What Does White-Collar Mean? (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Nov. 16, 2020

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Do you see yourself as part of the white-collar club? Here’s a bit about what white-collar really means. We’ll share some history about how the term white-collar developed. Plus, what is expected out of white-collar workers.

Historically, white-collar workers mean professionals who wear a suit and tie to work. They specialize in professional careers such as executive, managerial, or administrative work. They are the corporate crowd.

History of the Term White-Collar Workers

In the 1930s, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Upton Sinclair developed the term “white-collar” workers for highly educated employees instead of blue-collar workers.

The term “white-collar” is credited to Upton Sinclair, an American writer, in relation to contemporary clerical, administrative, and management workers during the 1930s, though references to white-collar work appear as early as 1935.

Malcolm McDowell wrote the following in Chicago Commerce on June 12th, 1914. “The white-collar men are your clerks; they are your bookkeepers, your cashiers, your office men. We call them the ‘white-collar men’ to distinguish them from the men who work with uniforms and overalls and carry the dinner pails.”

The term was coined because, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, male office workers almost always had to wear white, collared dress shirts as part of their business professional attire.

By contrast, blue-collared workers had to do manual labor. A quintessential example of blue-collar life is from the television show Laverne and Shirley. Best friends Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney work together at the Shotz Brewery in Milwaukee. That fighting spirit can be heard in their theme song, “Give us any chance we’ll take it, Read us any rule we’ll break it.
We’re going to make our dreams come true.”

Blue-collar laborers perform unskilled manual labor and work hard for their money. These careers include trade occupations such as mechanics, plumbers, electricians, factory workers, firefighters, coal miners, masons, bricklayers, boilermakers, welders, machinist, carpenters, and more. Most of these jobs require a high school diploma and apprenticeships or on-the-job experience.

The show Dirty Jobs depicts people performing dangerous or disgusting blue-collar jobs. Some of the worst include sewer inspector, snake researcher, cow inseminator, and shark suit tester.

Actually, the demand for blue-collar workers is increasing. Many blue-collar jobs are now being sent overseas in hopes of lower labor costs. Much of the workforce is being attracted to high paying white-collar jobs. Blue-collar workers are disappearing and in hot demand now. Blue-collar industries are focused on recruitment and retention to keep their workforce alive in these trying times.

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What Sets White-Collar Workers Apart

As a member of the white-collar group, there is an unwritten set of rules about what is expected for your professional behavior.

  • They dress professionally for work. This means a suit and tie. In some work environments, business casual attire, such as a shirt, tie, and pants will do. Many Silicon Valley companies are now switching to casual attire as the new white-collar norm.

  • They work in a corporate office environment. Generally, there are private offices for executive officers with cubicles for other staff. Blue-collar workers are in factories and shops in careers like mechanics, electricians, welders, or plumbers.

  • Most of their work is mental work performed at a desk with a computer and phone. Most blue-collar workers are doing physical labor, getting their hands dirty.

  • White-collar workers have higher-paying jobs and are higher-level skills. According to Study.com, the best-paying white-collar jobs range from $120,000 to $208,000 per year. Top paying white-collar career choices are physician, lawyer, financial manager, marketing manager, computer and information systems manager, and chief executives.

  • Most white-collar workers are salaried. By contrast, blue-collar workers earn hourly wages.

  • White-collar workers generally require four-year professional college degrees such as bachelor’s, master’s, or professional degree. Most blue-collar workers perform unskilled labor or learned trades.

  • Most white-collar workers belong to a higher social class because of their greater wealth, education, and prestige. It’s about the have’s and the have nots.

  • Many white-collar workers go out to lunch. While many of their blue-collar workers bring a lunch box with a packed lunch.

What Careers Are White-Collar

Curious about what kind of careers are white-collar? Daniel Pink, the #1 NYT bestselling author, says, “A lot of white-collar work requires less of the routine, rule-based, what we might call an algorithmic set of capabilities, and more of the harder-to-outsource, harder-to-automate, non-routine, creative, juristic – as the scholars call it – abilities.”

According to Wikipedia, white-collar workers include job paths related to government, consulting firms, academia, accountancy, business, and executive management, management consulting, customer support, market research, finance, human resources, operations research, marketing, information technology, networking, attorneys, medical professionals, architects, research and development and contracting.

What’s Expected of White-Collared Workers

Being a member of the white-collar class comes with a certain set of business etiquette. These are the rules of engagement of the white-collar group.

  1. Dress smart. Being sharp-dressed makes you feel confident and command respect. Wear proper fitting clothes. The shirts should be clean and crisp. Pants should be pressed. Wear dressy shoes.

  2. Greet others by their name. Names are precious. Knowing and acknowledging someone by name is a sign of respect

  3. Give a firm handshake and while looking them in the eye.

  4. Actively listen. This shows you are engaged and value their thoughts.

  5. Introduce others. If you are having a conversation and someone else walks up, introduce them to each other.

  6. Proofread. Watch your grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Your higher level of work demands close attention to detail. Grammarly is a free app that makes your writing more precise and effective.

  7. Be professional always. Don’t say something that would come back to bite you later. If something sets you off, take a time out and look at it again later.

  8. Be punctual. When you are late, it reflects negatively on you.

  9. Practice good hygiene. If you worked in the garden over the weekend, clean your nails. If you ride your bike to work, clean up before you change into your work clothes. Keep some breath mints and extra deodorant at work if needed.

  10. Mind your manners. White-collar workers have class. Be kind and courteous. Say please and thank you. Don’t look at your phone when you are speaking to someone.

  11. Keep your desk tidy. If you are earning six figures, you can’t have your office be a mess. Great leaders have a tidy desk. They are organized and efficient.

Climbing the Corporate Ladder of the White-Collar World

One of the key differences about being white-collar is that there are many levels of advancement. You can get hired at entry-level and work your way up the corporate ladder. This corporate hierarchy is motivating in that hard work reaps rewards and advancement.

So what do you need to know to get to the top as a white-collar worker?

Promotions mean raises. It can mean bonuses. You can earn more vacation time. You get titles. But the best reward is respect.

So you aren’t stuck in a dead-end job. You can create a career blueprint of your design. Visualize where you want to be.

Communicate your desires for advancement to your boss. Ask what steps you need to advance. What skills do you need to cultivate? Get the training and experience you need.

Ready to Begin Your White-Collar Career?

Becoming a white-collar worker opens up a whole new world of opportunity. It can be challenging and financially rewarding. You’ll have responsibilities on your plate. You can position yourself for success.

It’s all about getting noticed, proving yourself, a developing yourself for advancement. You will thrive on the fulfillment you get from taking on new responsibilities and building up others. Make yourself indispensable and irreplaceable in any company, no matter what’s going on with the economy.

I hope you enjoyed learning more about the history of white-collar workers, the expectations, and business etiquette.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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