Who is working class?

The question we’re asked most often at the Center for Working-Class Studies is “Who is working class today?” Despite the stereotype of the traditional blue-collar industrial worker, the working class is and always has been diverse – racially, politically, geographically, and occupationally. The working class can’t be defined simply, nor do they fit neatly into any box. That said, here’s how we approach class at the CWCS.

Class is a way of describing the hierarchy of society. Where you fit on the social class ladder affects your opportunities in life, because it determines your social, cultural, and financial resources. For example, statistics show that people from more elite families are significantly more likely to graduate from college than those who come from working-class or poor families. And having a college degree correlates with increased income and opportunity. One way of defining the difference between the middle class and the working class is level of education. College graduates are more likely to be middle class.

Class divisions are based primarily on economics. Where you fit in the class structure depends on the nature of the work you do as well as how much money you earn, how much wealth you have, and how much control you have over other people’s labor. Anyone who works for an hourly wage and whose work is closely supervised is working class. That includes traditional blue-collar workers, most clerical workers, restaurant and retail workers, and many others. Someone who earns a salary and has significant autonomy in the workplace is middle class or professional class.  That would include many mid-level workers in large companies, teachers, some retail managers, and many medical professionals. If you run the company, you belong to the upper class, especially if your position comes with the kind of paycheck and benefits that put you in the top 1 or 2% for household wealth.

Class is political in the sense that it creates allegiances and divisions based on shared or competing interests. In the workplace, it’s in the interests of owners or managers to get as much labor from each worker for as low a cost as possible, but it’s in the worker’s interest to get as much money as possible for their work. Beyond the workplace, government policies such as labor regulations or tax laws that benefit corporations or the wealthy often harm workers and people without significant savings or property. And, as this year’s election demonstrates, class matters in the voting booth.

But class is also a matter of culture. People in different classes think and behave differently. Research suggests that working-class people place a higher value on the good of the group, whether that be the family, coworkers, or the neighborhood, than middle-class people do. Working-class culture focuses on everyday life, while middle-class or professional-class families tend to focus on individual advancement. In addition, how we think about class is shaped by how our culture views class. What we see on TV, read in the newspaper, and hear from friends and family will influence what we think class means, and that shapes how we think about our own class positions.

Even with this definition, class can be confusing. Is a truck driver working-class or middle-class? That might depend on whether she owns the truck, but it might also depend on how she thinks of herself. How should we respond to the differences between a home health aide who earns $8.50 an hour and a unionized autoworker, who earns more than twice that much? What difference does race make? Or place?

No definition can adequately capture the complexity and diversity of the working class is today. But regardless of the nuances, working-class people have some things in common – strong commitment to family and community, economic vulnerability, a solid work ethic, occupational health risks, negative cultural stereotypes, limited access to education, and a significant number of votes in key states. This year, with an important election and a faltering economy, the working class matters perhaps more than ever.

— Sherry Linkon