A New Definition of Working Class
Copyright 2011-2013 by Scot G. Patterson. All rights reserved.
The prevailing definitions of “working class” are outdated and misguided. This essay proposes a new definition that identifies a social grouping with similarities in core values and occupation rather than the income-based classification system developed by social scientists and demographers. It’s time for someone who is working class to redefine who we are.
Let’s begin by looking at traditional definitions, both academic and informal. The social sciences use the term “working class” to describe those employed in lower-tier jobs, with limited skills and education, and lower incomes. For example, Dennis Gilbert, William Thompson, Joseph Hickey, and James Henslin have proposed a class system with six distinct categories. In their system, working class is just one step above the unemployed and the working poor. This model describes an upper or capitalist class consisting of the wealthy and powerful, an upper-middle class consisting of highly educated professionals, a middle-class consisting of college educated individuals with white collar jobs, a lower-middle class, a working-class of clerical and blue collar workers whose work is highly repetitive, and a lower class of unemployed and working poor. In common usage, the term refers to a segment of society that is dependent on physical labor, particularly when compensated by an hourly wage.
These classification schemes are misguided and insulting. They overlook the fact that the working class is a social grouping, not a class distinguished by low income and menial labor. Regardless of the approach used, it is generally agreed that the label “working class” describes a large and diverse segment of our society. In fact, by most accounts it represents the majority (estimates vary from 45-60%). It is precisely because of its diversity that it is a difficult group to define. There are many individuals in skilled or middle-skill trades that would be classified as working class yet earn more than those employed in lower-tier “white-collar” professions. This flaw in the income-based classifications of the working class is clearly described by Megan Carpentier in her article, What Is the Difference Between “Middle Class” and “Working Class”? published in The Washington Independent. She points out that the mean salary for a brickmason is $47,000 and a worker assembling aircraft makes $43,000 a year which puts them in the middle income bracket. By comparison, an optical technician makes $35,000 a year and a teacher’s assistant makes an average salary of $23,000 a year. Megan Carpentier summarizes the issue in this way, “The problem with 'working class' is that it denotes a class of labor and a particular social grouping rather than a class of income, while middle and upper middle class – though obviously imprecise in the vernacular – connote a comparative income.” She also points out that when surveys ask people to identify themselves as working class or middle class it causes confusion because the public perceives that these two categories overlap. The collective bargaining efforts of unions, the prevalence of skilled trades, and the creation of new middle-skill jobs have created an array of working-class occupations that provide middle-class or even upper middle-class incomes.
So how do we define working class as a social grouping? A meaningful definition should include the following three characteristics: work that includes a physical component – usually involving hand skills and getting dirty on the job, a tendency to rely on resourcefulness rather than money to solve problems in daily living, and a sense of pride with regard to the value of hard work, honesty, and personal responsibility. Let’s take a look at these identifying characteristics so that we can fully appreciate this new definition of the working class.
At first glance one would assume that the label “working class” applies equally to everyone who works for a living, but it doesn’t. In common usage it refers to people with physically-demanding jobs. Here’s the bottom line – if you’re sitting in a chair at work, you’re probably not working class. Most of us stand, walk, kneel, or climb a ladder during the course of our workday. Truckers and heavy equipment operators qualify too, because their jobs are physically demanding. We tend to take a shower at night instead of in the morning because we get dirty on the job. We get paid to exercise instead of paying to exercise at a gym. We don’t like to wear neckties or be confined to an office. Developing good hand skills and knowing how to use materials correctly and efficiently is an important part of being good at our jobs; this expertise is what distinguishes a journeyman from an apprentice.
Because we have less disposable income and good hand skills, we tend to use our resourcefulness to solve problems in daily living. We fix our cars, mow our lawns, and remodel our houses because we can. Sometimes this means calling a friend to lend us some tools or give us a hand, which reinforces the bonds that unite the working class. White-collar workers tend to have more limited skills and resources for dealing with problems in daily living and use money as a substitute. They hire others to perform the various nuisance tasks for them while they drive their children to soccer games and piano lessons.
Finally, there is a sense of pride that is derived from a commitment to basic core values. The ability to work hard is respected because it is viewed as the steppingstone to achieving the American dream of owning your own home, having a secure job, and providing a quality life for your family. Honesty is just as important as money. Lengthy contracts and attorneys are viewed as an unfortunate by-product of urban life in which people are strangers and cannot trust one another. For the working class, doing business is guided by the simple principle that “a man’s handshake is his bond.” This philosophy highlights the belief that personal integrity provides the foundation for the fair and orderly exchange of goods and services.
Failure to accept responsibility for your own actions is viewed as a weakness in character by the working class. It’s easy to make excuses and put the blame on others. In reality, we all make mistakes and need to take responsibility for them. Otherwise, nothing is learned and we lose the respect of others. Accepting personal responsibility is the starting point for building trust, friendships, and a sense of community.
It’s clear that the virtues of hard work, honesty, and personal responsibility will remain a legacy of the working class for a long time to come. Our society holds these core values in high regard, which should come as no surprise considering that these were the guiding principles of the working class when they built the infrastructure of America in the first place. It’s also the reason that it’s still popular to claim working-class roots.
In summary, the label “working class” describes a segment of our society defined more by its core values, resourcefulness, and a willingness to work hard than level of income or skills. It is insulting and inappropriate to define it as a lower-tier social class. Rather, it’s a diverse group of individuals who provide a wholesome and productive influence in our society.