Blue Collar…White Collar…X Collar

aaa Lumberjack_24_by_AilinStockI’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.

Wayne Moran PhotographyThe 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.

aaaa axe_in_stumpAnyway, 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.

aaa HRH with fountainLater, 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.

aaaa hedonHedonic 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.

25-01 BBB Kubota with entourageHenry

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.


15 Responses to "Blue Collar…White Collar…X Collar"

  1. Bruce Huff says:

    Me. An over-the-road truck driver driving all 48 plus Canada. Getting paid to travel-what a novel idea. My Baylor Masters Degreed English teacher wife loved the road with me summers. A simple, yet fulfilling occupation. Thanks for your story–so very true.
    Bruce H.

    • Henry Harvey says:

      When I was a kid, there was a series called Route 66…two guys in a Vette traveling that Route and discovering America. I always loved that show, though it was hugely romanticized. Glad you had a chance to take your wife of some of the trips.

  2. I know who Gene is but who the heck is MaryAnn? I should know her, considering I am in Wegmans at the least, 5 times a week, sometimes 6. My step father was a white collar guy, all the way and he loved his job, never missed a day ( or perhaps that was just because he wanted to avoid my mother ). HE was one of the lucky ones My husband was as blue collar as they come, Union man, he also loved his job. Now you have me, I have worn both collars and honestly, I am quite happy being an ambassador/security/teacher/psychologist/babysitter/cashier. I wear all of those hats these days. Our son just graduated with a degree in Graphic Design (he isn’t passionate about it), he works as a Sr. Assoc. in a clothing store and he HATES IT! But ask him what it is he wants to do, he hasn’t a clue. My advice, find what you love and try your hardest to do it.
    Debbie B

    • Henry Harvey says:

      I think if you’re planning on a white collar career, you have a huge advantage spending a lot of time learning what the people doing the work are doing…how it feels, the hardships, problems, etc.
      And the corollary is true as well.

  3. Mary Golden says:


    Our Mike had said since age 3 that he wanted to be a fireman.
    Through grade school, high school (where he started volunteering), thru college and grad school…. ( both in engineering )….

    Throughout his couple of short stints ‘trying out’ engineering jobs, he was disenchanted ( except for the one in NYC during 9/11 when he chose to stay on for another year as a safety engineer w/ the rebuilding of the subway under Ground Zero…during which he also helped FDNY families with the planning of funerals..)
    Anyway, now with a rescue unit on Staten Island, there’s no happier worker! I guess you could say he’s a ‘dirty collar’ worker!

    Bless all our first responders!
    Mary G.

    • Henry Harvey says:

      Hi Mary!
      YUP!!! Don’t know if you knew this but our barn (and almost our house as well) burned a number of years ago. The fire men (boys?) got out to the place in a nick of time and saved our house. I’ve written about the night many times since. God bless ’em.

  4. Lynn Walker says:

    I remember about 20 years ago that Lee Iacocca wore a blue shirt with white cuffs and collar and the media thought that was brilliant strategy at Chrysler. Here was a man who knew people and had worked his way up the corporate ladder. Very shrewd move.

    All forms of work are important regardless of the attire. If you visit Italy, being a waiter is a profession, not something to do while you are hoping for something better to come along. There is pride in their appearance, their knowledge of the cuisine, and also in their crisply starched aprons. This is rarely seen in our country.

    The Hedonic Treadmill is alive and well along the I-95 corridor. In fact, there seems to be one in every home along the way. No house is too big, no car is too expensive, no neighbor is good enough to socialize with. Their kids are too good to work at a restaurant or supermarket, for menial work is beneath them. What a rude awakening is in store for the affluenza generation.

    Even with the recession going strong, the effete attitude continues. The cure for that is a diet of earning minimum wage…then let’s see what happens to snobbery.

    • Henry Harvey says:

      The Affluenza Generation…I love it! The sad thing, however, is that kids today aren’t any better or worse than kids fifty years ago. They are just living in the “today” which is, let’s see…whose fault? Partly ours. If you or I were born, say fifteen or twenty years ago, do you think we’d be any different? I think part of the problem goes back to our strides in technology. Every single day we’re bombarded with new starlets, success stories, million and billionaires. Seeing so many, we are absolutely certain we’ll at least have a book written about ourselves. If you grow a seed in lousy soil, the seed suffers for it.
      Never thought about Lee’s two-tone shirt in that way before, but you’re right. The symbolism was and is brilliant! Thanks!

  5. Jonathan says:

    More nuggets of wisdom. I love it. I am x collar. I am a Spanish teacher
    (at a VERY white collar private school BTW) but I also make hammocks and
    am a guitarist and surfer. I love to work with my hands. All of these
    things make me happy. My daughters (8,11,13) will read this article.
    Especially the 13 year old. I figured it out in my late twenties/early
    30s. So much labeling and pigeon holing in society. Wasted words. You are
    my long lost uncle/big brother. Come to Wilmington, NC and lets have a
    cuba libre.
    PS I want a link to a url of this so i can share it. It never works well
    when I try to forward the email to friends and family
    Merry Christmas, or whatever

    • Henry Harvey says:

      You’re on for that Cuba libre, Jonathan! If I can get a couple of Cuban cigars it’ll make it even better! Always wanted to go there.
      I just replied to a gal, who used the term Affluenza, and there’s some truth in that. Newer generations expect a whole lot, possibly because of the 1000% exposure to what’s out there. The world doesn’t work that way. But…it ain’t their fault, either. I never subscribed to Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” (WWII) any more than today’s generation being slackers and drop-outs. It’s the time in history that molds each generation and the past few have gotten the short end of the stick.
      Thanks for responding!

  6. Henry Harvey says:

    Hello Henry,

    I like all different collars, blue and white and the gradation in between. I myself have been in several different position in this spectrum, and still don’t know what collar I am. In my experience educated blue collars are happier people. I agree with your ideas. I enjoyed the article very much, viva my dear active, smart friend.


  7. Henry Harvey says:

    Hi Mo!
    It’s really true that there’s a whole spectrum of shadings or gradations between white and blue. There’s an old concept called the Peter Principle which states that people are promoted ever-higher in the ranks…until they reach their level of incompetence. And there they stay. I think that’s a bit harsh, but often a superb hands-on engineering type is promoted into a management position….to nobody’s benefit.

  8. Henry Harvey says:

    Loved the blog on blue/white collar. Am rethinking my work life. For a time there was also pink collar —- that went away real quickly with the woman’s movement !!!!
    Beth L.

  9. Henry Harvey says:

    Hi Beth,
    Thanks for your input! I had completely forgotten about the pink collar. I think if I were a woman today, I would object to the color pink to represent me. Something a bit more powerful I think like RED! the color of passion.
    Looking in the mirror, most days I have on no collar at all. Just jeans and a black t-shirt, mostly because when I’m painting a sculpture I quickly spatter whatever I’m wearing. But it’s fun.

  10. Henry Harvey says:

    Hi Beth,
    Thanks for your input! I had completely forgotten about the pink collar. I think if I were a woman today, I would object to the color pink to represent me. Something a bit more powerful I think like RED! the color of passion.
    Looking in the mirror, most days I have on no collar at all. Just jeans and a black t-shirt, mostly because when I’m painting a sculpture I quickly spatter whatever I’m wearing. But it’s fun.

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