Knowledge workers make a living by dealing purely with ideas and information.

The term has only been around for 50 years. Writer and management expert Peter Drucker first used knowledge worker in his 1959 book “Landmarks of Tomorrow“.

Drucker modestly said he was only the second person to use knowledge worker. He said it came from Fritz Machlup a Princeton economist.

Either way, Drucker popularised knowledge worker spending years expanding on the original idea and its wider implications.

Today’s knowledge worker

Knowledge worker is widely used today. While people generally understand the term’s meaning, there is still misunderstanding about its exact definition — even among knowledge workers.

Some think knowledge worker only applies to people working in information technology or elsewhere in industry using tools created by IT workers.

IT workers are only a subset. Anyone who makes a living out of creating, handling or spreading knowledge is a knowledge worker.

This covers a wide range. Teachers, trainers, university professors and other academics are clearly included. Writers, journalists, authors, editors and public relations or communications people are all knowledge workers. Lawyers, scientists and management consultants can also all be described as knowledge workers.

Educated workers

One key difference between knowledge workers and other white-collar workers is the level of education and training. Some knowledge workers don’t have a formal tertiary education or high-level training – they are a minority.

As a rule, knowledge workers have at least a university undergraduate degree, but that’s not always the case.

Older knowledge workers may have fewer formal qualifications. That’s partly because higher education was less available when they started out — and, anyway, university isn’t the only path to knowledge.

Another reason is practical experience counts for a lot. But the key here is knowledge workers
each have a personal knowledge store they apply in their work.

Knowledge workers are well paid compared to other groups of workers. Some knowledge workers join unions, but they are not usually organised in that sense.

This can lead to forms of genteel exploitation: few knowledge workers get paid overtime yet most are expected to voluntarily work for more than the basic 40 hours a week.

Knowledge skills are mobile

Knowledge workers are more mobile than industrial workers. They can take their expertise elsewhere at the drop of a hat. This happens all the time.

An employer who abuses knowledge workers’ professionalism is likely to see their most important assets walk out of the door one evening and never return. This applies as much today as it did when there were more jobs around.

Few governments have come to terms with the implications of having a highly mobile, highly educated, knowledge workforce. Just as knowledge workers can quickly find a new employer if necessary, most can move freely between countries. Any nation that doesn’t look after knowledge workers can expect – over the long-term – to lose them.

This applies in New Zealand, which operates a progressive income tax system that, at times, appears deliberately designed to alienate knowledge workers. To understand this, compared the marginal and absolute rates of income tax paid by most New Zealand knowledge workers, they are noticeably higher than in most competing nations.

When I wrote the first draft of this post (it originally appeared in a different format in 2001) the same could be said of Australia. Since then Australia has moved to correct its tax system and is attracting 40,000 New Zealanders each year, most of those emigrants could be classed as knowledge workers.

In the 1960s there was a lot of talk about a ‘brain drain‘. If anything the flow of knowledge workers migrating to more benign economies is accelerating.

Drucker distinguishes between various classes of knowledge worker.

High-knowledge workers include professional groups such as doctors and teachers deal mainly in the realm of the mind while the knowledge technologists work with their hands and brains in the IT industry, medicine and other areas. Although both categories of knowledge worker are growing, the bulk of growth comes from this second group.

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