Gold Collar Worker

Collar Colors by Malcolm Evans

Gold collar worker is a neologism which has been used to describe either young, low-wage workers who invest in conspicuous luxury, or highly-skilled knowledge workers, traditionally classified as white collar, but who have recently become essential enough to business operations as to warrant a new classification.

The term was coined by management consultant Robert Earl Kelley in 1985.

The first category is comprised of 18 to 25 year-old persons in a position to divert a significant portion of their earnings towards material luxuries. They typically have fewer than 2 years of post-high school education. Like their counterparts attending college, they are often employed as retail workers or in the hospitality industry, particularly food service as servers. This group tends to have more disposable income than college students, who often pay high tuition costs, take on a number of financial loans, and often move away from their parents. A lack of financial obligations leaves young people in this situation with a higher enough level of discretionary/disposable income, which they use to finance luxury goods. Thus, the term also carries a connotation of immaturity, the extension of youth, and nurtured adolescence, as in the movie ‘Failure to Launch,’ where a man still lives with his parents despite being well into his 30s and owning a business. In the UK the expression ‘two-bob billionaire’ is used, in that whilst one feels wealthy and hardworking one’s status is in fact illusory.

The main challenge faced by gold-collar workers is the short-lived nature of their financial security. More often than not, these people marry and have children, and take on additional financial responsibilities such as mortgages and health insurance. With partial or no higher education, however, their job prospects could be viewed as narrow and fairly restricted. According to Anthony Carnevale of the National Center on Education and the Economy, ‘These people are going to be cash-rich 19-year-olds and cash-poor 30-year-olds… If you’re making 22 grand a year and not paying for college, you can earn enough disposable income to have an apartment and a car. But it tops out there. Job security is not good, and you end up in the lower middle class and working poor. ‘

In his 1985 book ‘The Gold-Collar Worker: Harnessing the Brainpower of the New Work Force’ Robert Kelley discussed a new generation of workers who use American business’ most important resource, brainpower. A quote from the book summary states, ‘They are a new breed of workers, and they demand a new kind of management. Intelligent, independent, and innovative, these employees are incredibly valuable. They are lawyers and computer programmers, stock analysts and community planners, editors and engineers. They are as distinct from their less skilled white-collar counterparts—bank tellers, bookkeepers, clerks, and other business functionaries—as they are from blue-collar laborers. And they account for over 40 percent of America’s workforce.’ The color gold applies to these workers because they are highly skilled.


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