What Is the Working Class?

Working Class Explained in Less Than 4 Minutes

A server sets out water glasses on a table in a restaurant.
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Definition
“Working class” typically refers to a subsection of the labor force that works in the service or industrial sectors and does not hold a four-year college degree.

“Working class” typically refers to a subsection of the labor force that works in the service or industrial sectors and does not hold a four-year college degree. The qualifying characteristics of the working class, however, are not universally agreed upon and the definition can vary by the individual.

Keep reading to learn more about how the working class works, the different types of occupation, and the various challenges these workers face.

Definition and Examples of Working Class

The term “working class” often typically describes members of the labor force that hold a service-type occupation and do not hold a bachelor’s degree. Common working class occupations include restaurant employees, auto mechanics, construction workers, and other service-type workers.

  • Alternate name: Blue-collar workers

Note

Defining the working class is highly subjective and can vary by the analyst. Common indicators of membership in the working class include certain levels of annual household income, net worth, and education. 

For example, let’s say a researcher classifies working-class workers as those who do not hold a college degree and are between the ages of 18 and 64 years old. Sally, who is 33 years old, works as a grocery store clerk, and did not go to college would be considered a member of the working class.

How Does the Working Class Work?

Many analysts use education level as an indicator of membership in the working class since educational credentials typically do not fluctuate as frequently as income

For example, two employees may have the same degree and hold the same position within a company. However, one employee may not identify as working class because they have worked for the company for 10 years and make 50% more than the other employee.

Researchers rely on other indicators, such as net worth, the type of job, or how much autonomy an individual holds in their job position, as well.

Generally, the working class works jobs in food and retail, blue-collar work, caregiving, or some type of cubicle position. Some common examples of working-class occupations can include:

  • Factory workers
  • Restaurant workers
  • Nursing home staff
  • Automotive professionals
  • Delivery services

In 2015, the retail industry employed more working-class adults than the manufacturing, minor, and construction industries combined. That same year, the health care industry also experienced a notable increase in working-class jobs.

Diversity in the Working Class

The racial diversity makeup of the working class has evolved over the years. Around the 1940s, white workers comprised 88% of the working-class labor force. In 2015, this figure dropped to 58.9%, while African Americans and Hispanic Americans made up 13.7% and 20.9% of the working-class labor force respectively. The number of working-class women also increased, comprising 45.6% of the working class in 2015—it was less than 30% in 1940.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the working class, ages 18 to 64 years old, will become the majority people of color by 2032.

Criticism of the Working Class

As mentioned, there is no universal definition of the working class. Since education, income, occupation, and other factors can vary by the individual, it can be difficult to accurately measure the size and characteristics of the working class.

Some say retirement can skew the data if the analyst uses education as a working class indicator. A retired American, for example, may have not held a four-year college degree but do not identify as working class because they are not actually working. 

Some analysts may still consider those who do not hold college degrees and are unemployed as part of the working class.

Note

In some cases, researchers may choose to avoid using the term “working class” altogether and instead classify individuals by lower, middle, and upper class.

What It Means for Working-Class Workers

Working-class workers between the ages of 25 and 54, on average, are more likely to report a concern regarding their financial situation.

Some say wage stagnation is a significant factor that affects the financial health of working-class workers, who may not share in the wealth they generate. The rising cost of living exacerbates these financial concerns among working-class workers.

Some organizations advocate for laws that increase working power by making it easier to unionize in an effort to increase the quality of industrial jobs. More full employment opportunities, increased public employment, and apprenticeships can potentially also ease the struggles of the working class.

Key Takeaways

  • While there is no universal definition of “working class,” the term commonly refers to workers in the service sector who hold less than a four-year college degree.
  • Historically predominately white and male, the U.S. working class has become increasingly diverse in recent decades.
  • Some common challenges the working class may face include wage stagnation, declining worker power, and meeting the rising cost of living.
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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Economic Policy Institute. "People of Color Will be a Majority of the American Working Class in 2032." Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

  2. Center for American Progress Action Fund. "What Everyone Should Know About America’s Diverse Working Class." Nov. 29, 2021. 

  3. Demos. "Understanding the Working Class." Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

  4. Class Matters. "Working Definitions." Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

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