The white collar underclass

Before the Industrial Revolution the average number of hours worked in the western world was less than 6 hours per day. Some say we worked less than two and a half days a week.

I won’t quote what the average number of hours are today, but it’s more for everyone I know personally. I’m certain many people reading this would work in excess of 12 hours on certain days.

So what happened?

We got stooged. The  industrial revolution made it possible for a larger segment of the population to work year-round, since this labor was not tied to the season and artificial lighting made it possible to work longer each day. Peasants and farm laborers moved from rural areas to the factories and work times during a year has been significantly higher since then the important  innovation of piece labour. That is, the ability to earn income based on output. Think bolts in car doors.

Over time longer hours lead to greater amount of industrial accidents and workplace injuries. Unions formed and laws changed on the factory floor. But, the office was a different place altogether.

Office workers – salary based workers who where historically in management worked for salaries. A fixed wage for a fixed number of hours. My father constantly reminds me that in his day office workers only worked from 9am until 4.30pm. That tradesman and factory workers were the only people who did extra hours. And they did this to make up for the pay discrepancy which was favour of salary workers.

Clearly times have changed. If you are working in a large corporate, cubicle farm, in front of a screen or any place where you don’t get your hands dirty then chances are your are part of the ever growing white collar underclass. Here’s the some of stuff that defines members of the White Collar Underclass:

  1. A fixed salary with no overtime (factory workers, tradesman, retail staff all have overtime)
  2. Regularly working beyond the ‘official hours’ including weekends.
  3. It is expected that you arrive before and leave after your official hours.
  4. No representation in your industry to protect employment conditions.
  5. No tax benefits or uniform allowances, because your work clothing doesn’t have a logo on it. Even though it is in real terms a ‘uniform’ and costs you 10 times what hands on workers wear to work.
  6. Your annual performance review is based on the subjective assessments of your direct manager who may or may not like you.
  7. You work in a large building full of people who look and act like you do, and no one really knows what anyone else does.
  8. In an economic downturn, you panic, because you know what you do is essentially expendable.
  9. Large parts of your day are dealing with procedure, invented by other workers to justify their own existence.
  10. You look at a screen for large parts of your day, but have restrictions on what information you can bring onto the screen from the outside world.
  11. You feel as though your rarely use the skills acquired in the formal education you needed to get that job.
  12. You can work for days, weeks and months without any physical evidence of tangible outputs of what you have done. You don’t make or fix anything real.

If some of the above apply to you, chances are you are part of the white collar underclass. A group of people who have been victimized by efficiency. A group of people who don’t do anything real. Which is why there will be a significant value shift and higher pay going to people (like tradesman) who make stuff. Simple supply and demand. In the past 50 years companies have became so good at what they do, that very few people really do anything, including you. But you are giving so much of your time… you know it, and it eats at your soul.

Startup blog advice: Earn your living. Do something that adds value, not takes up space. Even if it must be done at nights and on weekends. Even if it provides no income. The human soul feeds on real activity, not simple economic existence. Feed your soul in 2010.


23 Comments The white collar underclass

  1. @mildlycurious

    This is spot on and too true, unfortunately.

    I particularly relate to #9 – Large parts of your day are dealing with procedure, invented by other workers to justify their own existence.

    I would estimate 1% of any paperwork generated is ever read/understood.

    Twitter: @mildlycurious

  2. Ross Hill

    “In an economic downturn, you panic, because you know what you do is essentially expendable.” – a timely pearl of wisdom!

    I concur with the startup blog advice, except to point out that if what you are doing truly has value then it can provide you income (like the tradesmen that you refer to).

  3. Joanne Spain

    I have always been of the mindset that corporate boxes have a place; the problem is in their structure and management.

    If change happened and was managed successfully then all these things would be less prominent and employees would be more engaged.

    More recently, I have thought more about different ways the huge amount of people who currently work in a corporate box structure could earn a salary.

