segment of the population and one that few urbanites aspired to join. In spite of government efforts to raise their living standards, their dispersed and nomadic mode of livelihood limited access to such public services as health care and education. Their children could rise through the school system to the professional or administrative elite, but at the cost of long separation from their families in boarding schools. Unlike those of workers in the state sector of the economy, herders' incomes depended on the performance of the cooperatives, and that in turn rested on the weather and the health of the herds.

Last Update: 2010-12-07