The Agenda

Andrew Levison on Blue-Collar Jobs and Social Identity

Andrew Levison has written a thought-provoking analysis of the “white working class” viewed through an occupational lens. Among scholars and analysts, there has been an ongoing debate about how we should define the white working class: by income level, by educational attainment, etc. When we define the white working class by educational attainment, e.g., by excluding white adults with a college degree, we find that this group has somewhat higher incomes than U.S. adults as a whole. This has never struck me as particularly problematic, but it is certainly worthy of note.

Levison identifies some of the difficulties with both of these approaches, first observing that the category of low income individuals includes many people who are non-employed and then arguing that educational attainment is also an imprecise guide:

While it avoids these problems, using education to define the term working class does, however, also have its own downside. While, as we will see, education and occupation do indeed substantially overlap, they are not identical. When commentators use the term “the white working class” they are generally visualizing blue collar or other essentially physical or manual workers—a group that has very distinct social and cultural characteristics—rather than the more sociologically amorphous and hard to visualize social category of “less educated” individuals. In most people’s experience, blue collar and other basically manual workers are significantly different from white collar office workers, sales workers or technical workers who happen to have less than a four-year college degree and it is the former group rather than the latter that people generally associate with the term “working class.”

To put this more vividly, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are not commonly understood as members of the white working class, though of course they would qualify if educational attainment were the sole determinant. It is also true, as Levison makes clear, that analyses drawing on occupational choice and educational attainment substantially overlap.

So Levison seeks to revive the traditional distinction between “blue-collar” and “white-collar” jobs. He adds additional nuance by examining female and male labor force patterns separately. Though I imagine some will dispute Levison’s broad characterization (it is necessarily subjective), I found it very stimulating:

The data that has been presented here dramatically illustrates that in the real world white blue-collar workers are a far more important social group than is generally recognized. They are not the desperate and jobless workers who “shaped up” in front of the factory gates every day to beg for work as factory workers did during the great depression. Many make decent money and vast numbers work as small independent contractors rather than hired employees. Nor do most working class men still talk or act like the inarticulate, hulking laborers portrayed by Marlon Brando in the 1950’s and Sylvester Stallone in the 1970’s. But they are united by sociological traits and cultural values that define many aspects of their social identity. Unlike the affluent or highly educated they see themselves as “real Americans” who are “just getting by,” They are “hard-working” “practical” and “realistic.” They believe in “old-fashioned traditional values” and trust in “character” and real-world experience rather than advanced education. They rely on “common sense” not abstract theories. These characteristics have not basically changed since the 1950’s when these workers considered themselves good Democrats and they remain important determinants of their political outlook today.

There is much more to discuss. Levison’s description of the polarization of the labor market for women is particularly rich. 

Thanks very much to Jesse Walker of Reason for the pointer.