- Knowledge workers are creative professionals who have in-depth understanding, knowledge, and the know-how to utilize niche skills.
- They often have advanced degrees, and the career outlook for knowledge workers is growing.
- Unfortunately, many of these skills are only attainable for an affluent minority and pose challenges for the future of work.
The pandemic has accelerated a new class of worker, and they don’t perform your average tasks.
Knowledge workers have emerged from the woodwork and are quickly becoming among the most powerful in the workforce.
Their biggest asset? Thinking.
Writer and scholar Richard Florida, describes some traits of the knowledge economy in a London School of Economics and Public Policy blog:
“Since the 1980s, the advanced nations have been moving from an older, industrial economy – where people work with their backs and their brawn – to a knowledge economy, where they work with their minds. This trend is apparent when you look at the percentage of people with advanced degrees and who work in the knowledge economy, or the rise of what I dubbed the creative class of scientists, techies, innovators, knowledge workers, artists and designers.”
Because of this seemingly simplistic, yet high-in-demand trait, Americans who are part of the other social classes are finding it increasingly difficult to break into this arena where money is being funneled.
Now, the working class are facing new pressures as their wages remain stagnant, their influence wanes, and the social class gap widens.
However, there is still a way for average workers to reclaim their influence in this evolving post-pandemic labor force.
But it will take a deeper understanding of the future of work and how the knowledge class actually contributes to society.
What are knowledge workers?
Knowledge workers are professionals whose ideas and niche skill set are often valued by companies because those skills contribute to growth, strategy, and implementation of their products and services.
By definition, they do not work in the traditional sense. Most knowledge workers are not performing physical labor, rather, their involvement is measured by their knowledge on a subject and their ability to contribute to an organizations’ goals.
To explain the concept of knowledge workers, knowing which positions allow for this kind of work can help clarify any confusion.
Examples of knowledge workers include:
- IT professionals
- Marketing consultant
- Financial analyst
However, there is a significant difference between knowledge workers and task workers as well as information workers and skilled workers.
Yes, they all make unique contributions that are necessary for a forward-thinking workplace.
- Task workers focus on a specific task at hand that is assigned to them.
- Information workers focus on the minute details of a project and help clarify any obstacles that might be in the way of reaching goals.
- Skilled workers are experts in a distinct field and have a specific set of skills needed to meet objectives.
- Knowledge workers take the research and findings from all three above-mentioned workers to provide more context and value that helps the bottom line.
These types of workers work hand-in-hand to achieve work objectives.
Some have even argued that the knowledge class and creative class are crucial to a harmonious economy.
Social scientist and economist Richard Florida has been a proponent of the creative class, stating that these workers can lead to a fruitful economy. Nevertheless, he also warns against the widening disparity for the working classes.
“Knowledge workers will spend less time in the office – but that does not necessarily mean a boom in suburban living. Instead, they will seek out attractive, high-amenity places in cities and more remote rural areas, where they can work, play and educate their children, often within a 15-minute radius. Service workers in city centres will fall further behind, and economic and geographic divides will widen.”
Florida describes creative class workers as “people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content.”
That was nearly two decades ago.
Now, the rise of knowledge workers has added another element to the global workforce that can contribute to creating a circular sustainable economy.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines a circular economy as “a systems-focused approach” that helps create new solutions to make economic activities more restorative, regenerative, and sustainable in the long-term.
It’s no wonder why so many young professionals want to become a knowledge worker.
Factory work and other jobs that are laborious are seen as unglamorous.
However, becoming part of the knowledge class isn’t as simple as having a creative idea; there are numerous barriers that put people at a disadvantage of reaching this goal.
The knowledge class can be an exclusive club
Often, people require access to higher education to obtain these specialized skills.
Unfortunately, this simply is not attainable for many people.
Many people opt out of higher education due to:
- High tuition costs
- Crippling student loan debt
- Irrelevant degrees
- Having less opportunities than wealthy students
Research from U.S. News shows that the average cost of private college tuition is $38,185, followed by $22,698 for out-of-state public college tuition, and $10,338 for in-state public college tuition.
