Is the working class disappearing?

I think it is for a variety of reasons:

A) More and more employers are hiring college graduates over non-college graduates even for positions that don’t require a degree.

B) We have had mass outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to other countries.

C) Labor unions have been in decline.

D) Many cities in the rust belt such as Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Gary, and even Muncie have suffering mass urban decay.

This all right here shows that the U.S. economy is deteriorating and the shift to a post-industrial economy isn’t worth shit.

Possession of a college degree isn’t a reliable indicator of class, for a start. Got a degree, renting somewhere to live, working for a wage? You are working class.

Your conclusion isn’t justified based on your selective facts. Most people are surprised just how big U.S. manufacturing still is. It is still, in fact, #2 in the world only behind China (which has roughly 4x the population). It was still #1 until about 7 years ago and, believe it or not, U.S. manufacturing is growing, not declining. I work in manufacturing Information Technology myself and I can assure you that it is thriving and lucrative in many sectors. We have about 300 very well paid blue-collar workers alone at my site that do just as well or better than workers in the 1950’s and they are solidly middle-class by income. China isn’t even allowed to make the things we do because they don’t have the quality systems in place to pass compliance regulations with other countries. That is just one small example but there are countless others all around the country.

I am not saying your points are completely false. Automation is a rapidly evolving series of technologies with the goals of reducing headcount while improving quality, consistency and safety (more and better production with fewer people). You can’t just walk in off the street and get a manufacturing job because you have strong arms and a good back like you once could. Even at my facility, it is very competitive and prospective employees generally go through a two year trial period before they are hired (2/3rds don’t make it but the others are still paid well while they are there).

The issues in the rust belt are different from the issues with U.S. manufacturing as a whole. The major industries that they bet on just aren’t viable for U.S. production much these days so they should have moved on to different ones but didn’t make the shift successfully. Viable U.S. manufacturing today tends to be high-tech and high-quality. That generally requires specialized skills even for workers with just a high school degree. The opportunities are still out there but the jobs don’t tend to have descriptions that most people are familiar with. It is up to the individual to figure out what is viable and then find a way to get the skills to fill the demand (and there is plenty of demand).

If it makes you feel any better, the model that China has established for itself is also unsustainable. As their middle and upper classes grow, they are beginning to price themselves out of the market for manufacturing very cheap goods so those are shifting to even cheaper countries. They also don’t have the standards in place to produce high-quality, high-tech or truly innovative goods either so they are starting to find themselves in a type of manufacturing twilight zone. That isn’t theoretical, it has already started to happen with no obvious ways to fix the myriad of social, economic and environmental issues their rapid growth has caused.

Baron Greenback brings up a good point. I have never found ‘Working Class’ to be a very useful term. I took it to mean people that work in manufacturing because that is what the OP seemed to equate it to but the terms aren’t synonymous. I believe the term is also include jobs like plumber, electrician, general contractor, landscaper etc. but that doesn’t always fit. Sure, those people all ‘work’ but so does almost everyone else at some point in their lives. Teachers and nurses aren’t considered to be working class even though they are on their feet all day. Plumbers, electricians and general contractors often own their own business and make more money than the vast majority of people ever will. The general contractor that fixed my house after a tree strike has one of the biggest houses in a wealthy town with a huge garage full of collectible cars.

I went to graduate school and have my own office but I must wear steel toed shoes and rugged clothing to work every day because I work in a manufacturing facility and sometimes have to climb under gigantic pieces of equipment to diagnose a problem and I randomly get shot with sparks or hot metal sometimes. Like one of my blue-collar coworkers told me once: ‘You went to college and I barely graduated high-school but we still ended up working at the same place’. :slight_smile:

Really, what is the difference?

It seems like I forgot to define the working class. Typical working class people have no college and may or may not have a high school diploma, and works either a low skilled or semi-skilled occupation like a general laborer in a factory, trucker, bus driver, or a lesser skilled construction worker doing all the odd jobs on the site. They usually require a uniform for their job but can sometimes dress casual. Now for folks like carpenters, plumbers, or electricians they would fall more into the lower middle class since they earn more than the typical working class. You also have the underclass which earns a lot less than the typical working class. So as it stands out social class is typically defined by occupation, income, and education level and not necessarily the work clothing or additional duties. So the above poster would be a part of either the lower or upper middle class.

No. China has plenty of folks in the working class working in American owned factories.

Fair enough but your definition falls apart when you refer to the skilled trades like plumber, electrician, skilled carpenter and even truck driver. All of those have median incomes at about or higher for a single worker than the median income for a household in the U.S. (a little over $50,000) and often much higher. You can’t be lower-middle class if your income for one person is in line with the average household income. In short, a married plumber and electrician both working full-time like most couples do would bring in over 100K even if they are perfectly average and almost no one would call that lower-middle class unless it just references sophistication and lifestyle choices (if that is the case, we all know of multi-millionaires that are ghetto trash and there is no fixing that). Wal-Mart is advertising heavily for truck drivers on XM radio right now. They claim their average first year pay is over 80K. I am sure there is a catch in there somewhere like being away from home an insane amount but that isn’t bad for someone with just a trucker’s license.

The only thing I can say about unskilled or semi-skilled jobs is that they just aren’t worth a lot because they are easier to automate or replace with new people by definition and that will become more true over time. Some low paid jobs like home health aids will grow but it is never going to pay a lot because it is basically just babysitting for adults. If you artificially increased the pay for those types of workers, the money would come straight out of the pocket of other consumers so that isn’t a solution either.

Give us a precise definition and we’ll give you a precise answer. You’re tossing out working , under, lower, middle classes, but we won’t agree on what they mean. So give us something measurable and we can give you an answer.