    Micropatronage is an interesting thing to think about in this context. On that kind of scale a self-organising micropatronage system is awesome food for thought.

    I am of the belief that #bothand needs to happen. Change in corporate box organisational structures and management and some increased volume of attrition supported by other systems, micropatronage is one idea for support. I am sure there would be others.

  4. paulwallbank

    Sorry Steve, while I agree with the idea of a white collar underclass, I think a lot of what you say in this post just doesn’t fly.

    Prior the industrial revolution most people’s lives were marked with extremely hard work from sunrise to dusk with a day off for worship was as much leisure time as close to lesuire anyone got.

    Accidents were frequent in pre-industrial societies when most people worked on the land, even today agriculture is one of the riskiest industries.

    I’d also argue that artificial lighting is relatively new with it only becoming widespread and affordable in the first third of the 20th Century.

    In fact I’d go as far as to say artificial lighting, steam power, electricity and other productivity improvements allowed us more leisure time and raised both our material and spiritual standards of living.

    Where I suspect things went wrong is over the last thirty years of workforce rationalisation where office workers have been asked to do more and in many industries younger workers are encouraged to claim ridiculous hours as some sort of honour badge.

    What really worries me is your comment about tradesman, there is a myth in Australia that knowledge workers don’t add value. I’d suggest we can get away with this while the world is awash in cheap money and we have eager Asian buyers for our resources.

    Once the luck runs out however, or if we decide we want Australia to be more than a quarry with a few retirement homes clinging to the nice bits, then those “people who don’t do anything real” are going to have be appreciated for what they can do, such as writing blogs and helping startups.

    Otherwise, love your work. Have a good one.

  5. Aristidis

    Great piece. Totally agree with you Steve. Knowing first hand the turmoil of being part of the “white collar underclass”, I do relate to your piece, although there is a level (income/ seniority) where this changes. Where one goes from “white collar underclass” to “white collar privileged-class”.

    Though, there is a reason to for this and it has been described to me as: “capitalism through the back door”. Instilling consumerism into people (white collar); making them strive for a level of income to afford a way of life that they have been sold, and watch them work their fingertips to the bone.

    One a slightly different note, I’d like to point you to a quote by Mark Twain (quite long) from the late 1800s which you find of interest:

    “There are wise people who talk ever so knowingly and complacently about “the working classes,” and satisfy themselves that a day’s hard intellectual work is very much harder than a day’s hard manual toil, and is righteously entitled to much bigger pay. Why, they really think that, you know, because they all know about the one, but haven’t tried the other. But I know all about both; and as far as I am concerned, there isn’t money enough in the universe to hire me to swing a pickaxe thirty days, but I will do the hardest kind of intellectual work for just as near nothing as you can cipher it down–and I will be satisfied, too. Intellectual “work” is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation and its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer, is constructively in heaven when he is at work; and as for the magician with the fiddle-bow in his hand who sits in the midst of a great orchestra with the ebbing and flowing tides of divine sound washing over him–why certainly, he is at work, if you wish to call it that, but lord, it’s a sarcasm just the same. The law of work does seem utterly unfair–but there it is, and nothing can change it: the higher the pay in enjoyment the worker gets out of it, the higher shall be his pay in cash, also. And it’s also the very law of those transparent swindles, transmissible nobility and kingship.”

  6. mseviieee

    i visit your blog not as much as i should .. but when i do, your articles hit me where it hurts .. i’ve struggled for most of my young adult life dealing with this subject .. this is my work life right now :[ for each 12 points that you have used to define members of the white collar underclass .. i shake my head a little disappointed at myself & depressed that i still qualify as a white collar underclass … why have not managed to figure out how to make that change? i’ve tried but maybe not hard or smart enough ..

