After the Collar: Moving Past Blue and White Collar Class Structures
My wife first began studying straddlers as an undergraduate. She was a straddler herself, transitioning from a blue-collar background towards white-collar work. Her experience, aesthetics, and difficulties were much like those of any successful straddler – but it did not explain my experience. It was that dissonance that began my search for where I belong. That search leads me now to propose that the concepts of blue-collar and white-collar are rooted in a time and place that is quickly passing. In a Hegelian sense, concepts of blue- and white-collar classes are the thesis and antithesis which are producing a new “collarless” synthesis class.
Let’s start at my beginning.
My first memories are of the trailer.
The trailer was gone by the time I was old enough to drive to it. I remembered with a wading pool out front, with a little white plastic fence in the patch of yard to keep my toddler legs out of the street. None of the trailers that remained were anything like that. That was irrelevant in my personal history; my parents were busy moving up. By the time my sister was born, we had already moved across town to a two-story home. A little over a decade later, we moved to a more affluent suburb. My parents are typical straddlers, changing homes as they moved from blue-collar roots into white-collar professions.
I grew up in a town of contradictions. The population doubled for nine months of the year while the university was in session. Many of the students were from outside the state – and even from outside the country. They brought a huge amount of diversity to what would otherwise have been a poor rural coal-mining town.
Despite that influence, it was still a small town. It was hard to find peers in your social niche, especially before the internet. Unlike larger cities, all of the freaks, weirdos, artists, druggies, punks, skaters, and nerds were combined into a single social entity. We were outcasts, a community defined by exclusion. My friends and playmates ranged from the children of upper-class parents to those whose parents struggled to make each month’s rent. We were a group with common interests, but sharing few other outward social markers.
I believe that experience sensitized me to the incipient synthesis.
The old ways social and economic ways of doing class still exist. There are plenty of individuals and institutions trying to preserve or overthrow the current order. Like sexism, racism, and homophobia, our concepts of class are in a time of transition.
The thesis and antithesis of class are still very real in many people’s lives. In 2004, both candidates for President of the United States staked out a framework on each side of the blue and white collar divide. That division helped George W. Bush win the 2004 election. That technique of separation was repeated four years later by the Republican Party, but had a comparatively minimal effect. This was partially due to the character of the candidates, but more because it simply did not seem to be as large of a concern.
A synthesis group is forming, fueled in part by the children of straddlers. In many ways, it resembles the social circles of my youth. Unlike straddlers, we are a utilitarian form of a postmodern generation, unwilling to reject wholesale the norms and customs of any social class. We acknowledge the best of all worlds, working to find common interests, beauty, and solutions from all people.
We are the makers and crafters, the builders, coders, and modders. We are the children of the technological age once again entranced by the sounds of bluegrass and ukuleles. We value merit and functionality over brand names and mere appearances. We are not merely tolerant of others, but celebrate their differences. We praise the DIY ethic for its individualism and creativity, not as a fulfillment of a puritanical work ethic. We do it ourselves as expressions of ourselves, and find co-option and commoditization repellent. We are jaded optimists, focused on inventive solutions instead of ideology.
These seeds of synthesis are not new; the economic and technological conditions surrounding us are. We can find each other across the globe, communicate, and share ideas in ways nearly unimaginable thirty years ago. The tools and materials for creation can be afforded by more people than ever before. In the same way that the military produces its own “green-collar” world, this combination of ethos, life experiences, and technology has produced a new collarless synthesis.
This new synthesis has reshaped and revitalized old sociological concepts, the strongest of which is the personal aspect of Marx’s concept of alienation. Or perhaps it is better expressed as the desire to avoid alienation. It is easy to empathize with the employee alienated from both work and self. But it was not until the 1990’s that Joseph Campbell’s exhortation to “follow your bliss” was accepted as serious business advice. Rejection of personal alienation from work and self has become a recurrent theme in popular culture, from movies like Falling Down, Office Space, American Beauty, and The Incredibles to television shows like The Office. We are no longer content to find fulfillment outside of our work. The expectation now – both from workers and supervisors – is that work is fulfilling and meaningful at some level.
There are three large problems with this model of a collarless synthesis class. First, this is a brief, sketchy conceptualization. This synthesis is still forming, and both the eventual shape and the boundary lines are far from clear. The normative description of this class does not require either technological fluency or being a second-generation straddler. There is a significant overlap with both the traditional definitions of blue and white collar work. Finally, there are other conceptualizations that include this group, such as Richard Florida’s “creative class”.
Secondly, it is also possible that this group is not an actual synthesis. The aesthetics of class groups have shifted over time. Historically, the lower class often adopts the tastes and preferences of the upper class, only to find that the upper class has discarded that set of class markers. In Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt clearly show this with historical trends in baby names over time. It is possible that what I have described as a synthesis is merely a shift in class tastes; the fledgling institutionalization of a different – but comparable – class structure. A possible signal of this is the emerging hierarchy, with significant online cultural leaders and trendsetters in near-unassailable positions.
Finally, there is the search problem of a core do it yourself ethic that celebrates diversity. As more people become active participants, the sheer amount of created cultural artifacts becomes staggering. Some reaction to this can already be seen in attempts at localization like outside.in which reduces the amount of information to geographical location.
Despite these problems, these creative synthetics hold the promise of taking the best of both worlds. If the collarless class does not become a reality, they have already done a great deal.
They have shown the hope of neither reinforcing nor overturning class structures, but of moving completely past them.