White-Collar Workers Research Paper

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1.    Preliminary Remarks

Although now in many developed industrial  societies white-collar  workers  represent,  at least in numerical terms,  the  single  most  important group  within  the general workforce, their delimitation and their specific social profile  in relation  to  blue-collar  workers  and public servants remains ambiguous  and controversial (Kocka  1980, 1981, Lockwood   1989). With  hardly any other social stratum  was and is the complex interrelation between the actual appearance of a group, its self-definition and its treatment as an object of investigation  so clear as with the white-collar employees.

The sociological interest in these groups has a long tradition which  dates  back  into  the  late  nineteenth century. It arose mainly for two reasons: (a) the exceptional   rapid   growth   of  the   various   groups, labeled  as  ‘white-collar   workers,’   Angestellte,   employ  s, impiegati,  empregados, etc.  and  (2) the  fact that   these  groups,   with  regard   to  some  objective features  of their working  conditions, aspects of their legal status,  as well as their  consciousness  and  their behavior,  differed markedly  from other social groups already established. Interest was nowhere so strong as in the German-speaking countries, where, as a field of the emerging social sciences, a special Angestelltensoziologie  developed.  This  pecularity  was  mainly due to the existence of a radical labor movement and of a strong  bureaucratic tradition. The institution of the privileged ‘civil servant’ served as a role model for many white-collar workers and attributed much to the relative depth of the distinction in relation to the bluecollar  workers  in the respective  countries.  However, comparative historical  research shows that  the terms ‘white-collar  workers,’  Angestellte,   employ  s,  impiegati, and empregados are in no way interchangeable. The delimitation and, particularly, its social ‘meaning’ vary strongly historically and from country to country. Though   much  of  the  special  social  profile  of  the various  groups  labeled  as  ‘white-collar’  has  faded away,  there  still remain  some important  differences, especially in relation  to blue-collar  workers.

2.    Definition By Functional Criteria

In many countries  in everyday language as well as in scientific usage the term white-collar worker refers to a group   of  dependent   workers   which,  compared   to manual or blue-collar workers, is occupied not directly in the process of manufacturing. Rather  it is situated in  functional  as  well as  in  spatial  terms  before the process of manufacture, beside it and  behind it. One encounters  white-collar  workers  in all economic  sectors, even agriculture,  at least, as it is organized commercially and as a large-scale business. However, the  actual  domain   of  the  employees  is  the  service sector; that is, trade,  banking,  insurances,  where they always made  up the predominant part  of the workforce.  In  addition,  large  groups  of  employees  are to be found in industry and the public sector. Since the end of the nineteenth and above all in the course of the twentieth century employees have increased their share in all sectors  considerably  in all developed  societies compared   to  that   of  manual   workers   and   public servants (see Table 1).

White-Collar Workers Research Paper

With  respect  to  their  productive  functions  whitecollar workers differ from manual workers in that they—varying with the economic sector in which they are employed—perform directing, overseeing, constructive, analyzing,  administrative, commercial,  and information-processing tasks. These criteria may lead, in many cases, to a clear distinction  between manual workers  and white-collar  employees in private  enterprises. They are hardly suitable for a clear distinction between  officials or  civil servants  (Beamte)  and  employees (Angestellte)  in the  public  sector.  The  functions of these two categories normally overlap. But the upper ranks of the hierarchy are staffed by employees with  the  status  of  civil servant  (Humphreys, 1958). Beamte  and  Angestellte  differ  by legal status  rather than by types of functions.

