March 09, 2020

The Working Class is More Diverse than You Might Think (and We’ve got Stories to Share)

author photoBy Colby King

We have been hearing a lot about the working class the last few years, in part because many observers of national politics see the white working class as an important voting base. With the 2020 presidential race underway we can expect to see continued debate about how the white working class is likely to vote.

In these discussions, the working class is largely presented as white, male, employed in manufacturing, and often rural. But, these discussions that focus specifically on the white working class give a misleading representation of who comprises the working class altogether.

The working class is larger and much more diverse than many of these narratives reflect. In 2016, Valerie Wilson of the Economic Policy Institute released a report projecting that people of color will be the majority of the working class by 2032. As she explained, “Improving the living standards of working people will necessarily involve bridging racial and ethnic divides and fighting for racial justice.”

Members of the Working-Class Studies Association have been studying definitions of the working class since the organization’s inception, and as Sherry Linkon, a founding member of WCSA illustrated at the Working-Class Perspectives Blog in 2008, the organization regularly works to recognize the working class’s under-appreciated diversity.

Also – chances are that, at least according to many definitions of the working class, you and many people you know are part of it! A popular definition of the working class (and the one Valerie Wilson uses in the report mentioned above) includes anyone who does not have a college degree. There are problems with this definition, as it obscures the working conditions of those being counted, and it can be used (intentionally or unintentionally) to confuse the working class as “uneducated,” which they are not.

Instead, many observers define the class by the specific occupation that a person works in, or what I refer to as occupation-based definitions. Many of these definitions apply the system used by the US Census to categorize all jobs, and you can see a list of all of the more than 500 occupation categories at IPUMS website here. For example, the 1990 Census Bureau classifications include job categories such as bus drivers, hotel clerks, and sawing machine operators and sawyers.

Foundational scholars in working-class studies including Michael Zweig and Jack Metzgar have used variations of this definition. Last year I published a paper in the Journal of Working-Class Studies in which I examined the diversity of the working class through several occupation-based definitions used by Jack Metzgar, Philip Cohen, and then a third definition I adapted from another occupational grouping by Richard Florida.

It might be interesting to reflect on if you, your family members, or your friends would be counted among the working class in these definitions. Since each of these count the working class as a majority of workers in the labor market, chances are very good that you know several people who would be counted as working class.

Jack Metzgar (2003) includes, “everybody who does not fully qualify for the smaller, more exclusive ‘middle class’” (68). So for Metzgar, the working class includes all workers in the other five major categories of the standard occupation schema: all workers in precision production, craft, and repair occupations; technical, sales, and administrative support occupations; operators, fabricators, and laborers; services workers; and farming, forestry, and fishing workers (69).

Sociologist Philip Cohen (2001) developed a narrower definition that groups together workers in the same broad occupational categories but removes people in supervisory and managerial positions. As Cohen (2001) explains, “In 1990 census categories, this definition of working class includes sales workers (except finance and business services and non retail commodities); all technical, sales, and administrative support occupations (except supervisors); all service occupations (except protective service); and all nonsupervisory agriculture and blue-collar workers” (152).

The third definition of the working class that I worked with in this paper is roughly an inversion of Richard Florida’s creative class. I have noted in another paper that not everyone agrees with Florida’s class categories, but these categories may usefully reflect the opportunities for good jobs in the new economy. You can see how each of these three definitions categorize each job in the first table below, and in the following table you can see the descriptive statistics for each of the three definitions. Both tables are adapted from my paper in the Journal of Working-Class Studies (JWCS).

The numbers illustrate how the stereotype of the working class as white, male, rural, uneducated, and old is inaccurate. While the data includes all workers, even those aged 16–25 in each definition, more than 15% of the working class has earned a college degree.

Across all three definitions, more than 12.5% of the working class is non-Hispanic black, and more than 20.8% of the working class is Hispanic (compared to 11.36% and 17.17% of the total labor force, respectively). Regardless of definition, more than 10% of the working class are non-citizens, about twice the proportion among the non-working class. It is true that in each of the three definitions, most of the working class are white, but the working class is consistently less white than the non-working class across these definitions.

Also, all three definitions report mean ages of 40.5–41 years, just below the mean age for the whole workforce, which is 41.96 years. Many occupations within the working class are female dominated, and women are nearly half of the overall working class. The geographic distribution of the working class also shows greater diversity than might be expected. I found that more of the working class lived in central cities than lived outside of metropolitan regions (over 8% and then over 10%, respectively, across all three definitions).

From these data, we also see that the working class is large. Furthermore, while each definition largely overlaps with the others, seeing how large the group of workers becomes when you add together every worker included by at least one definition reveals how much these workers have in common.

In my JWCS paper, I also reported descriptive statistics for a broad definition of the working class that includes any person who would be identified as working class based on any of several definitions. I included all workers who are working-class because they work in an occupation identified as working-class by Metzgar or Cohen, or are a part of the “creative proletariat,” and then I added all workers who have less than a bachelor’s degree and all workers who live at or below 200% of the poverty level. This very broad definition of the working class includes 122,773,708 workers, or 79.18% of the entire workforce.

No definition of the working-class is entirely satisfactory to everyone. Another way of identifying the working-class is through subjective self-identification, or simply asking people what class they think they belong to. This question helps get at how people feel about their own circumstances. The General Social Survey asks this question, and Allison Hurst has conducted some interesting analysis on who self-identifies as working or middle class. For individuals, self-identity may refer to a range of personal characteristics and unique circumstances that complicate analyses in illustrative ways.

For example, I’m privileged to live a relatively middle-class lifestyle, and because I’m working in a full-time tenure track assistant professor position with a reasonable salary, some jobs security, and benefits, the occupation-based definitions would not include me as working class. I still identify as having come from a working-class background, however, not just because of the jobs my family members worked and the class cultural patterns in my family, but also because I still carry a substantial amount of student loan debt (the amount, unfortunately, totals more than my annual income).

With these large and diverse understandings of the working class, the group has stories to share. Debbie Warnock is one of many who have written about the challenges people from working class backgrounds can face in college, and I have written here before about how you can follow academics from first-generation and working-class backgrounds.

Beyond academia, you can also learn more about the diversity of the working class? One way would be to follow the regularly posts at the Working-Class Perspectives Blog. You could also listen to the Working People podcast, from Max Alvarez. The podcast “aims to share and celebrate the diverse stories of working-class people, to remind ourselves that our stories matter, and to build a sense of shared struggle and solidarity between workers around the country.”

You might also follow the work of members of WCSA. WCSA is hosting our annual meeting in May at the location where the organization got started, at Youngstown State University, in celebration of the organization’s 25th anniversary.

Either way, when you see discussion of the working class, be sure to take a close look at who that label is really meant to represent, and keep in mind the size and diversity the working class.

Download Table 1: Standard Occupation Categories by Three Definitions of the Working Class, employed workers in ACS 2017 

Download Table 2: Descriptive Statistics for Three Definitions of the Working Class, employed workers in ACS 2017 



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