For a select few, paying for this education is no problem. Wealthy students are able to attend the college they want, receive a degree, and have a clear path to the knowledge class.
However, lower class individuals are not given the same opportunities.
While the elite class get to walk away with financial know-how, others who may want to be a knowledge worker are not provided the same tools.
The divide between knowledge workers and traditional workers doesn’t just indicate a difference in labor — it highlights a significant disparity between wealthy and low-income folks.
Understanding the class divide
In America, there are roughly three social classes: lower, middle, and upper.
While there are more specific ranks that many American workers fall under, such as lower middle, these characteristics are typically used to define social classes.
Amongst these wealth classes are the working class, or labor class, which are often overlooked by much of society or simply ignored by the media.
Very rarely do we hear stories of factory workers.
Instead, headlines typically cover billionaires such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk or Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The fascination with the utmost upper class individuals gives the average worker false hope of achieving the “American dream,” which in itself is hardly tangible for most.
As a result, those in the working class are given the “hillbilly” stereotype, suggesting that those working in these positions are undeserving of recognition despite their critical role in driving America’s economy.
For instance, “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance faced immense backlash for Vance’s stereotypical depiction of Appalachians, characterizing the obstacles that plague the region as a result of laziness and lack of education.
If anything, the book undermines the role that working class citizens play in our economy and adds fuel to the aversion many have towards the lower class.
Resentment against the poor is ingrained in our culture, and the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality reveals misplaced blame on why the working class is consistently kicked down.
However, more politicians and experts in the knowledge class have become increasingly outspoken about one essential point:
Higher education or intellect does not equate moral fortitude.
There is a fundamental issue with the current economy and workforce when the 10 richest billionaires in the world earned an extra $540 billion during a global pandemic while inequality expands elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has only exacerbated this issue. The rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer.
What the Future of Work means for knowledge workers
Experts were sure that 2021 would mark an era of returning to the office. In retrospect, this prediction missed the mark.
In fact, companies appear even more confused about what the future of work means for their operations.
Although widespread vaccinations have shown much promise, skyrocketing cases caused by highly transmissible variants of Covid-19 have led organizations to delay their return-to-office strategies.
For knowledge workers, this means more of the same of what the last two years has served.
There will still be a set of challenges ahead.
Companies are now left questioning what various aspects of their operations will look like in the future, such as:
- Workspace footprint
- Office design
- Flexible workspaces and overall office network
- Work arrangements
- Covid-related protocols when offices reopen
- Employee benefits and perks
For now, remote working is nearly second nature for these professionals, and the ability to continue working from home away from the risk of transmitting the virus is a huge sigh of relief.
Even more, experts believe this pivot will lead to solutions for information integration and infrastructure, essentially eliminating any roadblocks that current processes have.
One glaring issue is who will be in charge of managing the massive loads of incoming information?
While knowledge workers can access this vast amount of information, this doesn’t mean they have the ability to process the data.
This will undoubtedly lead to major challenges in the coming years.
Challenges in the Future of Work
Remote working has been the preferred mode of work for many of those who can do so.
Nevertheless, this work arrangement has also come with its own slew of issues, such as feelings of isolation, lack of belonging, distractions at home, and more.
“Mental health needs are way up. Pursuit of psychotherapy is up. Teletherapy is way up,” said Cristina Banks, director at the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces, a global research center at Berkeley. “Reports from my colleagues who are doing psychotherapy confirm that.”
Companies have attempted to remedy these problems through various methods, including:
- Hosting virtual hangouts and team-building exercises
- Offering access to mental health resources
- Providing more flexible schedules or shorter workweeks
- Adopting hybrid models for employees to meet in the office part of the week
- Incorporating flexible workspaces closer to employees homes
- Encouraging employee feedback to improve culture and operations
Another factor to consider is that, although many knowledge workers are able to work from home, it does not necessarily mean they are allowed to.
In fact, research from the Boston Consulting Group showed that the financial and law sectors are less likely to have the ability to work from home, despite employees desiring this arrangement and actually being able to.