Someone (Pew?) published a paper recently about the size of the middle class, which they defined based on income (but not all income.) We had some threads on it recently in GD. You might find them interesting.

I agree that manufacturing is coming back, although probably more automated than it was. Rock Center with brian williams had a segment about manufacturing in the U.S… He talked with then Vermeer CEO mary andringa about how manufacturing was coming back, im sure you could find clips from it.
Its also worth noting, that I, and many people I work with, have 4 year college degrees but are in semi skilled manufacting - painting, welding, assembling. Although my reason is because I got a cruddy-paying degree is sociology that frankly wont pay as well as my manufacturing job

Allow me to cite some references but I will add my own input as well:

  1. Types of Social Classes of People

  2. Lower middle class - Wikipedia (there’s a chart that might help)

Here’s my input and it’s based on some of the references:

  • Underclass- someone who has little or no participation in the workforce and often depends on government support such as Social Security, Section 8, and food stamps. And this social class is on the rise.

  • Working class- typically a semi-skilled manual laborer such as a factory worker, truck driver, bus driver, janitor, cashier, or lesser skilled construction worker.

  • Lower middle class- typically a craftsmen such as a carpenter or plumber or a small scale manager like at a restaurant or retail store. Would also include teachers and nurses.

  • Upper middle class aka professional class- would include folks like doctors or lawyers.

  • Upper class- would include the affluent like corporate executives and even the Hollywood darlings.

Industrial automation is negating more human jobs in the US than shipping them overseas. My husband words for a company that does networking for factory automation. Lots of factories in the US making a lot of stuff. Just not a lot of humans manning the machines.

Their inside joke is “the only ones in the factory are a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to make sure the man keeps his hands off the machines.”

That helps a little. BLS dropped these terms in 1980 for their Standard Occupational Classification. A high-level list is here:
A more detailed list is here:
That last one has wage estimates and employment numbers.

BLS also has historic data and projects out to 2024 IIRC. They have a public data API if you’re into that sort of thing; sample code are here:

You can decide which SOC codes are “working class” and look at trends over time.

What’s happening in America is also happening her in the UK. Class is far too difficult to define, but jobs where a good work ethic and a strong back is all that is needed are on the decline. Those jobs (as in America) are often filled by immigrant workers who see them as an improvement on what’s available back home, and as the entry into the system.

There has been a strong move in manufacturing to eliminate as many jobs as possible; either by outsourcing or automation. Many jobs that were once seen as skilled, like machine operators have been de-skilled to the point where an average worker today can do the work of three from thirty years ago.

It’s not just the workers on the shop floor. Many back office tasks that would have required a small army of clerks are now done by a few people with computers. Ordering systems can now bypass any human element almost entirely. It is likely that many distribution workers will be replaced by automated vehicles over the next few decades too.

Governments really need to take some action now to stop the separation between the graduates working long hours but earning high salaries, and the rest who will find it increasingly hard to find any employment at all.

The last sentence is politico-economic editorial and not a question. I find it questionable as a sweeping statement, either that the US economy is comprehensively deteriorating, or that the points you list are the main reason for broad economic troubles such as there are. Economic patterns always change, and there’s no way way in the real world that economic progress in aggregate can be ‘pareto optimal’, that is benefiting some without hurting anybody or anywhere else. Some people and places always get hurt as economies evolve, even in a generally positive direction.

Anyway I think the more interesting aspect of the question is what ‘working class’ means. The standard sort of litany you’ve listed is really more about how low skilled people have more trouble now being solidly in the middle class, and not working class. People who work in non-managerial jobs at retail stores, food service, and a whole list of service providers are working class. They always have been, and have outnumbered factory workers for many decades. There just wasn’t as much expectation that such jobs could directly vault someone solidly into the middle class, unless they work their way up to management or are able to use their experience to start their own business.

In general the common overemphasis on trade in manufactured goods misses a lot of the point of what’s really been going on. Higher skills and credentials have been getting a greater premium in earnings, including in the service sector which has been a big majority of employment for a long time. And the economy hasn’t been growing fast enough for that to prevent stagnation or slight decline in the part of the income distribution below the middle, or even near the middle.

By that definition, 80% of Switzerland is working class.

And? That’s probably ballpark for most wealthy western countries if you take having a mortgage on a home to one side.

If you’ve only got a wage to live on, then welcome to the working class. There’s a difference between your social status and your economic one, of course.

And, if that’s your definition then claims that “the working class is disappearing” are akin to saying that Christianity is under attack in the USA. Most people have more limited definitions of “working class”, though, and for example wouldn’t include liberal professions even if they happen to be salaried.

Where do you put retail workers?

There are some fairly huge gaps in there- in particular that gap in the middle class between say… teachers and doctors/lawyers. I’d wager that MOST middle-class people fall somewhere in between. Where do all the accountants, IT workers, etc… fit?

Occupation is particularly hideous; what if someone’s a specialized Lamborghini tuner mechanic who makes $120,000 a year? Is he still “working class” because he turns a wrench for a living?

I think it’s better defined in terms of the lifestyle that is enabled- that way, it’s not based on occupations, or on somewhat hard to compare things like income- region and number of dependents make income somewhat hard to compare. For example, a household with 2 parents and one child living in New York City making $75,000 a year may be significantly worse off than one with 2 parents and two kids living in Norman, OK making the same amount of money.

I don’t really know WHAT those lifestyle “accoutrements” are that would define the working/middle/upper classes, but I do think that’s a better way to define the classes.

There also used to be a lot of jobs in my grandparents’ day where mastery of high-school level reading, writing, and math could get you a desk job. You could go to virtually any company, pass the literacy test, and get trained to push paper. Now, you have to have three years experience pushing the exact kind of paper just to be considered.