Blue Collar vs. White Collar: An Overview

"Blue collar" and "white collar" are two terms in the English language that evoke very different pictures. 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 his 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 there is no dictionary definition that 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 he or she also fills a different social class. Yet, to suggest the white-collar worker exists in a different social class from the blue collar worker still does not satisfy questions on the quantitative differences of annual income, the number of years of post-secondary schooling each has, or the skills each worker possesses.

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 manufacturing and agriculture.

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 in clerical or managerial capacities that require mental attention rather than physically exhausting jobs of corporal 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 stereotypical 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, his 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 workers can get dirt on their shirts from working outdoors or in some physical capacity because of the color of the uniform. The blue collar worker might have been wearing jeans or overalls.

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 at all, he might be working for hourly wages, or he may get paid 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 in nature.

The white-collar worker, on the other hand, might have obtained his job through a more stringent hiring process and, for this reason, is more difficult to fire. If he is 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 allow employers to offer less, or the employees are taking jobs for which they are overqualified.

Key Takeaways

  • White-collar workers are suit-and-tie workers who work at a desk and, stereotypically, eschew physical labor.
  • Blue-collar worker stereotypical refers to workers who engage in hard manual labor, typically agriculture, manufacturing, construction, mining, or maintenance.
  • The phrase can also imply higher (white collar) or lower (blue collar) social class.
  • While these terms may evoke an image of different social classes, the line between these types of workers is fading.