By David Michael Newstead.
A lot has been said about blue-collar jobs and white-collar jobs, but you might be wondering what shirt collars have to do with our economy or how that became shorthand for class distinctions. The basic difference is this: blue-collar workers perform manual labor and white-collar workers don’t. The functional benefit of blue shirts is that they hide the dirt, smudges, and stains of manual labor better than other colors. So, this is advantageous for mechanics, factory workers, and plumbers. Meanwhile, the average white-collar office worker only has to worry about spilled coffee no matter what color shirt they wear.
On a deeper level though, the divide between blue-collar and white-collar has always entailed differences in their levels of education, income, and their social status with issues of race and gender not far behind. Historically, white-collar workers have been on the higher end of all these indicators, enjoying careers as lawyers, accountants, and the like. Blue-collar workers less so. However, these generalizations never applied 100% of the time and are no longer that accurate in today’s economy.
So in 2017, this is sometimes a difference without a distinction. For instance, office interns are certainly white-collar workers, but they don’t enjoy much in the way of income or social status. The same goes for the current surplus of lawyers, professors without tenure, and many others who have seen their benefits and career prospects dwindle in a crowded and very educated labor market that’s concentrated in major cities where your barista might have a graduate degree. Likewise, blue-collar work is fast becoming more technically sophisticated than it once was as well as more susceptible to automation like in the case of coal miners. The result, in both cases, is more people struggling to find work.
Strangely enough, even our proposals for economic progress still show a lingering blue-collar / white-collar schism. Becoming a successful entrepreneur, for example, comes with definite white-collar social status. Meanwhile, one widely discussed idea is to retrain blue-collar workers to become computer programmers. The irony of this being computer programmers perform no physical labor whatsoever. However, they might work long hours writing code, while wearing t-shirts or Mark Zuckerberg style hoodies and drinking Red Bulls. That’s a big change from the days of the assembly line. Another proposal is to retrain blue-collar workers so that they can make up for labor shortages in the healthcare field, becoming nurses, technicians, and physicians assistants. The difficulty here is trying to make largely female professions appealing to people used to male-dominated industries. Fortunately for everyone, hospital scrubs come in blue.