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 .