What Is the Working Class?

"Working class" is a socioeconomic term used to describe persons in a social class marked by jobs that provide low pay, require limited skill, or physical labor. Typically, working-class jobs have reduced education requirements. Unemployed persons or those supported by a social welfare program are often included in the working class.

Key Takeaways

  • Working class is a socioeconomic term describing persons in a social class marked by jobs that provide low pay and require limited skill.
  • Typically, working-class jobs have reduced education requirements.
  • Today, most working-class jobs are found in the services sector and include clerical, retail sales, and low-skill manual labor vocations.

Understanding the Working Class

While "working class" is typically associated with manual labor and limited education, blue collar workers are vital to every economy. Economists in the United States generally define "working class" as adults without a college degree. Many members of the working class are also defined as middle-class. 

Sociologists such as Dennis Gilbert and Joseph Kahl, who was a sociology professor at Cornell University and the author of the 1957 textbook The American Class Structure, identified the working class as the most populous class in America.

Other sociologists such as William Thompson, Joseph Hickey and James Henslin say the lower middle class is largest. In the class models devised by these sociologists, the working class comprises between 30% to 35% of the population, roughly the same number in the lower middle class. According to Dennis Gilbert, the working class comprises those between the 25th and 55th percentile of society.

Karl Marx described the working class as the "proletariat", and that it was the working class who ultimately created the goods and provided the services that created a society's wealth. Marxists and socialists define the working class as those who have nothing to sell but their labor-power and skills. In that sense, the working class includes both white and blue-collar workers, manual and menial workers of all types, excluding only individuals who derive their income from business ownership and the labor of others.

Types of Working Class Jobs

Working-class jobs today are quite different than the working-class jobs in the 1950s and 1960s. Americans working in factories and industrial jobs have been on the decline for many years. Today, most working-class jobs are found in the services sector and typically include: 

  • Clerical jobs
  • Food industry positions
  • Retail sales
  • Low-skill manual labor vocations
  • Low-level white-collar workers

Oftentimes working-class jobs pay less than $15 per hour, and some of those jobs do not include health benefits. In America, the demographics surrounding the working-class population is becoming more diverse. Approximately 59% of the working-class population is comprised of white Americans, down from 88% in the 1940s. African-Americans account for 14% while Hispanics currently represent 21% of the working class in the U.S. 

History of the Working Class in Europe

In feudal Europe, most were part of the laboring class; a group made up of different professions, trades, and occupations. A lawyer, craftsman, and peasant, for example, were all members–neither members of the aristocracy or religious elite. Similar hierarchies existed outside Europe in other pre-industrial societies.

The social position of these laboring classes was viewed as ordained by natural law and common religious belief. Peasants challenged this perception during the German Peasants' War. In the late 18th century, under the influence of the Enlightenment, a changing Europe could not be reconciled with the idea of a changeless god-created social order. Wealthy members of societies at that time tried to keep the working class subdued, claiming moral and ethical superiority.