Work acts as a pow­er­ful ‘class clue’, but the nature of our rela­tion­ship to, and under­stand­ing of, work is a change­able one. Bound­aries blur and par­tic­u­lar under­stand­ings of both role and worker seem less fixed than per­haps they once were. This, along­side the cur­rent eco­nomic cri­sis, with its asso­ci­ated polit­i­cal dis­courses around irre­spon­si­ble ‘scroungers’ and ‘cul­tures of workless­ness’ (e.g. Cameron, 2011) and sup­posed ‘strivers and skivers’ (e.g. Williams, 2013; Wal­ters and Car­lin, 2012) mean that work and the way we feel about it remains a hot topic.

I asked par­tic­i­pants about how they per­ceived the class of dif­fer­ent occu­pa­tions as part of the qual­i­ta­tive research I car­ried out for my doc­tor­ate (2009–2013). Plumb­ing was an occu­pa­tion con­sid­ered by many par­tic­i­pants to have enjoyed a ‘pos­i­tive’ swing in its asso­ci­ated mean­ings. Tom, 37, a Team Leader at a local char­ity notes the chang­ing per­cep­tion of those in the trade:

I know a plumber, he’s earn­ing 70 grand a year, he has his own busi­ness, he’s self-employed…maybe back in the for­ties, fifties it was just seen as man­ual labour, it may have been slightly seen differently…I think now it tends to be more mid­dle class, maybe back in the days when you didn’t have to have all the qual­i­fi­ca­tions it could’ve been seen as more work­ing class man­ual labour”

Sim­i­larly, Cather­ine, 49, who was hav­ing a finan­cially unprob­lem­atic ‘break’ from work and whose hus­band is a sur­geon noted that plumbers are:

…held in much higher esteem than per­haps they were 20 or 30 years ago so…I think it’s a good job…we had some build­ing work done a cou­ple of years ago, the plumber that came was y’know he was buy­ing his daugh­ter a brand new mini cooper and all this kind of stuff [laughs], fly­ing off to all sorts of places on hol­i­day and he was, actu­ally he was a very intel­li­gent and sort of gen­tle, sort of gen­teel I sup­pose, y’know he liked lis­ten­ing to clas­si­cal music and y’know not the sort of plumber I’d met before, they’d always tended to be more…well er…ordinary. I sup­pose you might say work­ing class in a way but maybe that’s chang­ing a bit now…I liked him y’know he was an inter­est­ing guy and he had lots of con­ver­sa­tion and was up on all world affairs and all that so I was quite sur­prised because of the plumbers I’d had previously…”

Employ­ment trends which see far higher finan­cial rewards for tra­di­tion­ally work­ing class occu­pa­tions such as plumber than for the more tra­di­tion­ally mid­dle class man­age­r­ial grade office work, have mud­died the waters of class and occu­pa­tion. Prior per­cep­tual link­ages are weak­ened and new ones form. For Tom and for other par­tic­i­pants, the trans­for­ma­tion in the class sta­tus of plumbers appears to be pred­i­cated on notions of increased finan­cial reward and increased com­plex­ity of the work. Cather­ine seems to be work­ing through what she feels about this. The idea that a plumber could be ‘intel­li­gent’, ‘gen­tle’, enjoy clas­si­cal music and be knowl­edge­able about world affairs — traits that she implies are more mid­dle class than work­ing class — was some­what of a rev­e­la­tion for her, such are the stereo­typ­i­cal images of man­ual work­ers and the sup­posed dichotomy of ‘blue col­lar’ = good with hands’,‘white col­lar’ = good with brain.

call centerphoto: Vitor Lima, via Flickr, cre­ative com­mons license

The Tay­lorism com­mon in much (work­ing class-associated) fac­tory work has breached the walls of the white-collar office. It has been argued that call cen­tres, with their con­stant mon­i­tor­ing of work­ers as they carry out their time-pressured and highly repet­i­tive work resem­ble ‘white col­lar fac­to­ries’ (see Tay­lor and Bain, 1999), thus fur­ther erod­ing the taken for granted dis­tinc­tions between blue collar/working class/manual and white collar/middle class/non-manual occu­pa­tions that for so long has been taken for granted. Per­haps unsur­pris­ingly, the employ­ment cat­e­gory of ‘Call Cen­tre Worker’ was one of the most dif­fi­cult for par­tic­i­pants to apply classed under­stand­ings to. This ambiva­lence appeared to be due to call cen­tre work being seen by many as rel­a­tively unskilled and/or unful­fill­ing work, but on the other hand not being man­ual labour. Par­tic­i­pants are pulled first in one direc­tion then the other when attempt­ing to clas­sify such work and those employed by it.

I did it for about six weeks when I first moved and it was awful…it’s quite monot­o­nous… pos­si­bly mid­dle class, work­ing class, it’s a dif­fi­cult one I think. I mean I don’t know how many peo­ple would respect them…a lot of stu­dents do that kind of work as kind of fill in work, quite often you get loads of, even in Eng­land, quite a lot of for­eign­ers doing that kind of job because it’s quite straight­for­ward… you have to be rel­a­tively elo­quent to a cer­tain extent any­way, to work in a call centre…so, a rel­a­tive amount of intel­li­gence I would say” (Vic­to­ria, 32, West Bergholt)

Vic­to­ria, a 32 year old teacher, embod­ies this ambiva­lence, not­ing the ‘sim­plic­ity’ of the work but that intel­li­gence and elo­quence is required; that it could be a job taken by both mid­dle class and work­ing class peo­ple (although the impli­ca­tion is that it is a ‘fill in’ job for the mid­dle classes) and that it is an occu­pa­tion that lacks respect from the wider pub­lic. Clearly, whether it con­jures feel­ings of ambiva­lence or per­cep­tions of change, work is still very much part and par­cel of our under­stand­ings of social class.

Ref­er­ences

  1. Cameron, D. ( (15 August 2011) ‘PM’s Speech on the Fight Back after the Riots’,.
  2. Tay­lor, P. and Bain, P. (1999) ‘An Assem­bly Line in the Head’: Work and Employee Rela­tions in the Call Cen­tre, Indus­trial Rela­tions Jour­nal Vol. 30, № 2, 101–117. Black­well, Oxford.
  3. Wal­ters, S. and Car­lin, B. (Sat­ur­day 29 Decem­ber 2012) Cameron Defends ‘Cruel’ Vow to Axe Dole for Shirk­ers in New Year Mes­sage as he Pre­pares to Launch Re-election Cam­paign The Daily Mail
  4. Williams, Z. (Wednes­day 9 Jan­u­ary 2013) Skivers v Strivers: The Argu­ment that Pol­lutes People’s Minds The Guardian .