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The term white-collar worker refers to a salaried professional or an educated worker who performs semi-professional office, administrative, and sales coordination tasks, as opposed to a blue-collar worker, whose job requires manual labor. "White-collar work" is an informal term, defined in contrast to "blue-collar work".
Origin of the term
The term 'white collar' was first used by Upton Sinclair in relation to modern clerical, administrative and management workers during the 1930s. Sinclair's usage is related to the fact that, during most of the 19th and 20th centuries, male office workers in European and American countries almost always had to wear dress shirts, which had collars and were usually white. Additionally, in the factory system of the 20th century Western world, the color of overalls, or coveralls, indicated a person's occupational status: blue for workers, brown for foremen, and white for professional staff.
The proportion of white collar workers in the United States steadily increased from 17% of employees in 1900 to 59.4% (Bureau of the Census, 1990, p380) of employees having white-collar jobs in 1998. This is likely due to the recent technological revolution, and changes in the economic structure of the United States.
Formerly a minority in the agrarian and early industrial societies, they have become a majority in industrialized countries. The recent technological revolution has created disproportionately more desk jobs, and lessened the number of employees doing manual work in factories. Generally, the pay rate is higher among white-collar workers, although many of the "white-collar" workers are not necessarily upper-middle class or of privilege as the term once implied.
Also, an increasing number of companies do not have any blue-collar workers because they do not physically manufacture anything within their home country, but instead have an entire hierarchy of white-collar desk workers who manage the outsourced blue-collar workers.[How to reference and link to summary or text] In this type of corporate environment, the ranking is less signified by the clothing, but may be strikingly apparent by the quality of the work space, the responsibilities delegated, the privileges granted, and by the salary itself.
In recent times workers have had varying degrees of latitude about their choice of dress. Dress codes can range from relaxed - with employees allowed to wear jeans and street clothes—up to traditional office attire. Many companies today operate in a business casual environment—where employees are required to wear dress pants (business trousers) or skirts and a shirt with a collar. Because of this, not all of what would be called white-collar workers in fact wear the traditional white shirt and tie.
As an example of workspace contrast, the higher ranking executives may have large corner offices with impressive views and expensive furnishings, where the lesser ranked desk clerks may share small, windowless cubicles with plain utilitarian furniture. As an example of the differing responsibilities, the higher ranked worker will usually have a more broad and fundamental responsibility in the company whereas the subordinates will be delegated more specific, and limited tasks. The cases of differing privilege and salary speak for themselves.
At some companies, the "white-collar employees" also on occasion perform "blue-collar" tasks (or vice versa), and even change their clothing to perform the distinctive roles, i.e., dressing up or dressing down as the case requires. This is common in the food service industry. An example would be a manager at a restaurant who may wear more formal clothing than lower-ranked employees, yet still sometimes assist with cooking food or taking customers' orders. Employees of event-catering companies often wear formal clothing when serving food.
As salaried employees, white-collar workers are sometimes members of white-collar labor unions and they can resort to strike action to settle grievances with their employers, when collective bargaining fails. This is far more the case in Europe than in the United States, where less than 10 percent of all private sector employees are union members. White-collar workers have a reputation for being skeptical or opposed to unions, and tend to see their advancement in work as tied to their reaching corporate goals rather than in union membership.
The American sociologist C. Wright Mills conducted a major study of the white-collar workers in White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951). He claimed that alienation among the white-collar workers was high, because they were not only selling their time but also had to sell their personality with a "smile on their faces", referring to insurance sales people like his own father.
- Clerical personnel
- Management personnel
- The Theory of the Leisure Class
- White Collar: The American Middle Classes
- Salaryman (Japan)
- Sales personnel
- Secretarial personnel
- White-collar crime
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