Working class is a term used in academic sociology and in ordinary conversation. In common with other terms relevant to social class, it is defined and used in many different ways, depending on context and speaker. The term incorporates references to education, to occupation, to culture, and to income. When used non-academically, it typically refers to a section of society dependent on physical labor, especially when remunerated with an hourly wage.
Casual and geographical usage differs widely; in extreme cases, well-paid university-educated professionals in the United Kingdom may self-identify as working class based on family background, while many semi-skilled and skilled laborers in the United States are characterized as middle-class. It is usually contrasted with the upper class and middle class in terms of access to economic resources, education and cultural interests. Its usage as a description can be pejorative, but many people self-identify as working class and experience a sense of pride analogous to a national identity. Working classes are mainly found in industrialized economies and in urban areas of non-industrialized economies.
The variation between different socio-political definitions makes the term controversial in social usage, and its use in academic discourse as a concept, and as a subject of study itself, is very contentious, especially following the decline of manual labor in postindustrial societies. Some academics (sociologists, historians, political theorists, etc.) question the usefulness of the concept of a working class, while others use some version of the concept.
In the United States, and the United Kingdom, sociologists Dennis Gilbert, James Henslin, William Thompson, Joseph Hickey and Thomas Ayling have brought forth class models in which the working class constitutes roughly one third of the population with the majority of the population being either working or lower class.
Working-class families were filled with poverty, violence, angry, and pain. But I have a doubt whether the worlds of pain represent all members’ lives in the working-class at that time.
However in the 19th century at least 80% of the population was working class. In order to be considered middle class you had to have at least one servant. Most servants were female. (Male servants were much more expensive because men were paid much higher wages). Throughout the century ‘service’ was a major employer of women.
In the United States, the concept of a working class remains vaguely defined. As many members of the working class, as defined by academic models, are often identified in the vernacular as being middle class, there is considerable ambiguity over the term’s meaning. Sociologists such as Dennis Gilbert and Joseph Kahl see the working class as the most populous in the United States, while other sociolgists such as William Thompson, Joseph Hickey and James Henslin deem the lower middle class slightly more populous. In the class models devised by these sociologists, the working class comprises between 30% and 35% of the population, roughly the same percentages as the lower middle class. According to the class model by Dennis Gilbert, the working class compromises those between the 25th and 55th percentile of society. Those in the working class are commonly employed in clerical, retail sales and low skill manual labor occupations. It should be noted that low-level white collar employees are included in this class. Economic and occupational insecurity have become a major problem for working class employees. While out-sourcing has brought considerable economic insecurity to working class employees in the “traditional” blue collar fields, there is an ever increasing demand for service personnel, including clerical and retail occupations.
The socio-economic disposition of this class is largely a result of lacking educational attainment, which has become more and more essential in the American economy. Members of the working class commonly have a high school diploma and few have some or any college education. With the increasing complexity of the nation’s economy, more and more employers require their clerical staff to attain at least some post-secondary education, which in turn provides increased opportunity for working class employees. Due to differences between middle and working class culture and value systems, working class college students may face “culture shock” upon entering the post-secondary education system. Research conducted by sociologist Melvin Kohn showed that working class values emphasized external standards, such as obedience and a strong respect for authority as well as little tolerance for deviance. This is opposed to middle class individuals who emphasized internal standards, self-direction, curiosity and a tolerance for non-conformity. A class-cultural difference between working and middle class culture noted by other social scientists and professors such as Barbara Jensen shows that middle class culture tends to be highly individualistic while working class culture tends to center around the community. Such cultural value differences are closely linked to an individual’s occupation. Working class employees tend to be closely supervised and thus emphasize external values and obedience. One does need to note, however, that there were great variations in cultural values among the members of all classes and that any statement pertaining to the cultural values of such large social groups needs to be seen as a broad generalization.
According to Rubin (1976) there is a differential in social and emotional skills both between working class men and women and between the blue-color working class and college-educated workers. Working class men are characterized by Rubin as taking a rational posture while women are characterized as being more emotional and oriented towards communication of feelings. This constellation of issues has been explored in the popular media, for example, the television shows, Roseanne or All in the Family featuring Archie Bunker and his wife Edith Bunker. These popular television programs also explored generational change and conflict in working class families.
As the working class is divided among nations, and internally divided along very broad lines of rural, blue collar and white collar occupations, there is no one unitary culture. Working class cultures tend to be identified on national and occupational bases; for instance, Australian rural working class culture, or New Zealand white collar working class culture. There are, however, many stereotypes of the working class. These and other stereotypes of working class are studied in painstaking detail by sociologist Isaac Ogburn in “Life at the Bottom”.
The Progressive movement supported changes in social policy that would create more nuclear families. Progressives and trade unionists sought to limit women’s work and to outlaw child labor. They did this by attempting to close unhealthy sweatshops. They also promoted better housing so that families could have comfortable surroundings. The unions and Progressives were generally successful in gaining bans on child labor in Northern states, although many poor parents and businesses opposed these laws. Some of the poor and traditionalists resisted restrictions on child labor because they believed children needed work experience, not an education.
Rising wages for male workers, the absence of union protection for women workers, and mandatory education laws allowed, or forced, more Americans to realize the domestic ideal. These changes came later to the South, which was poorer and less industrialized. Retirement funds, savings banks, and pension plans meant that older Americans were less dependent on their children’s wages. The gradual development of workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance allowed families to survive even with the loss of the breadwinner’s income.
Racism and prejudice also played a part in social policy. Single white girls who became pregnant were secretly sent to special homes and required to give up their babies for adoption so that they could return to their “real” lives. Black girls in the same circumstances were considered immoral and examples of the supposed inferiority of African Americans. They were sent home to rear their children by themselves; a few were forcibly sterilized.
More and more young women graduated from high school and went to college, instead of working to help support their families or to subsidize a brother’s education. As young men and women delayed work and substantial responsibility, a youth culture developed during and after World War II. High school students embraced separate fashions from their parents, new forms of music and dance, slang expressions, and sometimes freer attitudes toward sexuality, smoking, or drug use that created a generation gap between parents and children. Yet parents were anxious to provide their children with advantages that had not existed during the depression and war years.
The 1950s and 1960s produced a period of unparalleled prosperity in the United States. Factories were kept busy filling orders from a war-devastated world. White-collar jobs expanded, wages were high, mortgage and tuition money was available thanks to federal support, and goods were relatively cheap. This economic prosperity allowed more Americans to become more middle class. The ideal middle-class family was epitomized in the new medium of television through shows such as Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet, in which fathers arrived home from work ready to solve any minor problem, mothers were always cheerful and loving, and children were socially and academically successful. These shows reflected the fact that a majority of Americans now owned their own home, a car, and a television, and were marrying earlier and having more children than earlier generations.
This idealized middle-class American family began to show cracks during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In response to the demands on men to create and support expensive domestic paradises, a mythical world of adventure and freedom eventually arose in popular culture. Movies about secret agents and Western gunslingers contrasted with the regimented suburban, corporate lifestyle of many men. The demands on women to be all things to all people—a sexy wife, a caring, selfless mother, a budget-minded shopper, a creative cook, and a neighborhood volunteer—and to find satisfaction in a shining kitchen floor often produced anxious feelings of dissatisfaction.