Economic Class

Social class is fossilized wealth. There are three economic classes in the USA.

  • If you do physical work then you belong to the the “working class”, “lower class”, “blue collar” or simply “labor”.

  • If you do nonphysical work then you belong to the “middle class” or “white collar”.

  • If other people work for you then you belong to the “upper class” or “bourgeoisie”.


The working class lives in the physical world. Blue collar problems are physical problems like injury, health, violence and broken machines. At the bottom of the working class you find mindless labor like agricultural labor, food service, cashiers and—increasingly—warehouses. (Petty crime is underclass.)

College used to be a ticket out of the lower class. This path is increasingly difficult due to price increases, credential inflation and opaque acceptance criteria designed to keep the lower class in its place. The military does still function in its traditional role as a ticket into the middle class, but only if you get into the right specialties.

In the middle of the working class are the skilled trades. All the traditional handyman job live here: plumber, roofer, electrician, drywall repair. Among women you can find lots of nursing. Retail sales belongs here too as do police officers. Rare occupations include jugglers, clowns, close-up magicians and other small-scale entertainers. (Media-based entertainers belong to the middle class.) Psychics and priests serve the working class but are themselves middle class.

Attempting to break into the middle class can be risky due to the sticker price of college plus the lost wages. If you go into the military there’s no guarantee they’ll teach you anything useful. A more prudent goal may be to break into the skilled trades. Blue collar work doesn’t require credentials the way white collar work does. If you can do something then employers will generally allow to do it. If you aren’t allowed to do it then it’s because there’s a union rule or government regulation getting in you way. Your productivity is fundamentally limited by physical reality. No matter how good of a janitor you are, there is a physical limit to the number of rooms you can clean in a day.

The working class might go to trade school for a year or two but most of what you know you learned from friends, absorbed from family, taught yourself or—most likely—learned on the job. It’s straightforward to learn things by doing them because the things you work with are physical and therefore intuitive. If you break into the skilled trades then you can expect to do the same thing for a long time.

Professional athletes are the pinnacle of the working class, but professional athletes are rare. Far more common are the petty bourgeoisie. The petty bourgeoisie consists of small business owner who work alongside their employees. Small business owners tend to be humble, wise and down-to-earth. If you can fully automate your business then you jump over the middle class all the way into the bourgeoisie.

White Collar

The middle class does intellectual labor. The problem with intellectual labor is it’s hard to tell whether someone is doing it right. If there were clear criteria for success then the job would have been automated away by now. Moreover, if you knew what the right thing to do was then you wouldn’t need to hire someone else to do it.

If it were possible to measure individual white collar workers’ output then the middle class would resemble the working class. It even does in a handful of fields where individual performance can be measured: sales, contracting and startup entrepreneurship. These ruthlessly meritocratic fields tend to be dominated by confident people who speak clearly.

Alas, most of the middle class works for large corporations. When white collar workers collaborate in teams it is impossible to how how much each individual employee is worth. Middle class posturetalk is a byproduct of the constraint that it’s hard to measure the productivity of individual white collar workers.

We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest.

Why Nerds are Unpopular by Paul Graham

Welcome to Dilbertland.

Generally-speaking, corporations cannot measure individual productivity. The result is a Market for Lemons where everyone is promoted to their level of incompetence. Corporations have a few methods of fighting back, all of them crude and imprecise:

  • Hiring based on IQ. Hiring directly based on IQ is illegal. However, your ability to solve abstract questions about computer algorithms depends on your IQ. If is legal to ask questions about computer algorithms if you are a hiring an engineer (even if that engineer never uses them on the job). [see comment]

  • Credentialing. It’s hard to measure if someone is a good electrical engineer but it’s easy to measure if someone has a degree in electrical engineering or used to work for Facebook. This also skews the IQ distribution in your favor.

  • Firing awful people.

Putting all of this together, you get a population of incompetent employees obsessed with credentials. They cannot be rewarded for exceptional productivity but they are punished for being unpopular. The result is painstakingly conformist population quick to signal allegiance to the winning side of every conflict, especially if it means punishing the outgroup (which reduces competition). When advantage shifts they jump ship. The middle class’s opinions are painstakingly crafted to win a Keynesian beauty contest.

The Upper Class

It is a common middle class myth that you can work your way up the corporate ladder to the top. This is a deliberately-crafted illusion. No matter how long you work for Microsoft you will never save enough money to buy Microsoft. You don’t get to the top of the class pyramid by working. You are rich when other people work for you.