The term blue-collar describes working-class people, especially those who work in manufacturing, construction, and other fields involving manual labor and hourly wages. It also describes things having to do with working-class people, such as the areas where they live and their shared concerns, and it can describe a style of working. For instance, a football coach who is hands-on in practice and speaks in a no-nonsense way might be described as having a blue-collar style.
White-collar describes people who don’t perform manual labor, especially office workers, management, and administrative staff. It is also extended to describe things having to do with white-collar people (especially in the phrase white-collar crime), but it is not as common as blue-collar in this sort of use.
Both terms came about in the early to middle 20th century in the United States. White-collar precedes blue-collar by a few years (or at least was widely used earlier),1 so the latter may have been suggested by the former. Their derivations are obvious. People who work in manufaturing and other manual-labor jobs tend to wear darker, often blue, clothing to conceal dirt and grease, whereas people who work in offices tend to wear white or light-colored clothing because there is little risk of getting visibly dirty.
Here are a few examples drawn from sources spanning the early 20th century to the present:
The second largest group of placements were service workers, whereas in the active file white-collar workers were second in importance. [Doors to Jobs, Emily Harriett Huntington (1942)]
The salaries of postmen, clerks and “blue collar” workers should be adjusted according to the pay standards in the region where they work. [Life (1949)]
There are too many people, trained in too many white and blue collar skills, to support themselves in the future by farming individually our remaining productive land. [Resources and the American Dream, Samuel H. Ordway, Jr. (1953)]
The income gains of the blue-collar workers under the powerful post-World War II unions, at the expense of the largely unorganized white-collar workers, raise questions about the subsequent interplay of income, power, status, and style of life at these class levels. [Assimilation in American Life, Milton Myron Gordon (1964)]
A Democratic spokesman said Saturday President Nixon has overlooked rent gougers, price fixers, political saboteurs and other white-collar criminals while emphasizing tough penalties for other crimes. [Associated Press via Modesto Bee (1972)]
Of the workers laid off at DoD between 1990 and 1992, about 60 percent were blue-collar workers even though they accounted for slightly less than 30 percent of DoD’s civilian work force. [Reducing the Size of the Federal Civilian Work Force, Amy Belasco (1994)]
Of course most white-collar crime is not as grand as that which occurred at Enron or WorldCom. [Sociology, Anthony Giddens and Simon Griffiths (2006)]
This is vintage Biden – the down-to-earth blue-collar Joe who puts people at ease in even the most formal of settings. [Irish Times]