    i took a break from the 9 to 5 grind to travel for 3 years & pursue other interests .. now that i am back home, its back to same old same old scenario .. i deal with waking up each morning trying to find the enthusiasm & energy for a new day at work, where i sit at my desk for 8 hours, try to meet/exceed set targets, worrying about productivity, be accountable to every minute of my working day, making only a small handful of people happy and more people than i can count on my hands & toes unhappy .. i switch on as i start work for the day, just so that i ‘fit’ the norm personality wise and then switch off when i finish .. generally i’m a pretty positive type of person, but this part of my life makes me see always see the glass half empty .. it’s slowly killing me :[

    i know this is will not be long term .. but i need some help & inspiration in making the change .. thanks for the article, they always get me thinking ..

    btw .. the only thing i’ve gained from my white collar underclass jobs is ….. 20kg :[ all accumulating around my ever expanding rear bottom ! DAMN !

  7. Tony Hollingsworth

    I loved this post, but I also agree with Paul Wallbank – there’s some great debate going on. Steve, your points resonate with me, as this is my experience working in large corporates for many years. Paul Wallbank, your points resonate because as knowledge workers we are adding enormous value doing just that, writing blogs and helping startups grow. We should encourage the “underclass” (as Steve describes it) to break free and go and work on their idea (at night and on weekends if necessary) Go without a salary for a while (believe me, we don’t need to keep buying things: see Neerav’s post on “Too Much Stuff: Consumption Is Not A Way of Life”

    Have a look at the magic of “Coffee Mornings” around Sydney – these groups are giving their time to help others, help themselves, support their businesses, reward each other. In fact they are doing exactly what Steve recommends: they are “feeding ‘their souls on real activity that adds value”

    For me, this article is a call to entrepreneurship for Australians – lets start executing on all those great ideas we keep having.

    Tony Hollingsworth

  8. Kevin Rodrigues

    I am one of the so called white collar workers. All the points you have mentioned are quite valid. They are constantly being brought up by people but somehow no action is taken yet.

    I had been to Norway and there the white collar workers were also included in the worker unions and got many of their benefits.

    Do something that adds value and not space is great advice to get at the beginning of the new year.

  9. Ian

    As a tradesman(Pattern Maker) I can relate to the flip side of this where each day I have had the chance to make and create, something I appreciate and have often reflected on as my good fortune to have. However the ever encroaching new technologies have ended two of my careers (Pattern Making, Industrial/Film model/prototyping) particularly through rapid prototyping and CAD drafting. This is continuing through many of the trades and now moving through the white collar industries.

    My local Coles has just installed self checkouts, good-bye check out chicks. CAD removed tracers, rooms of clerks replaced by accounting programmes and automatic phone/email systems & call centres to sell rather than on the road reps and hundreds of other examples. We’re a few short years form engineers becoming obsolete and when computers develop the ability to write software coders will be out the door.

    The cubical farm is the modern version of the 19th century factory floor where false security is assured(until the next downturn) so suits the conservative mind set. The same applies to all mature work places where society says to work. Eventually new technologies will move in. But the flip side is the new technologies bring with them new industries and possibilities. To move to the exciting young immature sector is full of obvious risk and pitfalls but also full of unseen possibilities to create something unique. I’ve walked away from the trades(mostly) and although the new fields are still mostly immature with little surety of their future development, they have unlimited possibilities.

    I have no idea how to survive beyond today, my future is unsure but the adventure of not knowing reveals the possibilities for anything to happen. I only have the chance to see these possibilities by being in the new fields, I couldn’t see the richness from the outside. If I had stayed in the trades I would have rotted from the inside and I would have gone postal to a cubical job but those fields are all but dead anyway, eventually. There is a bright future out there but we have to be prepared to find it ourselves. To follow our interests and passions.

    If I fail and end up destitute at least I gave it a red hot go but if I hadn’t I would have died inside years ago. And maybe, just maybe something amazing might happen. Actually it is…

  10. Xavier Shay

    “We’re a few short years form engineers becoming obsolete and when computers develop the ability to write software coders will be out the door.”

    With respect, you have no idea what a professional coder does. It’s a way of thinking, a knowledge of how computers work and how people interact with them. As newer languages come out, we have to write less and less code. This allows us to focus more on what’s really important – how computers help people kick ass.

