In many ways, 26-year-old Nils Kovalevsky is a typical millennial. He lives at home, is saddled with $20,000 of student loan debt and is using his dual college degrees in English and comparative literature at a part-time gelato shop job down the street from his house. He makes about $15,000 per year, a salary that nudges him just over the federal poverty line into the realm of “working class,” a self-given label he wears with pride.
What’s not typical about him is how he fits into that class, a group traditionally defined by uneducated physical laborers who have unionized and fought for the right to work in industries like manufacturing, agriculture and construction. Kovalevsky is erudite, educated and after the extremely millennial goal of a low-stress job that gives him freedom and flexibility as opposed to guaranteed hours or decades of job security. He works in ice cream (a bit of a softer industry than, say, mining), loves that he’s supporting a small mom-and-pop business instead of a profit-hungry corporate machine, and in spite of his salary, doesn’t feel passed over like so many working-class laborers have in the past. “I love what I do,” he says. “It’s not glamorous by any stretch, but it’s stable, and I’m grateful for that. I’m not suffering in any way.”
Of course, he’s just one guy in a sea of young workers, but the combination of Kovalevsky’s job, income and identity represent what’s rapidly becoming America’s new working class: educated, socially conscious millennials and Gen Z-ers who are reshaping the face our most populous and “suffering” stratum.
Getting an exact read on the future of the working class can be difficult because of the unpredictability of the global economy, and because there is no single definition for what “working class” means. According to Colby King, a member of the Working Class Studies Association and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Upstate, sociologists and economists tend to use a person’s income, education and job type (or a combination of the three) to identify whether or not someone is working class, but it’s also a self-defined delineation that people tend to accept or reject based on how they see themselves and their position in society. “The categorical definitions are useful for tracing shifts in the structure of the economy, but for understanding how a person feels about their own circumstances, subjective self-identification is really informative,” King explains.
That said, there are some objective qualities that can indicate whether a person is working class. Earning a low hourly or salaried wage at a job that doesn’t require much skill or education is one. Surviving in the workforce without a college degree is another, as is being above the poverty line but lacking the discretionary income characteristic of the middle class. And while there’s no standardized income bracket that describes them, working-class Americans tend to be factory workers, farmers, artisans, mechanics and carpenters. They’re our nation’s Target cashiers; our weed trimmers; our fast-food workers; our personal trainers; our bus drivers; our baristas. And according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, they make up more than half of employed workers in the U.S.
Historically, the working class has also been characterized by their tendency to form unions to fight the wage stagnation and unfair labor practices that often accompany unskilled and low-earning jobs. The American labor movement originated in the working class, and millions of its members are still protected by unions today. But while the working class has always been racially and ethnically diverse, its unions are still disproportionately made up of and led by mostly white, middle-aged men in the Northeast and Midwest. These are the people who have unionized the most successfully and have received the most amount of attention for doing so. As a result, we tend to see the working class through the same limited lens we did when it was reforming the workforce and changing the economy in the 20th century: conservative Caucasian old boys with little education, precarious income and a can of chew snuggled deep inside their overall pockets. We believe they vote Republican (at least recently), work in factories and are fixated on the idea that America has left them behind.
That image, however, is about to change. As new, younger generations of laborers like Kovalevsky enter the workforce, the tired, inaccurate ideas we have about the working class and how it operates are being challenged by millennials and Gen Z, two groups whose newfangled skill sets and vastly different workplace values don’t exactly line up with traditional stereotypes. For one, the jobs they apply for the most are hardly “working class.” They’re in tech and health care; data science and finance. According to Glassdoor, the most sought-after job for both millennials and Gen Z-ers is software engineer, followed by software developer and a litany of other jobs that start with the word “software.” In fact, of the top 10 jobs Gen Z-ers apply for the most, only one (receptionist) could feasibly be considered “working class.” These generations also strongly prefer freelance, remote or gig economy jobs to stable 9-to-5s, a stark departure from earlier generations of working-class Americans who literally invented the 9-to-5 by demanding a consistent 40-hour work week.
