White-collar and blue-collar jobs

In the early 20th century, people in the workforce were often classified based on collar color, such as white-collar, blue-collar, pink-collar, etc. The color assigned didn’t mean they necessarily wore clothes of the color. Instead, the collar color could also be symbolic. So what are blue-collar and white-collar jobs? What is the difference between them? And are these terms still relevant in today’s world?

Blue-collar jobs vs. white-collar jobs

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Blue-collar and white-collar jobs indicate two of the most popular types of worker classifications; both terms have different meanings. They are meant to evoke different images of the work associated with them and how well such workers are paid.

What does a blue-collar job mean?

The term blue-collar worker is usually used to refer to someone who performs manual labor and is paid either by the hour or on a project basis. They are workers who engage in physical manual labor, typically in the construction, agriculture, maintenance, manufacturing, or mining sectors. They are called so because workers of this occupation historically wore blue collared shirts while at work.

These workers may work outdoors, physically straining tasks, and/or with heavy machinery. They may be skilled or unskilled with any needed skills acquired on the job or at a trade school.

Some common examples of blue-collar jobs include electricians, welders, mechanics, and construction workers. Some jobs, such as power distributors or plant operators, can be more specialized.

The pay of blue-collar workers depends on their industry, and they are usually paid on an hourly basis, such as farm helpers or by the number of ‘pieces’ they manage to complete in a day, which is typical for these workers.

Note! The term “blue-collar jobs” translates in Hindi “कारखाने में शरीरिक श्रम करने वाले कर्मचारी”, meaning manual industrial work or workers.

What does a white-collar job mean?

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On the other hand, white-collar workers are found doing desk jobs in administrative, clerical, or management roles. Generally, these people earn a monthly or annual salary.

The modern understanding of the word white collar is heavily influenced by American writer Upton Sinclair, who used the phrase interchangeably with administrative work, which is why the word is now used to refer to employees found in office settings.

As the name implies, they dress more professionally with suit-and-tie and white-collared shirts. In contrast to blue-collar workers, white-collar workers usually don’t have physically taxing jobs but rather involve working at a desk in a clerical, administrative, or management capacity. 

Some examples of white-collar jobs are:

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

White-collar workers often receive annual salaries instead of hourly wages. The pay is usually a fixed amount based on the particular period rather than the specific number of hours worked.

Key differences between white-collar and blue-collar jobs

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The simple terms “blue-collar” and “white-collar” jobs can convey much more about how the worker is perceived. They include these individuals’ education levels, appearances, and social classes. Remember that none of this is based on fact or has any formally defined boundaries. It’s about how people perceive individuals working in different industries.

Perception of industries

In general, white-collar jobs are sought more than blue-collar ones. It is because society often perceives office jobs as more respectable than those involving manual or physical labor. An office job is thought to be more desirable than a construction job because of the kind of work involved.

Developed countries’ infrastructure can be empowered enough to remove the need for physical labor to earn a wage. It can offer its working-class safe desk jobs that require the mental attention of a human rather than physical exertion that can be executed by a machine. For example, blue-collar jobs are more prevalent in India vs. white-collar jobs.

Education

The general idea is that blue-collar workers are lesser educated than white-collar workers. That’s because office work that requires mental work typically requires at least a post-secondary education. For instance, if a company is searching for accountants, it will hire people with at least an undergraduate degree in accounting.

In contrast, blue-collar workers require certain skills that can be learned on the job or through a short course at a trade school.

Attire

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The entire basis for the two terms was based on the attire of the different kinds of workers. The label blue-collar originates from the typical appearance of a manual worker’s dressing. It would commonly include blue jeans, overalls, boilersuits, or gowns. Dark colors, such as navy blue, are used to help hide the dirt that may soil their clothes while they work. On the other hand, white-collar workers are related to white button-down shirts, suits, and ties worn by office workers.

Social classes

Another way that the two phrases are differentiated is the perception that white-collar workers make more money than blue-collar workers and belong to higher social classes. The idea is that white-collar workers will have a higher status because they probably earn more while being more educated. 

Blue-collar workers, in contrast, are believed to be lower on the social ladder because they carry out manual labor and are assumed not to be as educated. It is important to remember this is only sometimes the case, and these differences cannot be generalized. 

