Sean Speer: The working class isn’t who you think it is

Women (35 percent) are more likely than male workers (33 percent) to be in working-class jobs
Patrons sit on the patio as waitress Susie Plamondon, left, carries a glass of champagne at Joey Sherway, part of the Joey Restaurant chain during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, June 24, 2020. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.

If in the context of the 2015 federal election Canadian politics became fixated on “the middle class and those hoping to join it,” then the new and emerging fixation seems to be the working class. Everyone is talking about it these days. 

New Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has spoken early in his leadership about “fight[ing] for the working class.” The New Democrats have similarly recommitted themselves to being a “credible champion for working-class people.” And the Trudeau government recently announced inflation relief measures targeting low-income and working-class households. 

These political developments caused one left-wing economist to ask: “Will defining “working class” be the 2020s version of defining the “middle class?”

A new paper (co-authored by Renze Nauta, Sosina Bezu, and me) published by the Cardus Institute aims to answer this question. It uses a definition of the working class—namely, someone who works in a non-management, professional, or technical job that generally doesn’t require post-secondary education—to understand who comprises Canada’s working class, what jobs they do, and how they’ve done over the past 20 years or so. Our basic goal is to ensure that the growing political interest in the working class is rooted in facts rather than nostalgia. 

What do we find? Today’s working class is more female than male, more likely to be an immigrant or racial minority, much more likely to be in service-sector jobs than “blue-collar” jobs, and frequently has more educational experience or credentials than is typically required for its jobs. 

Let’s start with its overall size. While Canada’s working class is shrinking (its share of the working population has fallen from 42 percent in 2000 to 34 percent today), it’s still the largest share of workers in the Canadian economy. There were 6.5 million working-class Canadians in 2021. If they were a singular voting bloc, they would have won the popular vote in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Of these working-class Canadians, for most of the past 20 years, more than half have been women. Women (35 percent) are also more likely than male workers (33 percent) to be in working-class jobs. The same goes for immigrants or visible minorities. Just under half of visible minorities in the Canadian workforce are in working-class occupations compared to 39 percent for non-visible minorities. 

There’s been a major shift in the type of jobs that working-class Canadians do. The old image of blue-collar men on the manufacturing assembly line is no longer representative. Today nearly half of the working class is in sales and service jobs such as retail clerk, food counter attendant, or personal support worker. This is up from just over 30 percent in 1990 and is more than double the labour market as a whole. As one American policy scholar has described these trends: the modern working class has gone from “making stuff” to “serving and caring for people.” 

One of our major findings is that even though we define working class based on occupations that generally don’t require post-secondary experience or credentials, 53 percent of working-class Canadians (excluding full-time students) actually have post-secondary certificates, diplomas, or degrees. This may reflect various factors including individual preferences, foreign credential issues, a skills mismatch, or even employer discrimination. The upshot though is a prima facie case of large-scale underemployment that carries opportunity costs for individuals and the economy as a whole. 

These costs could be quite significant. Consider, for instance, that working-class Canadians earn, on average, 42 percent less per hour than those in non-working-class jobs. More than 60 percent of the working class earns less than $800 per week compared to just 20 percent for members of the management, professional, or technical classes. 

These insights from the data are crucial for politicians in pursuit of the working class. Although it’s a positive development that we’re seeing greater attention paid to this undervalued group of voters, the political class needs to meet them where actually they live and work. 

This means discarding outdated stereotypes of a working class mostly comprised of male, blue-collar, often unionized workers in the goods-producing economy and replacing it with a modern picture of the working class mostly comprised of women and visible minorities with some post-secondary credentials working in service-sector jobs. Think of a home-care worker instead of a General Motors factory worker. 

The policy consequences of this shift in our understanding of the modern working class are significant. The interests, concerns, and aspirations of a female personal supporter worker necessarily differs from those of a male worker in the manufacturing sector. A modern working-class agenda must account for these differences. It will need, for instance, to speak concretely about issues like health and dental benefits, labour standards, housing, childcare, and immigration. 

It’s too early to tell whether the newfound fixation on working-class Canadians will be a durable feature of our politics. That will ultimately depend on if the political parties are able to translate their political overtures into concrete policies responsive to the needs of the modern working class. Those efforts will need to rely on facts rather than nostalgia to guide them. 

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