White-Collar Workers Research Paper

3.    Origin And Growth

The origins of some white-collar  professions  may be traced  back  to  the premodern period.  Among  them figure, for instance,  the commercial employees which at that time still had a good chance to reach the status of a self-employed salesman later in life. Nevertheless as a mass stratum  one has called white-collar employees rightly  the  ‘latest child of industrial  capitalism.’ Two  main  developments   contributed  to  the  rapid growth of the group: (a) the shifting balance between the  ‘first’ (agriculture)   and  the  ‘second  sector’  (industry)   in  favor  of  the  ‘third,’  the  service  sector (Fourasti    1963)—a  development   that   took   place first  in Great  Britain  while other  industrial  nations followed suit in the course of the nineteenth  and twentieth  century;  (b) the  rise of ‘Organized  Capitalism’ (Hilferding  1981) since the end of the nineteenth  century, a phase characterized by the growing importance of organization, planning,  information-gathering, bureaucratic control,  and  the  creation  of structures within and  outside  industry  to serve these ends. The relative growth  of the share of the employees within the public sector, however, is determined  not only by changes in the function of the modern state but also to a large extent by the political will either to expand or to restrict the spread of particular privileges attached to the status of civil servant (Beamte). Such privileges are, for example, the protection against dismissal and pension schemes, etc.

As  recent   social  data   show,  even  in  the  most advanced  contemporary industrial   societies  the  expansion  of white-collar  jobs has not  yet come to an end. But there are clear signs that the rate of expansion slowed  down  significantly  in the  second  half  of the twentieth   century.   As  with  all  social  growth,   the creation  of white-collar  jobs  as a strategy  to  tackle problems  arising  from  the development  of economy and society as a whole is subject to the law of diminishing returns. While in the early stages of industrial  capitalism  white-collar  employees were instrumental in  the  process  of  rationalizing production—a   fact   that   caused   widespread    resentment among  manual  workers—in  further  stages they were themselves subjected to strategies of cost-cutting  and rationalizing. This development began very soon after the turn of the twentieth century with the introduction of specific office machines as the typewriter,  the Hollerith-machine—an early form of large-scale data-processing—and other  changes  in the  structure  and organization of office work. This process definitely has gained a new quality in recent years. In particular, the spreading  of the computer,  the communication  revolution,  and the integration of office work into controllable networks  has  opened  new  chances  for quantitative control  of employee activities once considered to be typical only for manual  work. Whether this tendency  is outweighed  by other  trends  towards ‘lean management’  and  more  autonomy on  the  job remains to be seen.

4.    Status And Privilege

The   Swedish–German  sociologist   Croner   (Croner 1951) developed his ‘theory of delegation,’ according to  which  most  early  white-collar   jobs  in  industry emanated through a process of division of labor and of delegation  out  of functions  originally  performed  by the  employer.  This  theory  has  been  questioned   by empirical  research.  Especially  in  modern  industries many  tasks  performed   by  white-collar  workers  actually represent  new functions  without  any historical precedent.  It seems highly questionable that  all early functions  classified as white-collar  carried  with them high  prestige.  Especially,  in  the  area  of  small-scale shop-keeping  there existed extremely exploitive working conditions  for clerks with low pay, no job security, long  working-hours, etc.  (Anderson   1976, Crossick 1977). Nevertheless,  it holds  true  that  many  white-collar  occupations  enjoyed  at  least  some  form  of privilege  in  comparison with  manual  workers,  and continue  to  do  so. Some of the  differences  resulted from the specific nature of their work that could not be subjected  easily to  quantitative methods  of control. One of the traits  that  distinguished  most—not  all— white-collar  jobs  from  blue-collar  functions   was  a fixed income, the ‘salary,’ that, at least in principle, did not vary with working hours  or the amount  of work carried  out.  Because  of  the  fact  that  knowledge  of business transactions within  the specific firm constituted   the  main  qualification  of  many  white-collar employees,  the  accumulation of such  individualized knowledge  gave members  of the group  a higher  job security than  manual  workers,  especially in the early stages  of  industrialization. Even  in  later  days,  the office never became the place for a general ‘hire and fire’ climate. As many positions of white-collar workers were integrated  into large, delicately differentiated bureaucratic hierarchies,  aspirations for upward  mobility  never  vanished  completely.  Besides,  in  many countries   there  were,  traditionally,  legal  privileges attached   to  certain  white-collar  occupations.  These entitlements   included   protection  against   dismissal, paid  vacation,  continuation of wage payment  in the case of illness, company  pensions schemes, etc.