Special considerations

The number of blue-collar workers peaked during the Industrial Revolution when large numbers of individuals began moving from rural areas to areas surrounding factories ad industries in search of work. This migration was bolstered by the fact that farming had started to become industrialized, leading to a rise in unemployment. People thus began flocking to large cities where factories required labor to work on the production line and operate machinery. 

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On the other hand, the term white-collar jobs vs. blue-collar jobs became more popular in the 20th century when technology started to decrease the physical labor needed.

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Another thing people want to convey by saying someone works a blue-collar job is that their salary size is significantly lower than another person working a white-collar job. A blue-collar worker works for an hourly wage or is paid per item assembled or task completed. The lack of guarantee of available work on a blue-collar job means the worker is in constant worry, especially if they are there as a temporary filling. For such reasons, they might be part of a union to maintain the security of working hours and future employment.

In contrast, white-collar workers most probably obtain their job through a much more stringent hiring process and can be more difficult to fire due to employment contracts. If they do not receive a fixed salary, their income can be contingent on having a client base, such as lawyers and physicians practicing privately. Even in such a case, their position is quite stable since the work requires a specific set of skills.

With time, the line between these categories of workers is disappearing and becoming less relevant. As technology increases, even blue-collar jobs require an amount of education and technical skills. Workers such as electricians and cable installers can enjoy higher pay due to this. 

Interestingly, some white-collar jobs are quite saturated, leading to white-collar employees not earning much more than their counterparts. This decreasing pay gap is because of the high competitiveness for positions which allows employers to offer less or employees taking up jobs for which they are significantly overqualified.

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FAQs

Consider the most popular questions that will help fix what white-collar and blue-collar jobs are.

What is the difference between blue-collar and white-collar jobs?

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In summary, blue-collar jobs involve a greater degree of physically stressful or manual labor. These workers include mechanics, farmers, construction workers, power plant operators, and electricians. On the other hand, white-collar workers typically work in an office in clerical, management, and administrative roles. 

Blue-collar workers are paid wages based on the number of hours they put in, while their white-collar counterparts earn fixed annual salaries. Other perceived differences also come into play, including social classes, educational backgrounds, and appearances. However, these aren’t necessarily true or valid.

Is blue-collar a derogatory term?

It is sometimes used to be derogatory. Even though there is nothing wrong with having a blue-collar job, labeling someone as blue-collar has been used as a way to put someone down or offend them. This stems from society’s perception that blue-collar individuals do not possess the same earning power or education as white-collar workers, who are thought to be more professional. Additionally, there is the assumption that blue-collar workers have a lower social status. Fortunately, the lines between the two are fading thanks to technological and societal developments, but there is still some negativity associated with the word.

Why are collar colors used to define jobs?

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In the 20th century, people began to classify the workforce by the type of clothing that the workers wore. For example, workers of blue-collar jobs typically wore blue (denim) shirts and clothing due to the strength of its material and the fact that it could handle the oil, dirt, and grime involved with certain jobs such as mechanic or factory worker. White-collar workers were called such because they wore white shirts to their job.

Are there other collar colors?

The list of collar job types does not end with white-collar and blue-collar jobs. A gold collar is meant to describe white-collar workers with highly specialized skills that are in high demand. Such jobs include doctors, pilots, engineers, and lawyers.

A red collar was meant to describe someone who works in the government.

The word pink-collar is an outdated term meant to describe sectors previously dominated by women, such as nursing and secretarial work.

The most recent type of collar color is the green collar, which refers to people working in the environmental sector.

The bottom line

In the past, the kind of attire worn at work was used to differentiate between types of workers. Blue-collar workers wore blue-colored denim clothing to endure and hide the dirt and grime from their work environment and their work with their hands. In comparison, white-collar workers wore suits and white shirts. 

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While these differences still exist to some extent, the lines between the two categories gradually fade. Blue-collar jobs were once considered less desirable since the nature of the work and the pay involved were less appealing than white-collar jobs, but people are now beginning to change how they think. As such, being a blue-collar worker today doesn’t mean you’re less than someone working in an office.

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