Employment, White Collar

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Employment, White Collar





The concept of white-collar employment has been deeply embedded in ordinary language since the early twentieth century, denoting those who work in offices and apart from the dirtier blue-collar world of manual or physical labor. Historically, when the large majority of work was of the latter type and large corporations were just beginning to expand the ranks of office workers, the white collar symbolized new opportunities for upward mobility. Over time, however, an increasing economic complexity has created new categories and blurred the original lines, so that the term has gradually lost usefulness as an analytic concept. In 2006, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics declared that the white collar and blue collar series are no longer useful categories and will be discontinued in 2007 in compiling its Employment Cost Index data.

For most of the twentieth century, white-collar employees were united by some perquisites that distinguished them in practice from blue-collar workers. For one thing, they were treated as nonproduction overhead and were, therefore, protected to a considerable extent from efforts to control production costs. White-collar workers were also paid salaries, rather than wages, and they generally enjoyed a high degree of job security. When layoffs were needed in production downturns, it was generally those on the factory floor who were let go.

White-collar employment grew substantially during the twentieth century, primarily at the expense of farm and manual workers. According to the Bureau of the Census data, white-collar workers increased from 17.6 percent of total employment in 1900 to 59.9 percent in 2002 (analyzed and reported by the Department for Professional Employees 2003, p. 5). But this general statement obscures many crucial distinctions.


Even in its early usage, white-collar was less than coherent conceptually, covering at least three radically different types of workers. Clerical occupations were largely female, low-status, and low-wage; managers and professionals, on the other hand, were largely male and high in status and pay. A third piece of the white-collar picture was comprised of professionals, who themselves changed dramatically in status from largely independent workers in the early part of the twentieth century to primarily working for corporations at the end. There was practically no mobility among these three categories, and their wages varied widely. As unionization advanced in mid-century, for example, clerical workers were paid less than blue-collar workers, but managers and professionals were paid more.

This conceptual inconsistency has grown even more marked and complex with the growth of services and knowledge work. Beneath the seemingly precise counts in various surveys lie important dissimilarities in definitions. For example, most analysts believe there has been a significant growth in service work since the early 1900s, though they disagree on how to define it. Service work is, in some sense, different from the production of things, which defines blue-collar work, but service workers are not necessarily white-collar. Building maintenance, for example, is certainly manual in nature, but it is not considered office work.

The Census data calculate that about 14 percent of the U.S. workforce is in services, though an independent analysis by Marc Uri Porat in 1977 put the percentage at 30 percent, without counting information workers. This is just one indication of the inconsistencies in the field.

Many analysts argue that a large economic discontinuity has occurred with the growth of knowledge work as a key part of the economy. There have been many attempts to count knowledge workers, starting with Fritz Machlups pioneering 1962 study. The estimates continue to vary rather widely, depending on what assumptions are made, but it is clear that adding this category produces a radically different view from that based on collar. For instance, a recent study by Edward Wolff estimates that 15 percent of the workforce in 2000 were knowledge workers (producing new knowledge), 44 percent were data workers, 14 percent were service workers, and 24 percent were goods producers.

Table 1
Percentages of workforce by Collar categories
SOURCE: Analysis based on May 2005 estimates from Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. http:/stat.bls.gov/oes/home.htm.
Management occupations4.6  
Business and financial operations occupations4.2  
Computer and mathematical occupations2.3  
Architecture and engineering occupations1.8  
Life, physical, and social science occupations0.9  
Community and social services occupations  1.3
Legal occupations0.8  
Education, training, and library occupations6.2  
Arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations1.3  
Health-care practitioners and technical occupations5.0  
Health-care support occupations  2.6
Protective service occupations  2.3
Personal care and service occupations  2.4
Sales and related occupations10.7  
Office and administrative support occupations17.5  
Farming, fishing, and forestry occupations  0.3
Food preparation and serving-related occupations 8.3 
Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations 3.3 
Construction and extraction occupations 4.9 
Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations 4.1 
Production occupations 7.9 
Transportation and material moving occupations 7.4 


Theoretical treatments of white-collar work have struggled to identify consistent patterns, hampered in part by the diversity of definitions. One of the most famous, C. Wright Millss White Collar, focused on administrative staff in large corporations in the late 1940s. Mills found that these workers were caught in a psychology of prestige striving, with no independent basis of identity, and he predicted they would remain a weak and confused force socially and politically. Marxist treatments, such as that of Nicos Poulantzas, have also often suggested that white-collar workers lack a clear class identity and can potentially be drawn to either side of the primary class divide. Some, however, have identified distinct and independent forms of white-collar consciousness: Barbara and John Ehrenreich sketched a new professional-managerial class; Robert Merton sketched a bureaucratic personality based on strong sentiments which entail devotion to ones duties, a keen sense of the limitations of ones authority and competence, and methodical performance of routine activities; and Olivier Zunz suggests that middle managers and professionals in America have adopted a distinctive rational ethic. Scholars of Nazi Germany, meanwhile, have suggested that white-collar workers provided a reactionary base for Hitlers rise (Kocka 1980).