As a result, many finance workers and lawyers are returning to the office sooner than others.
On the other hand, technology firms are the top industry to keep employees in a remote work arrangement.
However, some organizations are relying on a more hybrid approach to appeal to all the needs of workers. Providing workers with the ability to work from home and in the office gives them a better say in which environment best suits their work needs for the day.
Companies have turned to flexible workspaces to make this a reality, signing short-term leases with local operators so workers can easily access a professional setting close to their homes.
If you’d like to learn more about flex spaces, check out Allwork.space.
What about the working class?
Amidst the challenges knowledge workers have faced, the working class have found little relief.
Many of these professionals are unable to simply shift to work-from-home arrangements due to the nature of their job requiring them to be on-site.
Organizations that have employees on-site during this time have attempted to take some measures to protect workers, such as:
- Mandating or encouraging vaccines
- Implementing face masks when indoors
- Increasing cleaning and sanitation protocols
- Encouraging hand washing
- Reminding workers to maintain at least a 6 foot distance
In short, it’s the same protocols that the world has come to know all too well over the past two years.
But what happens when workers contract the virus? Or if they need to get tested?
If a working class employee contracts Covid-19, they are either given the choice to take paid sick leave, and in some cases unpaid time off.
Even more, many workers are being forced to pay for testing out-of-pocket.
People that are lower working class may also live in a multigenerational household, which means that they are going home to their parents who are at high-risk for severe Covid transmission.
A construction worker contracts Covid-19 on the job, but his paid sick leave has already been used up for the year. He is then forced to be quarantined for at least five days, with no pay, in a home where high-risk individuals could be living.
It’s no wonder that Covid-19 has hit less affluent people.
A Gallup poll revealed that 59% of those in the lowest quintile are able to avoid going to public places compared to 71% of earners in the top quintile.
In short, being able to truly abide by Covid protocols is a privilege for some. The working class still have to go to work.
How can leaders support workers during this time?
The uncertainty and fear amongst both knowledge workers and the labor class has driven one of the most historic job exoduses in history: The Great Resignation.
With 4.5 million quitting their jobs in November of 2021 alone, business leaders are recognizing the importance of offering new benefits and perks to retain and attract new employees.
What can leaders do to stay relevant in a post-pandemic world?
- Offer shorter work days or work weeks
Doing so allows workers to achieve a better work-life balance and avoid burnout
- Shift training on knowledge-based skills
Training workers to adopt knowledge-related skills, such as computer skills, can give them more opportunities within the company and shows that you as an employer care for their career growth
- If possible at all, allow for remote or hybrid working
While not all jobs can be performed remotely, modern technology has allowed this work arrangement to be possible for many
- Provide company paid leave
It shouldn’t take illness or an emergency to provide workers with paid leave. Now more than ever, it’s important for professionals to take time for their wellbeing, spend more time with loved ones, and have time for hobbies.
Offering these types of benefits is no longer a nice-to-have.
The labor shortage is impacting our most critical components of society, such as hospitals, grocery stores, and more.
Without finding methods that nurture the over-exerted workforce, businesses will surely continue to feel the impact of the Great Resignation.
Both knowledge workers and the working class deserve more compassion and understanding, and for once, this way of thinking is not taboo.
- How can you succeed in a post-covid economy?
Offering both knowledge workers and the working class should be provided with more flexibility in their work schedules. This can be done through shorter work days or weeks so employees feel supported and nurtured by their employer.
- Can anyone become a knowledge worker?
Yes, however, this will require employers to invest and take time to provide workers with the training needed to adopt the skills of a knowledge worker.
- Is the class divide real in America?
Very much so, and it is only widening due to the ongoing pandemic.
- Did the rich get richer during Covid-19?
Yes. The top 10 richest billionaires in the world earned an extra $540 billion during a global pandemic.
- Can we trust a circular economy?
The circular economy is necessary for a sustainable future. As climate change continues to threaten many of society’s current resources, adopting new reusable and renewable tools, as well as methods of operating that are long lasting.