Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The most common jobs for workers without college degrees have never been industrial.
A grizzled face, smudged grey with the factory soot. Hands that are calloused from making things—things that Make America Great. This person is, of course, white.
In the popular imagination, this is the portrait of a “working class” American—a figure that political leaders say will benefit from their policies; the same one that props up the myth of bootstrapping—the hardworking, real American who is deserving of help; and the one whose “economic anxieties” are commonly cited to justify the popularity of racist politicians.
It is also not truly representative of who actually makes up the working class—and hasn’t been for a long time.
A new brief by the Center of American Progress, a liberal think tank, lays out the demographics of workers without college degrees—and how they have changed over time. A fact that may come as a surprise to some: those employed in the industrial sector—in factory, construction, or mining jobs—didn’t make up the bulk of this group even in the early 20th century. In 1940, only a third of the working class did these jobs; almost half worked in service and the rest, in agriculture.
Even when the industrial share of working Americans peaked in the 1960s, it only came up to 37 percent. After that, it fell steadily; in 2015, it was down to 21 percent. An overwhelming 76 percent of working people do service jobs in industries such as retail or health care:
In terms of demographics, white workers are underrepresented in this group compared to the nation as a whole; in 2015, they made up 59 percent of the working class versus 64 percent of the adult U.S. population. By 2032, people of color are set to become the majority in this section of the labor force.
The third big takeaway: Women comprised nearly half of the working class (46 percent) in 2015. In 1960, they made up 33 percent—although that has been leveling out since the 1990s with the rise of women with college degrees.
The needs of this emerging working class are changing. Factory jobs may no longer be so numerous, but what many politicians—including the president—miss is that it is their quality, not quantity, that made them special. And that quality came in large part through collective bargaining.
As service jobs have increased in share, their working conditions have worsened. A janitor working at a large multinational company today has much lower wages, career growth, and job security than a similarly situated janitor did when unions were stronger. That’s because companies have shifted how they view—and compensate—such labor, as union have been weakened. Service jobs in domestic work—child care that women workers typically do—are particularly devalued and even more precarious.
According to the report, the folks who increasingly do working class jobs—African Americans and Hispanics—are more likely (40 and 44 percent, respectively) than white working Americans (32 percent) to express concern about their financial circumstances.
Economic anxiety, therefore, is even more prevalent among the minority working class—a point obscured by stereotypes about the “working class” in political rhetoric. Policymakers who really want to help this group should revisit the policies that made the best working-class jobs great, the report concludes:
The struggles of the working class will not be solved by states’ piecemeal efforts to open new factories by luring companies with tax incentives. Nor will they be solved through presidential pressure to delay a plant’s outsourcing by another year. Instead, policymakers need a broader, bolder policy vision—one that puts the government firmly on the side of workers and their families. Laws should make it easier for these workers to join together in unions, as past and current union organizing has contributed greatly to the increase in the quality of industrial jobs.