The growth of white-collar occupations has posed a new problem for economic analysts: The productivity of these workers is very hard to measure. There was deep concern in the 1980s about the slowdown of productivity growth, especially in the white-collar and technical ranks. However, this concern was accompanied by a debate about whether the slowdown was real or merely an artifact of measurement failure. Steven Roach, the chief economist at the investment bank Morgan Stanley, suggests that it may well be that white-collar productivity improvements are simply much harder to come by than blue-collar ones (Roach 1998).

A good deal of attention has been paid to the potential for unionization of this sector. Many scholars and practitioners have assumed that white-collar workers are resistant to unionism because of their identification with management, and for the first half of the twentieth century their unionization rate was apparently very low. In some countries, such as Sweden, however, white-collar employees (including managers) have formed strong unions of their own; and since the 1950s there has been a substantial growth of white-collar unionism in the United States as wellespecially among professionals such as teachers and nurses.

Among the most dramatic and important developments since the 1970s has been the breaking of the widely recognized psychological contract of loyalty and job security between corporations and their white-collar forces. Beginning with the 1974 recession, and accelerating greatly in the 1980s, corporate managers began to explicitly consider middle managers as a focus of potential cost saving. This was in part a rational response to the growing weight of white-collar labor costs, but it was also linked to a broader ideological shift that downplayed the value of stability and security and emphasized instead values of entrepreneurship and individual risk taking. Though economists have found only modest evidence of real changes in white-collar employment tenures, there has been strong documentation (e.g., Leinberger & Tucker 1991, Heckscher 1995, Cappelli 1999, and Newman 1998) of a sharp shift in mindset among managers and technical staffs. There is now a mix of fear and anger at the loss of security and enthusiasm for new opportunities, though this mindset has not yet settled into a consistent attitude toward the widespread changes these workers are facing.

SEE ALSO Blue Collar and White Collar; Employment; Management; Mills, C. Wright; Occupational Status; Self-Employment


Cappelli, Peter. 1999. The New Deal at Work. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO. 2003. Current Statistics on White Collar Employees. Washington, DC: AFL-CIO.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, and John Ehrenreich. 1979. The Professional Managerial Class. In Between Labor and Capital, ed. P. Walker, 545. Boston: South End Press.

Heckscher, Charles. 1995. White-Collar Blues: Management Loyalties in an Age of Corporate Restructuring. New York: Basic Books.

Kocka, Jürgen. 1980. White-Collar Workers in America, 18901940: A Social-Political History in International Perspective. London: Sage.

Leinberger, Paul, and Bruce Tucker. 1991. The New Individualists: The Generation after the Organization Man. New York: HarperCollins.

Machlup, Fritz. 1962. Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Merton, Robert K. 1940. Bureaucratic Structure and Personality. Social Forces 18 (4): 560568.

Meyer, G. J. 1995. Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America. New York: Franklin Square Press.

Mills, C. Wright. 1951. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press.

Morton, John D. 1987. BLS Prepares to Broaden Scope of Its White-Collar Pay Survey. Monthly Labor Review 110 (3): 37. http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/1987/03/art1exc.htm.

Newman, Katherine S. 1988. Falling From Grace: The Experience of Downward Mobility in the American Middle Class. New York: Free Press.

Porat, Marc Uri. 1977. The Information Economy: Definition and Measurement. Vol. 1. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Office of Telecommunications.

Poulantzas, Nicos. 1973. On Social Classes. New Left Review 78 (March- April): 2754.

Prandy, K., A. Stewart, and R. M. Blackburn. 1983. White-Collar Unionism. London: Macmillan.

Roach, Stephen S. 1998. Is Information Technology Creating a Productivity Boom? Issues in Science and Technology Online, Summer. http://www.issues.org/14.4/roach.htm.

Sturmthal, Adolf, ed. 1966. White-Collar Trade Unions: Contemporary Developments in Industrialized Societies. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Tomasko, Robert M. 1987. Downsizing: Reshaping the Corporation for the Future. New York: Amacom.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 2006. Change Has Come to the ECI. Washington, DC: BLS. http://www.bls.gov/ncs/ect/sp/ecsm0001.htm. U.S. Census Bureau. American Factfinder. www.census.gov.

Wolff, Edward N. 2005. The Growth of Information Workers. Communications of the ACM 48 (10).

Wright, Erik Olin, and Bill Martin. 1987. The Transformation of the American Class Structure, 19601980. American Journal of Sociology 93 (1): 129.

Zunz, Olivier. 1990. Making America Corporate, 18701920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Charles Heckscher

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