On the Political Meaning of “Blue Collar”

On a recent trip I picked up the in-flight magazine and began reading an interview with a major celebrity. She was talking about her humble backgrounds, and noted that she was brought up in a “blue collar” househould, adding to support her point that both her parents were teachers. Huh?

Categorizing teachers as blue collar would be news to a labor economist. The traditional, and conventional, definition of a blue-collar worker is someone who works in manual labor or on a shop floor. While the nature of these jobs is changing, teachers have never been considered blue collar. Teachers work in a classroom and have college degrees, and often graduate education (sometimes mandated by state law). They are part of the professional class, not even the skilled trades like plumbers, electricians, or carpenters. In other words, they are anything but blue-collar workers. (Office workers are often called “white collar,” and service workers are referred to as “pink collar.”)

On the other hand, this odd re-categorization of labor makes sense in today’s political climate where politicians are attempting to lump more and more people into the “working class,” which is itself confusd with being middle class. In an era where the top 1%, economic risk takers, and entrepreneurs are political fodder for populism and a justification for income redistribution, divying up the labor market by class and lumping as many of those groups into the catch-all cateogory of working class broadens the political base for the redistributionists.

Unfortunately, for this celebrity, it also shows a woefully inadequate level of economic illiteracy. And the fact it made it into the printed version of the interview probably is an even greater indictment of journalism’s economic illiteracy.

For an analysis of the challenges faced by the U.S. economy because of a shortage of real blue-collar workers, take a look at Joel Kotkin’s column over at