What do we mean by ‘working class’?

William Galston provides highlights from a Pew survey of how party support has shifted over the past twenty years. He writes,

Democrats’ advantage in urban counties has shot up from 18 to 31 points, while Republicans have gone from a tie with Democrats in rural areas to a 16-point lead today.

He gives many other examples. He does not say so, but most of the demographic categories that favor Democrats are growing larger, while those that favor Republicans are shrinking. I recommend the entire column.

But I was most struck by this sentence fragment:

among voters with no more than a high school diploma—the so-called working class

In 1950, if you added together manufacturing production workers and mine workers, you could get a large enough total to constitute a “class.” I would guess close to one-third of adult males, maybe more. They made the AFL-CIO a big deal.

Today, those two groups would be much less than 10 percent of all employment. So, less than 5 percent of adult males? In any case, not enough to really call a class. So Galston has to describe working class as “no more than a high school diploma,” and he has to include the qualifier “so-called.”

My point is not to knock Galston or to deny the significance of differences based on educational attainment. I’m fine talking about a social or political divide that correlates with education. I just want to get rid of the term “working class.” In the 21st century, I don’t see how it can be defined in a useful way.

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13 Responses to What do we mean by ‘working class’?

  1. I don’t see what’s wrong with Adam Smith’s/Karl Marx’s original identification of classes since their scheme has predictive power for how different individuals will behave politically.

    Landlords are those who obtain a majority of their incomes through rent.

    Capitalists are those who obtain a majority of their incomes from capital (interest, dividends, capital gains, profits).

    Workers are those who can reasonably expect to get a majority of their income in their lifetimes from wages, salaries, piece-work, or contract labor (1099 workers).

    “Small capitalists” or “petit-bourgeois” are those “workers,” such as certain types of professionals, high-ranking managers, and CEOs, who currently do have to work for a majority of their income, but who earn a high enough wage such that they will have a reasonable expectation of earning a majority of their income in their lifetimes from capital.

    The lumpenproletariat are those who earn a majority of their income from charity, crime, and/or government assistance.

    How do you tell apart the savings of a worker and the profit of a capitalist?

    First, was the income more dependent on one or two employers (worker’s savings) or on the market as a whole (capitalist’s profits)?

    Second, was the income more dependent on objectively socially-necessary tasks performed (in which case it is worker’s savings) or was the income the result of tasks that only appear useful under our historically-specific legal framework—such as temporarily relinquishing control over a factory or other resources to others in return for either a fixed monetary claim or a variable claim on the resulting product (in which case it is profits).

    Note that many capitalists also earn “wages of superintendence” from directly managing their capital, in which case their wages can be identified by what it would cost them to hire a manager to perform those tasks and thus become a truly passive capitalist; the leftover income is then capital income.

    • JK Brown says:

      Never be accepted. As your definition shows, most of those who look down upon the “working class” as they say it are themselves working class. They may have a graduate degree, but they get up everyday to do tasks assigned to them by others for wages, as well as benefits paid for in whole or large portion by the estate, I mean company, such as healthcare, childcare and in a lot of high tech, meals. They are “hired (wo)men”, i.e., the working class.

      While many of the working class meant in today’s lingo are small business owners, i.e., working capitalists, with welding, plumbing, electrical, etc. going enterprises.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      First, was the income more dependent on one or two employers (worker’s savings) or on the market as a whole (capitalist’s profits)?

      So if you don’t have a diversified portfolio, you’re not a capitalist?

    • T Boyle says:

      Sounds about right. And yes, it means that most of us graduate-degreed white collar workers are 21st Century working class, with hopes of making it into the middle class.

      And most people who think themselves middle class, aren’t.

  2. collin says:

    I still think the WWC from the Rust Belt is making a huge mistake at defining the WWC as mine and factory workers. It may have been true from 1950 – 1980 but it is anymore. So heavily rejecting the Southwest Hispanic-Americans and working class jobs that women dominate (med techs, nursing, etc.), they are not building a long term political coalition and only getting short term gains under Trump and a tighter labor market. Judging by the First Energy bankruptcy the gains are going well are already at risk. I am not against a government assisted bankruptcy similar to Obama auto bailout but First Energy needs a bankruptcy and have the court sort out the damage.

  3. Moo cow says:

    How many coal miners are there in Appalachia? I looked it up once. Maybe 80 or 90 thousand. It hasnt been significant for decades.

    300,000 retail workers lose their jobs and everyones like…meh…

    Nurses…well, my cousin is a nurse. His wife is a teacher. Their household income is in the top 10%. Working class?

    If you dont think of it as WWC, picturing the working class is much easier.

    • 3d says:

      Similar in Australia. Professions supported by taxpayers, directly or indirectly, are well paid.

      A senior teacher can expect AUD103-106k; nurse with roster penalties AUD80k through to nurse practitioners AUD140, public transport train drivers AUD110k+, police AUD80k+ and so on. Approximately 20% of public servant bureaucrats are executive level AUD140k-700k with thousands earning more than the most senior politicians, including the Foreign Minister, the Treasurer and the Prime Minister.

  4. edgar says:

    WC = hourly employees of taxed employers.

    The most underappreciated and significant fissure in the US today is between people working in the taxed economy and those in the tax-exempt universe.

  5. John says:

    I would say that “working class” describes people who have to be at a certain place at a certain time and perform certain tasks all as defined by a supervisor.

    Someone who makes money through rent (whether of fixed property or stock exchange assets or operating an automatic machine such as a cryptocurrency miner) or by making it at a time and place of their own volition (eg art painter, writer, potter, software developer) is something else. I don’t think there is a word for that, “capitalist” doesn’t seem to fit. “Landlord” refers to fixed property only.

  6. Butler T. Reynolds says:

    The definition is certainly wrong. Those of us sitting in cubicles all day are more like the factory workers of days past, shielded from dealing with government by legal, accounting, and HR departments.

    Yet, the small business owner who actually hires others and deals with the full brunt of Washington’s largess is considered working class.

    In some ways, nothing has changed. As in the past, the Democrats get support from those of us who are herded in to more urban areas, marching in to our workplaces each morning to perform our narrowly specialized tasks.

  7. Tom G says:

    Working “class” is a good phrase, and most folks feel comfy using it and thinking they know who it applies to. Workers who have jobs but not college degrees — and the jobs pay less than about $75 k (~ median income + 50%).

    They’re also NOT entrepreneurs, and usually not members of the gig economy.

    Not college educated is a real class. Working class is a good description.

  8. Paul says:

    Twenty percent do not finish high school and only 30 percent complete a four year degree or higher.

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