    That’s really the value we add. We make you more awesome with computers.

    (there’s a *lot* of amateur software developers out there though, so I wouldn’t be surprised if your perception was skewed)


    paul and steve, you’re both quoting diametrically opposite views of what life was like before the industrial revolution. As such, I can’t believe either of you. References?


    I actually like a fixed salary. No timesheets, sometimes work late, other times head off early Friday afternoon. Every month money shows up in my account but it’s not connected to when I am work. I really enjoy this disconnect.

    A fixed salary is low risk – this doesn’t mean bad. Sure, someone may take my work and on sell it for 5x what they pay me, but *they’re taking the risk*, so deserve the reward.

    My job is part of life. It doesn’t distract from it.

    (though I don’t qualify as underclass, this point is still relevant to me)


    re #11, people regularly undervalue what they actually learn in a formal education, that being pretty much just how to think, rather than any hard specific skill.

  11. Steve Sammartino

    Nice points Xavier.

    Re: Fist changed topic.
    A simple wikipedia review of the the Industrial revolution adn work hours, work history will reveal work hours were much much lower ‘speciifically in Europe’ before the Industrial revolution. It ‘is’ well documented.

  12. KerryJ

    Just because you enjoy what you do doesn’t mean that you should settle for less than you’re worth.

    Of course, whenever you are in a J.O.B. (just over broke) and working for someone else, you will NEVER be paid what you’re worth — because the people paying for your time have to make a profit.

  13. Pingback: Paul Tagell » Blog Archive » Riding the wrong way!

  14. Ned Dwyer

    Hey Steve,

    I actually checked this out on Wikipedia because I’ve never looked into it myself before.

    Their article on the Industrial Revolution and its social effects states that “child labour, dirty living conditions, and long working hours were just as prevalent before the Industrial Revolution.”


  15. B.R. Dangerous

    I once worked for a company involved in the paper destruction biz. It was my job to drive to various office locations around the city and with a washing machine sized wheeled container in tow, and seek out for collection any paper accumulated since the last visit that was stored in special cabinets placed around the offices. Often, the cabinets were spilling over with flyers, candy wrappers and fast food containers which I thought seemed to be an expensive way to save a few steps to the rubbish can. Then I’d roll all the ‘sensitive’ material out to my truck equipped with an industrial paper shredder and turn it all into confetti before dumping it at a recycling plant at the end of the day.

    The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and I remember thinking at the time, usually while crouched before a cabinet, scooping out the perforated leftovers of tractor feed printer paper, how these sophisticated young office workers must think I’m some kind of chump as they smugly took sips from their coffee and clacked away at their computer keyboards.

    Soon after getting fired from the confetti biz, I decided to pursue a nice office-type job. Much to my surprise, I actually got one. While it only paid 70% of what I’d made as a shred truck operator, I got to sit on my ass drinking free coffee all day long while trading recipes with the office cows or exchanging witticisms with the Mormon prude across from me.

    The novelty soon wore off however, mainly due to just about every single point you mentioned in your article except for number 12: I did produce tangible sheets of labels with the addresses of whatever ‘responsible parties’ who hadn’t paid their gas bills that I’d managed to identify using a telephone throughout the course of the day… labels which I’d then stick onto “ready for a cold shower?” postcards. Item number 3 in your list, however, was the reason for my termination after only seven months of living the white-collar dream.

    Those days are long behind me now, and these days I busy myself making navel gazing videos for You Tube in a vain attempt to make myself look cooler than I really am.

  16. Mark

    The white collar underclass develop the internet for which you post this blog. They develop the mobile phone that you get your jobs with. They work for companies that pay people money, this money then pays you when you do work for them. These companies hold infrastructure assets that you build because they want you to. Some people enjoy doing this sort of work, it is not as hard on the body and requires using a different skill set. Don’t demean others jobs because there are plenty of faults amongst the blue collar class as well.

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