The idea that the class of white-collar workers as a whole would face ‘proletarianization,’ as put forward especially by writers in the Marxist tradition, has given way to a much more nuanced picture. At earlier stages of the development legal privileges attached  to certain types of white-collar workers were generalized among larger   groups.   Moreover,    the   French   sociologist Michel Crozier  has argued  that  the consequences  of rapid   rationalization  were  often   absorbed   by  the constant  influx of female workers.  Though  the equation  ‘proletarianization-feminization’ does not  come out,  there  is some  degree  of truth  in it. New  styles of management—the movement  towards  ‘lean management’ since the 1980s, for instance—have amplified autonomy and  reopened  scope,  at  least,  for  certain groups  among  the  white-collar  population. On  the other  hand  there  can be no doubt  that  a process  of narrowing  and  even blurring  of differences  between blue-collar and white-collar workers took place in the course of the twentieth century. Important groups within the white-collar  population, especially clerical workers and sales personnel,  have been overtaken  by skilled  manual   workers   in  terms  of  income,  jobsecurity,   even  prestige.   Many   of  the  rights   once attached  exclusively to certain  white-collar  positions have, step-by-step, been granted to the workforce as a whole, making white-collar  workers,  at least in some countries such as Germany, important, if involuntary, harbingers of the modern social state. Though, on average, white-collar workers still appear  to be privileged in relation  to  the  manual  workforce,  the  ‘average’ white-collar worker largely has become a statistical   fiction   due   to   the   immense   variety   of positions and professions  that nowadays  characterize these categories.

5.    Organizational Behavior

Depending  on the structure  of the trade union movement within the respective countries, white-collar workers tend to organize exclusively or are integrated into general unions (Behringer 1985, Bain and Pollins 1965, Bain 1972; Jenkins and Sherman 1979). In most cases union membership among white-and blue-collar workers overlaps at least to a certain degree. The main area in which both groups differ is trade union membership in general. White-collar workers are considerably less well organized than manual workers with  the  one  exception  of the  public  sector.  Hence, their growing weight among the workforce  represents one of the most important factors  in the crisis of the trade   union   movement   in  developed   countries   in general.

6.    National Differences And Pecularities

While  in  most  industrialized countries  the  division between white- and blue-collar workers was never clearly  marked  or  valid  only  in regard  of relatively small  groups,  in  some  European countries  such  as Austria,  Czechoslovakia, Switzerland,  and  Germany until  the middle  of the twentieth  century,  blue- and white-collar  workers  constituted distinguished   entities, separated in many aspects, legal as well as organizational and  ideological.  Social legislation,  especially pensions  schemes, had  been enacted  before and after the First World War. They had an important impact, strengthening existing differences between white  und   blue-collar   workers.   The  dividing   line between the two groups  structured large parts  of the fabric of these societies—legislation, trade union movement, self-help organizations, political affiliations, etc. By the 1950s, the distinction between white and blue collar had begun to erode gradually, a development  that  was supported by the expansion  of former  white-collar  privileges  to  the  general  workforce.  Another  important aspect  in which  German-speaking countries before the Second World War differed from other  societies was the sheer size of the legally defined white-collar population which included sales personnel  as well as general managers.

7.    Social Theory

White-collar  workers  were introduced into the realm of modern  social science at the end of the nineteenth century. The starting point was twofold: (a) the notion of a growing  number  of occupations, employments, and functions that shared many traits of the working-class while at  the  same  time  differing  in important aspects  from  manual  workers  as  well as  from  the higher social strata;  (b) the exceptional  rapid  growth of these categories in the decades around the turn  of the century which even outdid that of the manual workers.

