Blue-Collar vs. White-Collar: What’s the Difference?

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Blue-Collar vs. White-Collar: An Overview

Workers are often divided into categories using different classifications. One of the most common ways is by using collar colors. Two of the most popular types are blue-collar and white-collar workers.

Both terms have meanings that evoke different images, including the type of work involved and how people are paid. For instance, blue-collar workers generally perform manual labor and are either paid by the hour or on a piecework basis. White-collar workers, on the other hand, can be found in office settings in clerical, administrative, or management roles. These people normally earn an annual salary.

Other key distinctions between the two include differing educational backgrounds and social classes among others. These are often perceived and may not necessarily be real.

Key Takeaways

  • People in the labor force are often divided into categories based on collar colors, including blue- and white-collar workers.
  • Blue-collar workers are those who do manual labor and are paid on an hourly or piecework basis.
  • White-collar workers are known as suit-and-tie workers who work in service industries and are paid salaries.
  • There are perceptions that aren’t necessarily true, including the fact that blue-collar workers belong to a lower social class and that white-collar jobs are higher paid.
  • Although the terms typically evoke different images of workers, the similarities between their roles are increasing.

Blue-Collar Workers

The term blue-collar worker refers to individuals who engage in hard manual labor, typically in the agriculture, manufacturing, construction, mining, or maintenance sectors. Most of these people historically wore blue collared shirts when they worked.

Some blue-collar workers may have to do physically exhausting tasks. They may work outdoors and/or work with heavy machinery or animals. Workers may be skilled or unskilled. Skills can be acquired on the job or, more commonly, at a trade school.

Some of the most common blue-collar jobs include welders, mechanics, electricians, and construction workers. Some may be more specialized, such as power plant operators, power distributors, and nuclear power plant operators.

The way blue-collar workers are paid depends on the industry in which they work. Individuals who work in blue-collar industries are often paid on an hourly basis, such as mechanics. Some workers are paid by the number of pieces they complete in a day, which is typical for those who work in factory settings.

The movement of a nation’s employment market toward the service industry and away from agricultural labor signifies growth, advancement, and development.

White-Collar Workers

American writer Upton Sinclair is partially responsible for the modern understanding of the term white-collar, having used the phrase in conjunction with administrative work. 

White-collar workers are often found in office settings. As the name implies, they are generally suit-and-tie workers who wear white-collared shirts. Their jobs may involve working at a desk in clerical, administrative, or management settings. Unlike blue-collar workers, white-collar workers don’t have physically taxing jobs.

The following are examples of white-collar workers:

  • An administrative assistant in an office
  • A data entry clerk
  • The manager of a marketing department

Workers in white-collar jobs often receive annual salaries over hourly wages. This is a fixed amount that doesn’t factor in a specific number of hours. This means that paystubs highlight the portion of the salary for that particular period rather than the number of hours worked.

Key Differences

The differences between the terms blue- and white-collar have much more to say about how they’re perceived. This includes how we view various industries, the extent to which individuals are educated, their appearances, and social classes. Keep in mind, though, that none of this is necessarily based on fact. Rather, it’s all about what people are made to believe about how each is defined.

Perception of Industries

White-collar jobs are believed to be more sought-after than blue-collar ones. That’s because society often perceives office jobs to be better than those that require manual or taxing labor. Put simply, an office job is considered more desirable than one in the manufacturing or agricultural sector because of the type of work involved.

If a country’s infrastructure is so developed to offer its workers safe desk jobs that require mental attention rather than physical exertion, then the nation is empowered enough to remove the burden of physicality from the requirements of earning a wage.

Education

There is an idea that blue-collar workers aren’t as educated as those who work white-collar jobs. That’s because office work typically requires post-secondary education. For instance, a company looking for people for accountants generally requires new hires to have an undergraduate degree in accounting or finance. Blue-collar workers may only require certain skills that can be obtained either on the job or by going to trade school.

Attire

The historical basis for the two terms may not have changed radically from their origins. Blue-collar originates from the common appearance of a manual worker’s attire. This includes blue jeans, overalls, or boilersuits. Dark colors, such as blue, help hide dirt and other elements that may soil clothes as a result of work. In contrast, white-collar is associated with white button-down shirts adorned with ties worn by business people.

