"Blue-collar" and "white-collar" are terms in the English language that evoke different images. The blue-collar worker is perceived to make less than the white-collar worker. The white-collar worker might work behind a desk in the service industry, while the blue-collar worker gets their hands dirty doing manual labor or working in a division of manufacturing.

Perhaps the white-collar worker has a more well-rounded education than the blue-collar worker. The distinguishing characteristics between the two types of employees go on, and yet no dictionary definition can offer more succinct language as to what the phrases signify other than to suggest, in imprecise terms, the differences in class.

Another way to define these two phrases is the white-collar worker not only makes more money than the blue-collar worker, but they also belong to a different social class. Yet, to state white-collar workers exist in a different social class from blue-collar workers still does not explain quantitative differences of annual income, the number of years of post-secondary schooling each has, or the skills each worker possesses.

Key Takeaways

  • White-collar workers are known as suit-and-tie workers who work in service industries and often avoid physical labor.
  • The blue-collar stereotype refers to any worker who engages in hard manual labor, such as construction, mining, or maintenance.
  • Being a white-collar and blue-collar worker often implies belonging to a higher or lower social class, respectively.
  • The terms typically evoke different images of workers; however, the similarities between their roles are increasing.

White-Collar Workers

White-collar workers are suit-and-tie workers who work at a desk and, stereotypically, eschew physical labor. They tend to make more money than blue-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. The differences in connotation between white-collar and blue-collar have much more to say about the way we perceive the service industry in comparison to the manufacturing and agricultural industries.

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

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

Blue-Collar Workers

Blue-collar worker refers to workers who engage in hard manual labor, typically agriculture, manufacturing, construction, mining, or maintenance.

If the reference to a blue-collar job does not point to these types of work, it might imply another physically exhausting task. The environment may be outdoors or require interaction with heavy machinery or animals. The blue-collar worker may be skilled or unskilled. If skilled, their skills may have been obtained at a trade school rather than through a bachelor's degree program at a college or university. 

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: 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.

Special Considerations

In its most basic usage, to say one person is working a white-collar job and another is working a blue-collar job carries the significance of salary size. The blue-collar worker might not earn a salary; they might work for hourly wages or receive payment for every item produced or assembled. The blue-collar worker might require the protection of a union to maintain 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.

The white-collar worker, on the other hand, might have obtained their job through a more stringent hiring process and, for this reason, is more difficult to fire. If they are not earning a salary, income may be contingent on maintaining a client base as is true with private practice lawyers and physicians. The position a white-collar worker holds may be stable since white-collar work carries specific skills.

While these terms may evoke an image of different social classes, the line between these types of workers is fading. As the technology associated with jobs previously considered blue-collar increases, so does the amount of education needed and subsequent pay the workers receive. Electricians and cable installers are just two types of employees who have seen this increase in their fields. Also, 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.