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The working class (or labouring class) comprises those engaged in waged or salaried labour, especially in manual-labour occupations and industrial work. Working-class occupations (see also "Designation of workers by collar color") include blue-collar jobs, some white-collar jobs, and most pink-collar jobs. Members of the working class rely exclusively upon earnings from wage labour; thus, according to more inclusive definitions, the category can include almost all of the working population of industrialized economies, as well as those employed in the urban areas (cities, towns, villages) of non-industrialized economies or in the rural workforce.

As with many terms describing social class, working class is defined and used in many different ways. The most general definition, used by many socialists, is that the working class includes all those who have (more or less, they do not own e.g. a factory) nothing to sell but their labour. These people used to be referred to as the proletariat, but that definition has gone out of fashion. In that sense, the working class today includes both white and blue-collar workers, manual and mental workers of all types, excluding only individuals who derive their livelihood from business ownership and the labour of others. The term, which is primarily used to evoke images of laborers suffering "class disadvantage in spite of their individual effort," can also have racial connotations. These racial connotations imply diverse themes of poverty that imply whether one is deserving of aid.

When used non-academically in the United States, however, it often refers to a section of society dependent on physical labour, especially when compensated with an hourly wage (for certain types of science, as well as journalistic or political analysis). For example, the working class is loosely defined as those without college degrees. Working-class occupations are then categorized into four groups: unskilled labourers, artisans, outworkers, and factory workers.

A common alternative, sometimes used in sociology, is to define class by income levels. When this approach is used, the working class can be contrasted with a so-called middle class on the basis of differential terms of access to economic resources, education, cultural interests, and other goods and services. The cut-off between working class and middle class here might mean the line where a population has discretionary income, rather than finances for basic needs and essentials (for example, on fashion versus merely nutrition and shelter).

Some researchers have suggested that working-class status should be defined subjectively as self-identification with the working-class group. This subjective approach allows people, rather than researchers, to define their own "subjective" and "perceived" social class.

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