The most intensive debates on white-collar workers took place in German-speaking countries from about 1890 up to the 1930s against  the background of the formation of strong  labor  movements  (largely blue-collar) and of a political system, dominated by conservative elites eager to defend the status quo and in search  of numerically  important allies among  the general  population. In  the  first  stage  of the  debate, which took  place before the First  World  War, status quo-oriented scholars identified white-collar  workers as  part   of  a  new  socially  stable  and  conservative ‘middle estate’ and, at the same time, encouraged  the state  to  engage  in  a  social-protective  policy  (e.g., white-collar specific insurances  and labor  laws) while Marxist  theorists  predicted  a  general  proletarianization of these groups. The 1920s saw a convergence of opinions,  reinforced  by the sceptical notion  that  the ‘new middle class’ in German-speaking countries seemed to figure prominently among the mass base of National Socialism. The label of a potential  for rightwing extremism has stuck to the group ever since, not least  through the  intellectual   influence  of  German social   scientists,   many   of  whom   were  forced   to emigrate  in  the  early  1930s  (Fromm   1984,  Speier 1986). The notion  showed up again in many theories of Fascism  developed  in the  1950s and  1960s, generalizing  what  was seen to  be the  experience  of the interwar  years (Lipset  1960). In contrast, social historians  who took  up the debate  in the 1970s tried to demonstrate the pecularities  of the German  and Austrian  experience  (e.g., Kocka  1980) while latest research has challenged the notion of a predominantly right-leaning,  ‘new middle  class’ in  the  1920s altogether (Falter  1991).

The debate over the role of white-collar workers in the mass base of National socialism represented  the climax and at the same time a turning point. Interest in interpretations of the white-collar  group  as a whole has subsided (but see Schulz 2000) in Germany  as well as in other  countries  where  it never  figured  prominently.

Not surprisingly, with regard to the heterogeneity of the group, social science attributed contradictory attitudes and  social functions  to these groups,  often departing from specific traits of subgroups. One important theme over the decades has been the impact the expansion  of white-collar occupations has had on the emancipation of women,  whether  it offered  new opportunities for  social mobility  or  whether  it only helped  to  reproduce   traditional  inequalities   (Suhr 1930). There has been much research on the impact of rapid technological change on office work through the decades, some with more pessimistic, others with more optimistic overtones.  Studies of the service sector, for instance,  stress its relative  resistence  to  change  as a result of the need to maintain  a workforce  even when there  is no constant  demand,  a fact which has been labeled ‘guard labor.’ Other scholars have pointed  to the partial  regain of autonomy on the work-place  as part of the automation movement in the 1970s which was said to have led to the formation of a ‘new worker’ (Mallet  1963). Actually,  the debate  referred  to members of the technical staff supposedly holding key positions  for  potential  labor  disputes.  Another   important context  was  the  rise  of  modern   consumer society since the First  World  War in Europe  and the United  States. The concentration of large numbers  of white-collar employees in larger cities led to the identification of them with the urban population as a whole, regarding  them  as pioneers  of modern  consumption and new forms of leisure (Coyner  1977). This notion dates  back  to the influential  study  first published  in 1924, of the German  social writer, Siegfried Kracauer (Kracauer 1998) and translated into many languages ever since. It has been taken  up in various  studies of the historic development of modern consumption and leisure, leaving out, with regard to the white-collar population, those  members  of  the  group  living  in smaller and middle-size cities.

Though, in the second half of the twentieth century, interest   for   white-collar   employees   in   the   social sciences has flared up from time to time, there seems to be no future for any revival of a wholesale white-collar worker  sociology  as it developed  in some European countries  during  the interwar  years. One of the most important prerequisites,  the  existence  of a self-conscious socialist working-class,  no longer exists. With its disappearance the interest of social science, policymakers,  and  the  different  groups  that  make  up  this strata  to develop  a broad  definition  based  upon  the distinction between ‘us,’ the ‘white-collar,’ and ‘them,’ the  ‘blue-collar  workers,’  seems  to  have  vanished. What remains is a remarkable gap between the numerical importance of the group in question and its relative neglect by social scientists in the last decades.

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