Time magazine is a conventional publication which gives a conventional accolade (“Person of the Year”) to typically conventional candidates. It recently named Ben Bernanke as Person of the Year 2009.

More interesting, however, is 2009’s third-place finisher: the Chinese worker.

Time has done a service by bringing the Chinese factory worker out of the shadows and into the limelight that she and he deserve. They may be a less well known than Nancy Pelosi (who came in fourth), but they may well have a greater impact on our world in the decades to come.

Throughout the past decade, this worker has been alternatively characterized as terribly oppressed, superhuman, out to steal Western jobs, etc. More often than not, the portrayal has said more about the people writing the stories than the of the millions of Chinese workers. These workers—most of them migrants from rural areas to the fast-growing cities of China’s east coast—have acted as a Rorschach test for a world that simultaneously gobbles up consumer goods sold at deflationary prices while decrying the system that produces these goods.

Looking ahead, these Chinese factory workers will shape our world far beyond how cheaply a DVD player can be sold at Wal-Mart. If we think about the impact they will have not as workers, but as consumers, citizens, and parents, we see a rising generation of Chinese urban dwellers, whose choice of politics for China and values and aspirations for their children, will help define the future of the world’s most-populous country. And the way they square those aspirations with sustainability principles will define China’s footprint for generations.

So, well done, Time. Here is an instance in which the much-maligned mainstream media got it at least half-way right. In 2050, when it comes time to reflect on the people of the first half-century, the previously faceless workers in Chinese factories will again be front and center. Not because of the impact of the world economy on them, but because of their impact on the world economy.