White Collar vs. Blue Collar: What’s the Difference?

Updated on January 6, 2024

At a Glance

  • The distinction between white-collar and blue-collar workers is rooted in traditional perceptions of office-based versus manual labor jobs.
  • White-collar workers perform administrative or managerial duties in office environments, while blue-collar workers engage in manual or trade-related labor.
  • Modern factors such as work settings, roles and responsibilities, salary and benefits, and industry examples differentiate these job categories, with some blurring of the lines as skills and innovation gain prominence.

Have you ever heard someone say, “the clothes maketh the man”? This expression refers to our tendency to judge someone based on how they are dressed. The terms white collar vs. blue collar are a great example of this.

Historically the color of a worker’s shirt collar was used to make generalized assumptions about their level of education, their job responsibilities, and even their social class. But are these assumptions still relevant in the modern world? And can these terms still be used to make a valuable distinction between classes or types of workers?

We explore this in more detail below.

White Collar vs. Blue Collar

“White-collar” and “blue-collar” are terms that have strong connotations – partly because they bring vivid images to our minds.

The white-collar worker wears a suit and white shirt to work, their white-collar peeking out below a blazer. The blue-collar worker, on the other hand, has their blue overall collar protecting them from dirt as they do manual labor.

Often, the blue-collar worker is perceived to make less money, be less educated, and belong to a lower social class than his or her white-collar colleague. But are these assumptions of white collar vs. blue collar still relevant based on how our society currently functions?

What is a “White Collar” Worker?

The general definition of a white-collar worker is someone who works in an office at a desk. The term white-collar worker was first applied to people who did administrative work. However, the term has now gradually been expanded to include anyone in an office environment whose job requires clerical, administrative, or managerial duties. Stereotypically, a white-collar worker’s job description would not include physical labor.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought another layer of connotation to the term white-collar worker. As countries enforced stay-at-home policies, many people had to do their jobs remotely. A white-collar worker would find this task relatively easy – their job can generally be done remotely, as it is not site-specific.

What is a “Blue Collar” Worker?

Blue-collar workers tend to not work in an office. They instead make their living by doing manual or trade-related labor.

A blue-collar job would traditionally focus on physical exertion, rather than mental attention. Historically, blue-collar jobs were so poorly paid that workers could not afford multiple work outfits, or to have these outfits washed daily. Hence, they wore dark, hard-wearing materials like denim and chambray which were often blue to help with concealing dirt or grease due to the nature of their work.

In contrast to a white-collar job, blue-collar workers usually can’t work remotely.

What Separates White and Blue Collar Workers?

The differences in connotation between white collar and blue collar reflect how Western societies used to perceive the service industry in comparison to the manufacturing and agricultural industries.

The office setting was seen as being a superior work setting as it reflects a focus on mental attention and is safer for the worker. The white-collar worker was seen as having more responsibilities and a more important role in the economy. This reflects the idea that a white-collar worker should belong to a higher, more educated social class, and deserves to be paid more for his or her work.

In the 21st century, however, these distinctions blur and are perhaps not as important as they once were. Great innovation is being done in integrated workspaces, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, where the physicists, engineers, and manufacturers all work on the same factory floor. These teams work with a horizontal organizational structure. More people are now acknowledging the skill and mental work that goes into traditionally blue-collar industries, like manufacturing and agriculture.

Let’s look at a few areas where the distinction of white collar vs. blue collar is most evident.  

Work Setting

The most obvious distinction between white collar vs. blue collar jobs is a white-collar worker works in an office setting with a desk and computer. Blue-collar workers can work in various non-office settings, such as warehouses, construction sites, workshops, production lines, outdoor areas, etc.

Even though the job types in white collar vs. blue collar are vastly different, white-collar and blue-collar employees can operate in distinctly different environments, performing two different types of jobs, within the same organization. So, even though the work setting differs, the organization doesn’t necessarily.

Roles and Responsibilities

White-collar jobs usually have roles that require skills that can only be achieved through formal education. Take, for example, a restaurant – the waitress at the restaurant can get on-the-job training for her blue-collar job, while the accountant will need a formal education qualification.

The distinction between the types of responsibilities also blurs. A construction site foreman has a blue-collar job, but their responsibilities require leadership and managerial skills – responsibilities traditionally ascribed to white-collar professions.

A useful distinction might be that the blue-collar job definition doesn’t specify the skill level or the type of pay workers receive. Blue-collar workers can be skilled or unskilled, waged or salaried. More unskilled workers do blue-collar work, so a blue-collar job has a connotation of requiring fewer skills.

Salary and Benefits

White-collar jobs tend to pay better than blue-collar jobs. But again, there are exceptions. For example, a skilled machine operator (blue-collar) might make more money than a bank teller (white-collar).

It is common for white-collar jobs to offer an annual salary based on a consistent 40-hour workweek. Also, many white-collar workers receive a pension or medical aid benefits from their employers. There is often certain job security that goes along with a white-collar job.

In many instances, blue-collar jobs offer an hourly wage and are assigned a certain number of hours or shifts per week. Blue-collar workers tend to receive fewer benefits from employers, and a decrease in hours or shifts can result in financial insecurity. However, both professional categories can earn high wages based on experience, skills, and position. In modern society, the connotation of a blue-collar worker belonging to a lower socio-economic class is, therefore, outdated.

Examples of Jobs

Below, you can find some general industries that tend to hire more white-collar or blue-collar workers. Keep in mind, that the same company in any given sector can employ both white-collar and blue-collar workers. A construction company, for example, will have blue-collar bricklayers on-site.  But the same company might also have a white-collar human resources director who deals with the employment contracts of the blue-collar bricklayers.

White Collar Jobs

White-collar industries often require at least an undergraduate degree as a minimum for entrance. Some examples of industries with many white-collar jobs include:

  • Technological innovation
  • Software development
  • Health service providers, like physicians or administrators
  • Accounting
  • Marketing
  • Consulting
  • Engineering
  • Law

Blue Collar Jobs

Blue-collar industries often have a related trade-union. Although an undergraduate degree is not a prerequisite, technical training or an apprenticeship are common entrance routes.

Some examples of industries with many blue-collar jobs include:

  • Retail
  • Manufacturing
  • Foodservice
  • Construction
  • Transportation and logistics
  • Landscaping
  • Municipal services
  • Cleaning and pest control
  • Repair and maintenance
  • Agriculture

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Conclusion

The terms white collar vs. blue collar are traditional shorthand meant to describe differences in work setting, job responsibility, and salary of different workers. However, in the current world economy, the distinctions between white collar vs. blue collar are blurring. The terms also don’t accurately classify people working freelance jobs or who take part in the gig economy. Different worker descriptions based on a horizontal organizational structure may be more useful for the 21st century.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.