Becoming White Collar: Schools, Skills, and the Origins of American Inequality
Between 1880 and 1940, the fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy was white-collar work-clerks, salesmen and saleswomen, bookkeepers, stenographers, secretaries, and managers. This article explores the urban politics of the training institutions that made possible the rise of this new middle class in the city of Boston. In response to a growing demand for training for these new jobs, especially among women and second-generation immigrants, proprietary business schools and public high schools dramatically expanded. The success of many students who used schools to enter higher status work solidified the link between education and social mobility. At the same time, competition between proprietary, public, and degree-granting educational institutions fueled a “race to the top” of credentials that replicated gender, ethnic, and racial inequality in the workplace under a meritocratic guise. White-collar work became a differentiated managerial hierarchy, with a small number of male college-educated managers and executives at the top, and a vast pool of high-school-trained female clerical and sales workers with little workplace power on the bottom. This article thus demonstrates the central role of private and public educational institutions in shaping the particular form of the American welfare state and corporate economy.
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