What they expect from their jobs is also different. Millennials and Gen Z want fulfillment and purpose — to feel like their jobs are contributing to society and that there’s meaning in their day-to-day. Older generations, by contrast, were more interested in labor rights, longevity and being to put to work. That’s not to say they weren’t looking for purpose as well, just that it wasn’t a priority like it is for many of today’s future laborers. In some cases, it matters more than pay. Basically, what kinds of industries these generations work in and how they’re structured will be dictated by what they want — and feel entitled to — out of a workplace. According to Joel Kotkin, an internationally recognized authority on global, economic, political and social trends, that’s something that’s likely to alter the face not only of workplaces themselves, but of the working class as a whole.
What then will happen to America’s largest and most maligned social class?
To find out, I spoke with experts as well as a bunch of working-class young people, all of whom agreed that their future will look nothing like their brethren’s past or present.
Contrary to percolating narratives about the ever-suffering white working class, it’s actually quite diverse — though the suffering part is still spot-on. According to census data compiled for the 2016 American Community Survey, the working class is more racially and ethnically diverse than both the general population and the labor market of every state except Vermont, Maine and West Virginia. (Only 11 percent of the workers in it are white men in industrial jobs.)
This is a trend that King believes will only increase as younger generations age into the working class. As a 2016 report from the Economic Policy Institute points out, people of color are expected to make up the majority of the U.S. working class by 2032. Likewise, the working class is becoming increasingly female. In 1960, just a third of working-class laborers were women, but now their numbers are equal to men. Both of these changes should be good news for millennials and Gen Z, as both report workplace diversity is among the single most important qualities a potential employer could have.
“I don’t want to work for a company that employs workers on merit alone,” says Shannon, a biracial, unemployed 20-year-old college student who’s in the midst of applying for part-time jobs in retail (an industry she recently learned was among the most diverse). “In one of my sociology classes, we’ve been talking a lot about how merit usually comes from privilege and access to education and resources certain people don’t have. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and I’m starting to realize I’d rather spend my time and energy working for a company with a diversity of backgrounds and cultures. It makes it so much more well-rounded and innovative, and if we’re ever going to get over the sort of racial and gender divides that keep us separated, a good way to do so would be to start working more closely together, right?”
According to a 2016 survey from the Guardian and Ipsos Mori, U.S. millennials have become increasingly wary of the “middle-class” label, and are more interested than ever in slapping the words “working class” on their social position. As a result, King predicts the working class might grow, not just because there will be a greater amount of young workers entering it, but because more people “feel” like they belong in it.
Seth Smith (name changed for privacy) is a 22-year-old Gen Z art handler in L.A. whose job, education level and income ($40,000 per year) could easily be described as “middle class.” However, when asked if he identifies that way, he shakes his head. “There’s no way I’m middle class,” he says. “My entire paycheck goes toward rent, bills and student loan payments. It’s impossible for me to save money, and I’m not making a stable salary. I only get paid if there’s a job to do, and that’s not always the case. My income is pretty unreliable.” Smith also cites the fact that he does physical labor, isn’t necessarily using his fine arts degree toward his job and has no specialized training other than “driving a big-ass box truck” as reasons why he considers himself working class.
As King explains, this tendency on the part of younger generations to broadcast their working class-ness to the world might be a “way of recognizing their (often indebted and precariously employed) material circumstances.” Combine that with younger generations’ apparent disdain for privilege, and you’ve got yourself a blossoming group of working-class laborers, whether or not the label truly applies to their position.
Last week, the House passed a bill that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the biggest beneficiaries of this bill, by far, will be working-class millennials, whose combination of age, massive debt and still-developing skillset make them more likely to work minimum-wage jobs. (Gen Z makes up only nine percent of the population that will benefit, but that’s simply because many of them are still in school and haven’t aged into the workforce yet.)
