I’m going to start out glib, a bit sarcastic…and uhm…wrong for a moment, to make a point, as well as save you time from hearing the drivel you already know about. Here is the party line: White collar means you’re smarter, make more money and live in a better community than blue collar. White collar means that you tell other people what to do. Blue collar means you do the work that white collar doesn’t really want to get its hands dirty doing.
Oversimplification? Oh yeah. Wrong? Yeah, about 80-90% of the time. There’s another bigger yardstick that figures into the equation as well. It starts with an H and rhymes with flappiness. We’ll address that in a moment. I’ve mentioned it before.
The stigma of the collars remains. It survived. But the reality of what’s actually going on has morphed a lot over the last couple of decades. Now, you can hang that college diploma up on the wall, put on your suit and tie, comb your hair, grab your attache, go to work and…make drastically less than the plumber, electrician, engine mechanic in jeans, or…that waitress(?) YUP…or that silver-haired guy serving you coffee at Wegmans. More about him later…
The truth: To paraphrase a line from a Jack Nicholson movie, Friend…you might not be able to handle the truth. Over time, truths morph. They change, and what was sorta true when you were sixteen, may be utter baloney now. As recently as this morning, there was a story in the NYT by Brittany Bronson, entitled: Your Waitress, Your Professor. Brittany is a university English instructor…quite white collar, indeed. Only, she also works as a waitress because the money is so much better and she’s happier. If you dig a little deeper, the class distinction can get very muddy.
X Class: A Fork in the Road: When you’re a kid, you exist under the umbrella of whatever class or collar your parents occupy. Later, in college and more importantly, when you go out on your own, you have your chance to jump-ship to another class, whether up or down or to figuratively change the color of your collar. Senior year at Franklin and Marshall we were studying for senior comps: grueling 4-hour oral and written exams over several days to determine whether you had, indeed, actually learned anything. Two of us on second floor Atlee Hall were philo. majors. I had already applied and gotten accepted at Columbia Law (a prerequisite for: lawyers, comedians and McDonald’s fry cooks). That had been the secret plan all along…making salty, oily french fries...mmmm.
Anyway, there was a guy down the hall who was also a philo major. Kerry was extremely bright, looked like a five-foot eight inch Hugh Jackman, and like myself, had a skinny, brown-eyed, drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend. (I married mine.) The four of us would pass in the hallway on a big weekend and nod knowingly. Kerry had a god-awful big tree stump plunked-down in the middle of his tiny dorm room with an axe stuck in the middle. Once in a while you’d hear him whacking away at it in the middle of the night.
One day, I asked him what law school he was applying to. He nodded at the question but didn’t answer right away. He took some swings at the stump and then finally answered, “I intend to go into forestry.” Kerry was a lot better looking than I was and about 40 points higher on his SATS. I didn’t get it. He just smiled when I pursued the topic. Eventually, he said, “I really like forestry. I like everything about it. I like trees, mountains, everything.” What Kerry knew even back then was what made him happy. On my side of the fork, I didn’t go the law route either. I became a sculptor. Kerry and I both got what we wanted. The color of the collars…the status never ever entered into it. It just didn’t.
Later, as a mature sculptor, I got asked whether a sculptor is blue collar or white collar. I thought about it a bit. I finally answered with a question: “Was Monet blue collar or white? How ’bout Dali? Picasso? Chopin? Hemingway?” DaVinci used a stone chisel and got dirty. I guess he was blue collar, lower-middle class. Well….I’m pulling your leg now.
By the way, there’s an oldish book, still available on Amazon. It’s entitled, Class and it’s by Paul Fussel. It’s as funny as it is insightful and disarming. It was written a while back but it’s as fresh as today. You may get your eyes opened about what’s really proletarian, middle class and upper class…and the ten gradations between. You can still get it if you’re curious….
Eyes opened and Hunches Confirmed: This summer I had a concentrated course of inundation with classic “blue-collar contractors”, several who’ve since become good friends. We re-did our house from the ground-up. Carpenters, plumbers, roofers, electricians, septic guys, inspectors. Half of ’em have college degrees…or more. Half of ’em make more money than I do. Some, probably make way more. More importantly, they’re smart, professional, their own bosses and extremely happy doing what they do. Contrast this against some of my friends who are white-collar professionals, smart as a whip, and about half of them make more money.
Hedonic Treadmill: But there’s something amiss. Something doesn’t add up. The only big difference I can see is, the higher up the professional ladder they climbed, the less happy they were and the more they were buried in work. It may be connected directly to the Hedonic Treadmill: Whatever you have, quickly becomes…not quite good enough…so you have to pedal a little faster. And when you reach that next rung, it feels great for a while but then you get used to it and must pedal faster. You need to accumulate a certain base amount so you can eat, stay warm, pay your bills, drive safely and keep healthy. But beyond that, the drop-off of happiness vs. money is steep. Gobs more won’t create more happiness…often quite the opposite.
Ego: It might also have something to do with expectations eventually out-stripping reality. We men have HUGE egos. We don’t have to be good. We have to be BETTER. I believe Oscar Wilde said something to the effect that, “It’s not good enough for me to win. You…have to lose.” It may also have something to do with the fact that the higher up you go, the more ephemeral it becomes as what you actually have to show for your efforts. When I finish a big sculpture, I stand back…grin for about three seconds, because I know it’ll be here after I’m gone. When a carpenter creates a house, he can stand back and say, “I did that.”
Gene: Earlier I mentioned the guy…gentleman who works at Wegmans. His name is Gene and he’s a classic example. Other than Jimmy, my Greek friend who runs the Eagle Diner in New Hope, Gene is the happiest, friendliest guy I’ve ever met. Gene serves coffee and yummies, and with a smile every single day. Before he did that, however, he was a computer systems analyst for Wyeth Pharmaceutical, about as white collar as it gets. I asked him as recently as…this morning, which job makes him happier. He laughed out loud. He finally said, “Well…I made more money at Wyeth…but I’m a lot happier here.” Go figure.
Maryann: Although this isn’t an advertisement for Wegmans, as I was typing the last sentence, it occurred to me that 37 feet from Gene’s coffee counter is the bread and pastry section…manned by Maryann Powell, a mature woman with the wit of a stand-up comedienne, and (very often) the wisdom of Buddha. Pamela, Maryann, and I hug every week and then swap stories. She’s kinder than I am and probably wiser……and funny!!! She was also a white collar professional in finance. This past year, Maryann and her husband won a shiny new Mustang…something they’d always wanted. We joked. I asked her if she wanted to race. She smiled……..and then said that she was going to ditch it because her son needed the money. Maryann isn’t rolling in dough, even though she works in Wegmans pastry. But there it is. The fact came out quite accidentally. She wasn’t martyring herself or complaining. It was just a matter-of-fact. Though I’ve known many people for decades, I’d trust Maryann with my money and my life. ….It ain’t all about money.
If your kid ever comes to you and says, “Mom… Dad… what I’d really, really, really like to do is build houses”, or grow forests, tell jokes, or make weird sculptures, don’t be so quick to set them on a different path. That path less traveled can be quite beautiful.
P.S For my white collar friends… If you think you came off a bit worse for wear in this article…suck it up. White Collar has never been the subject of ridicule or back-handed compliments.