Some see the division of “white collar” and “blue collar” as nothing more than a job title, but others feel the two signify different social classes. While the definition may be up for debate, the change in blue- and white-collar employment over the decades is undeniable. If you look at the data, the shift in employment is indicative of major changes in America.
Blue-Collar Jobs Pre-1950
In the early 20th century, people began moving away from farms and into America’s growing cities. This rural exodus led to huge increases in blue-collar workers. America was growing, and it needed hard workers who were willing to get dirty to help build it.
One look at the New York City skyline over the years is indicative of increasing blue-collar employment opportunities. The first skyscrapers went up in 1913, but as the “race to the sky” continued, the skyline became more packed by the year. The entire skyline needed blue-collar workers to build it.
1950s: White-Collar Jobs Sneak Up
Prior to the 1950s, white-collar employment was miniscule relative to blue-collar employment. In the post-war era, however, things began to shift. Suburban-living, college-educated corporate workers were a consistently increasing demographic, but the 1950s is the first time they made up a significant proportion of America’s labor market.
The shift was so unexpected and decried that a social construct emerged that white-collar jobs were held by passive men who had lost their masculinity. Even this belief, however, did little to stymie the growth of white-collar jobs in America.
1960s: A Passive Acceptance
While the idea of “real men” having blue-collar jobs was pervasive in the 1950s, this changed in the 1960s. Even previous blue-collar workers accepted their upward mobility into white-collar jobs. In fact, 22 percent of workers who went into white-collar work had at least one year of blue-collar experience.
By 1960, a full shift in white-collar and blue-collar jobs had occurred. At this point, blue-collar workers made up only 37 percent of the total workforce.
1970s: Blue-Collar Jobs Hold Strong
In 1970, the share of blue-collar jobs as a percentage of the American workforce dropped to 31.2 percent. This was a significant decline for one decade, but it’s important to note that America wasn’t losing blue-collar jobs. They were simply gaining more white-collar jobs.
By 1979, there were 25 million blue-collar jobs in America. While still a smaller percentage of the labor market, this number would hold strong for decades.
1980-1999: Blue-Collar Jobs Still in the Game
During the ‘80s and ‘90s, blue-collar jobs continued to make up a smaller part of the U.S. labor market. This was an unavoidable reality due to the explosion in the numbers of white-collar jobs and college educated individuals to hold them.
These decades would prove to be the calm before the storm.
2000s: White-Collar Jobs Safer in Recession
In the year 2000, there were an estimated 24.6 million blue-collar jobs out there. This remained relatively unchanged until 2008, and then the Great Recession hit. By 2010, there were only 17.8 million blue-collar jobs in America. This was no surprise, considering the jobless rate for blue-collar workers is at least double that of white-collar workers during recessions.
2010s: A Stark Realization
Following the Great Recession, America awoke to a stark reality: There were too few blue-collar workers. Semi-skilled work became high-demand, and Millennials were quick to pick up the slack. The past century didn’t look promising for blue-collar work, but since the recession, the number of blue-collar jobs has increased to 19.6 million. While this is still well below its peak in 1979, there’s no doubt that blue-collar industries are finally rebounding.
Some may find it difficult to define the exact differences between white and blue collar, but tracking the changes in these areas shows us dramatic social shifts over time. The main lesson to be learned is that America needs both white-collar jobs and blue-collar jobs if it’s going to remain an effective and efficient nation.
Last modified: April 6, 2018