Bizarrely, the majority of millennials don’t actually want the minimum wage hike, despite the fact that they’re the most likely to benefit. As we reported last year, that may be because a higher minimum wage typically leads to slower hiring, downsizing and decreased worker hours on account of higher labor costs. Nevertheless, many working-class labor unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) believe the minimum wage increase will strengthen the future working class and lift them further out poverty.
A Splintering of the Collective
Historically, the working class has been somewhat cohesive in terms of its identity, goals and how much its workers get paid, but both King and Kotkin predict that rising income inequality may cause its future iterations to splinter into a few distinct groups that display less consistency as an overall class. The two most elemental of these, they say, will be those who get paid semi-decently and those who can barely scrape by.
This latter group belongs to an unstable group called the “precariat,” or unskilled working-class individuals without secure employment or income. According to Kotkin, these are the people who, despite working themselves to the bone, will probably never be able to save up enough money to afford a house, make significant investments and contribute to the kind of nest egg they’d need to lift themselves out of poverty. They’re likely to change jobs often, and therefore, have no secure pension, 401K or retirement plan.
This is dangerous for a few reasons. For one, it makes them more dependent on the government as they age, stressing an already flailing Medicare and Social Security system. Second, it could drastically change how people vote. As Guy Standing points out in his book The Precariat: The Dangerous New Class, the precariat has turned into a “political monster” that votes emotionally, not rationally, in favor of enlightenment values. This is what happened during the 2016 election, with a majority of white working-class people voting for Trump, a guy famous for being rich who at least seemed like he could make them rich, too.
A ballooning millennial and Gen Z working class faced with ever-increasing income inequality and a growing precariat could continue this trend.
An “Artisan” Economy
The working class has always been made up of artisans who make crafts and niche goods, but according to Kotkin, millennials and “zoomers,” as Gen Z is sometimes tweely called, are about to take that legacy of professional craftiness to a whole new level. “One of the things we’ve been studying is the working class’ increasing return to an ‘artisan’ mentality,” he says. “You have a group of people who are doing craft beers, they’re making furniture, they’re doing this whole sort of maker movement, which could become a sort of ‘upper side’ of the working class in the future.”
This change is already happening — and in a big way: According to a recent Future of Small Business Report, the next decade will see a “re-emergence of artisans as an economic force,” something largely driven by a rejection of traditional workplaces and a growing desire to replace cubicles with studios, workshops and home enterprises that allow them to work toward goals that feel more aligned with their “purpose.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Kaila Spencer is one such artisan. Though she comes from an upper-middle-class background, she gets little assistance from her family and makes a modest annual salary of $15,000 selling commissioned fine art prints from her home studio in Guerneville, California. “I’m much happier doing this than I’ve ever been at any job,” she says, explaining that she’s worked in many working-class fields like retail, weed trimming and service. “A typical workplace isn’t for me.”
Spencer says working in an office felt unnaturally draining; like she was putting her energy toward someone else’s dream instead of her own (and getting compensated minimally for it). “If I’m going to be living paycheck-to-paycheck, I’d much rather be my own boss and set my own schedule for the same amount of money,” she says. “Why not work hard toward something more personally fulfilling and stimulating than a job that gives you no purpose?”
In the past, the answer to that question has been “Well, money, duh.” But as Spencer explains, “You can now drive a business from anywhere in the world with social media. It’s opened up a whole new world of possibilities for people like me who are unsatisfied with the 9-to-5. It gives you freedom to make what you want and the security of knowing you have the tools and know-how to market it, and makes it so you can actually make a living doing what you love.”
Traditionally, “working class” has referred to a handful of specific industries. But as new technologies emerge and companies begin to offer services and products never before seen on the market — particularly ones that appeal to millennials and Gen Z — the new working class will expand to include new fields of work like rideshare, marijuana cultivation and service (particularly home health care, which is currently the fastest-growing industry in the U.S.).