Social Classes

Another way to define these two phrases is the perception that white-collar workers not only make more money than blue-collar workers but that they also belong to different social classes. The perception is that white-collar workers have a higher status because they may earn more and may be more educated. Blue-collar workers, on the other hand, are believed to fall lower on the social ladder because they do manual labor and may not be as educated. Remember, this isn’t always the case. More on this below.

Special Considerations

The Industrial Revolution ushered in the era of the blue-collar worker when individuals began moving from rural areas in search of work. Farming became industrialized leading to an increase in unemployment. People began flocking to large cities where factories were labor to operate machinery and work on the production line. The term white-collar, on the other hand, became popular in the 20th century.

To say one person works a blue-collar job while another works a white-collar one carries the significance of salary size. The blue-collar worker may work for hourly wages or receive payment per item produced or assembled. They may be part of a union that maintains the security of hours and future work. Likewise, there may be insecurity about the stability of the blue-collar worker’s job, whether it be dependent on a contractual agreement with a third party or temporary.

A white-collar worker, on the other hand, may have obtained their job through a more stringent hiring process and may be more difficult to fire. The income of those who don’t earn a salary may be contingent on maintaining a client base, such as private practice lawyers and physicians. But their position may be stable since the work carries specific skills.

The line between these types of workers is fading. As blue-collar job technology increases, so does the amount of education needed and subsequent pay workers receive, such as those for electricians and cable installers. And as some white-collar job markets become saturated, employees are not making much more than their blue-collar counterparts because the competitiveness for positions allows employers to offer less, or the employees are taking jobs for which they are overqualified.

What’s the Difference Between Blue- and White-Collar Jobs?

Blue-collar jobs are those that involve a greater degree of physically-taxing or manual labor. Blue-collar jobs include farmers, mechanics, power plant operators, and electricians. White-collar jobs, on the other hand, typically work in office settings in clerical, administrative, and management roles. Blue-collar workers may be paid hourly wages while their white-collar counterparts typically command annual salaries. There are other perceived differences, as well, including educational backgrounds, appearances, and social classes. But these aren’t necessarily based on any factual basis.

Is Blue-Collar a Derogatory Term?

It can be. While there is nothing wrong with working a blue-collar job, calling someone blue-collar has typically been used as a way to put down or offend people. That’s because there’s a perception that blue-collar individuals don’t have the same earning power and aren’t as educated as white-collar workers. Another assumption is that blue-collar workers fall on a lower rung of the social ladder. While the lines are fading between the two, thanks to technology, there is still some negativity associated with the term.

Why Are Jobs Defined by Collar Color?

Jobs were generally classified by the type of collars, shirts, or clothing that workers typically wore. For instance, blue-collar workers were classified because they often wore blue (denim) shirts and clothing, which could hide the oil, residue, and dirt involved with certain positions like a mechanic or factory worker. White-collar workers were named as such because of the white shirts they wore under their suits.

Are There Other Collar Colors?

Yes. But many of these aren’t nearly as common as blue- and white-collar. Gold collar signifies white-collar workers who come with higher skills and are in higher demand. These include doctors, engineers, lawyers, and pilots. Red-collar workers are those who work in the government whose salaries come from the red ink budget. This category may also include farmers. Pink-collar is an outdated term that was used to describe sectors that were historically dominated by women, including nursing and secretarial work. One of the newest types of collar colors is the green collar, which refers to jobs in the environmental sector.

The Bottom Line

Workers were historically divided into categories based on the type of attire they wore. Blue-collar workers wore blue-colored clothing that was meant to hide the dirt and residue that came from working with their hands while white-collar workers wore white shirts underneath their suits. While these distinctions still exist, the lines between these two categories are fading. While blue-collar jobs were once less desirable because of the type of work and pay involved compared to white-collar ones, people are beginning to change the way they think. As such, being a blue-collar worker doesn’t mean that you’re any less than someone who works in an office setting.

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