This, says Kotkin, is likely to change how we see the working class. No longer will its workers be covered in soot from the coal mine and wielding a union-issued pick-axe; they’ll be delivering your Tender Greens salad to your waiting doorstep, sponge-bathing your grandpa twice a week in the comfort of his own tub and helping you decide which indica pre-roll you’ll be taking home from the dispensary.
Twenty-six year-old Eric Carl belongs to the latter category. Though he now works as a supervisor in a hash production facility in Northern California, he cut his teeth trimming weed and working at dispensaries in Colorado after legalization created an epic boom in the marijuana industry in 2014. Like Kovalevsky, Carl has a college degree (in business, actually), but he consciously chose to spend his time doing hourly labor trimming weed at growhouses instead of pursuing a more formal career at a company or starting his own venture.
“I wanted to be a part of an exciting new industry,” he explains. “I’ve always been passionate about weed and I believe in its therapeutic qualities, so my life kind of did a 180 when I realized I could make it part of my day-to-day.” Initially, Carl found trimming to hit all the right spots in his life: There were flexible hours and the ever-expanding nature of the industry meant there were lots of roles to grow into. “The newness of it all felt limitless to me,” he says. “It reminded me of how my grandpa used to say he felt when he was doing assembly line work for Ford, a million years ago when cars still hadn’t completely taken over the world. I remember he said he felt like he was part of something important, like he was changing the world in a small way. And he kind of was.”
One of the most notable things about millennials and Gen Z is how differently they approach workplace culture, something King believes will have a marked effect on the working class of the future. “Millennials in particular have been particularly vocal about #MeToo, improving working conditions for women and closing the gender pay gap,” he says. “The movement for universal basic income has also been popular with younger generations.”
Likewise, Sheila, a marketing director at a large-scale consumer packaging company (who wishes to remain anonymous), says young people are “absolutely shifting” workplace culture for both her white- and blue-collar employees. For one, she says, both these generations insist on maintaining a work-life balance that seems foreign to earlier generations, whose general ethos seemed to be more “work, work, work” than a Rihanna song. “They do a great job of working very hard, then cutting the day off and making sure that they prioritize other things outside of work like volunteering, families or exercise,” she says. “That’s changing the workplace, particularly in terms of where people work from.”
Because younger generations put so much value on their passions outside of work, Sheila says employers of the working class like her company have become increasingly flexible about letting their employees work from anywhere. Gone are the days in which everyone gets to work at the same time then stays diligently until the boss leaves; now, she says, it’s all about getting your work done wherever and whenever you can. “Millennials and Gen Z have created a more fluid working environment,” she explains. “Employers are usually happy to accommodate their wishes, because they know more flexibility attracts talent and keeps them motivated.” (Obviously that trend only applies to working-class jobs that can be conducted remotely — it’s hard for Walmart cashiers to work from home, for example.)
They’re also uniquely interested being challenged. According to a survey by Visual Capitalist, 77 percent of Gen Z-ers expect to work harder than previous generations, something Sheila says she sees reflected in their request for additional training and more responsibility. A while back, a millennial employee of hers requested to be sent to a training so she could improve her productivity, and offered to summarize the training for the rest of the team so everyone could benefit. “That kind of work ethic is new,” she says. “It changed how training sessions were done at my company.”
However, other than that, Kotkin says it’s hard to know just how much workplace culture will be affected by the value systems and career desires of millennials and Gen Z, simply because what we know about these generations isn’t entirely accurate. “Our image of the working class is largely driven by the top five percent of people who are at the most obvious industries,” he says. “Those are the people most accessible to journalists, and they’re the people whose stories get told. We don’t actually know what the working class thinks as a whole, because their stories aren’t being told [especially the non-white ones]. I’d expect that most people are just interested in a job that pays them and gives them sustenance.”
In other words, he says, don’t expect to see in-house baristas, emotional intelligence training and unlimited vacation time for Jiffy Lube employees anytime soon.