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Wikipedia describes a knowledge worker as a worker whose "main capital is knowledge". Examples include engineers, doctors, accountants, software writers etc.

Is there an "established term" to refer to non-knowledge workers?

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"data scientists" –  EnergyNumbers Apr 8 at 19:07
ignorant bosses? –  Dryden Long Apr 8 at 21:02
work monkeys... –  Adsy Apr 9 at 10:15
What is a non-carpenter called? –  Kris Apr 15 at 10:11
@Kris, I wouldn't consider "carpenter" general enough to need a dedicated opposite term. –  Pacerier Apr 16 at 15:24

7 Answers 7

up vote 27 down vote accepted

The man who coined the term knowledge workers differentiated them from manual workers.

Management guru Peter Drucker coined the term "knowledge worker." In his 1969 book, The Age of Discontinuity, Drucker differentiates knowledge workers from manual workers and insists that new industries will employ mostly knowledge workers.

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By manual worker being the opposite of knowledge worker, do you mean that there exists no work which is non-knowledge and non-manual? –  Pacerier Apr 8 at 2:36
If you read the Businessweek article I linked to, you'll see that the author of that piece opines that every worker is a knowledge worker. I think I agree. I guess I don't think there's an exact "opposite" for a knowledge worker. –  JLG Apr 8 at 2:44
@JLG Commonly, the term implies a certain level of knowledge. The ultimate answer to the question would be a robot, working only based on knowledge of others. Every person has knowledge and applies that to the job. –  Henk Langeveld Apr 8 at 10:56
Distinction seems oversimplified. Is an astronaut on an EVA a manual worker or a knowledge worker? I'd argue he or she is both. –  gerrit Apr 8 at 14:17
One could also argue that a politician is neither. –  Roddy of the Frozen Peas Apr 8 at 16:26

Blue-collar worker (in the U.S.) is what comes to mind.

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Most or at least a lot of blue collar workers are very skilled with a lot of knowledge. –  RyeɃreḁd Apr 8 at 2:51
While I think manual worker is more precisely the opposite of knowledge worker (by definition, see JLG's answer), this has much the same meaning and is also a good answer. +1 –  Bradd Szonye Apr 8 at 3:06
There were many other color collared workers much before the knowledge workers came to be. –  Kris Apr 8 at 5:00
@Kris, Isn't there only blue, pink and white? –  Pacerier Apr 8 at 5:59
@Pacerier Who could tell for sure what was not there? Green, Yellow, Light Blue, Orange, Gold, Silver, Rose, ...? Even Silk-. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collar_workers#Specialty_classifications –  Kris Apr 9 at 6:18

I would say there is no opposite of "knowledge worker" just as there is no opposite to "accountant". Besides, the term "knowledge worker" lacks a precise or agreed upon definition, so it should not be a surprise that there is no clear opposite.

For example, what would you call an engraver, like the kind who engraves printing plates for the US Mint to print US currency? Obviously he is very skilled, but since he is working with materials and his output is a physical object, he is not considered a knowledge worker. Now compare the engraver to a graphic artist who creates digital art on a computer. The jobs are very similar, but the graphic artist fits most definitions of a knowledge worker. The distinction between the two jobs is pretty minor.

I believe the point of coining the term "knowledge worker" was to highlight the fact that whole new classes of occupations were arising and would become a large part of our economy, and the entire dot com boom proved that to be true. But even "unskilled" labor such as picking cotton requires some amount of knowledge and even the most sophisticated "knowledge work" requires some amount of manual labor. "Knowledge worker" is a pretty slippery term.

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The opposite of knowledge worker would be an unskilled laborer.

Investopedia defines it:

A segment of the work force associated with a low skill level or a limited economic value for the work performed (human capital). Unskilled labor is generally characterized by low education levels and small wages. Work that requires no specific education or experience is often available to workers who fall into the unskilled labor force.

In the context of labor, skill, according to wikipedia, means:

a measure of the amount of worker's expertise, specialization, wages, and supervisory capacity.

In a continuous view of the workforce, knowledge workers would be at one end, and unskilled laborers would be at the other end.

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Don't know why you were down voted; that seems like a good antonym to me. –  Philip Apr 8 at 7:38
StackExchange model: best answer eventually rises to the top. –  Aaron Hall Apr 8 at 11:42
No, the opposite of unskilled labor is skilled labor. The guy you hire to hand out flyers is the former, the guy who you hire to build your cabinetry is the latter. But obviously carpentry isn't the kind of knowledge work that's Drucker is talking about. –  shane Apr 8 at 21:33
I think that if you view all sorts of workers on a continuum of skill and knowledge, you would view knowledge workers at one end and unskilled laborers on the other end. I have my MBA, I'm a knowledge worker myself, and I view it from this point of view. It works for me. –  Aaron Hall Apr 9 at 0:13
@shane the opposite of "man" could be "woman," "boy," "alien," "machine," or any number of other terms depending on context. A thing can have more than one opposite. –  user867 Apr 9 at 1:15

Some of the answers to this question are reacting to a value judgement that isn't necessarily present in the term.

A knowledge worker is someone who primarily handles information in their work, in contrast to someone who primarily handles physical materials. There's no judgement being made on skill or value, even though the original author's "other" type of worker was referred to as a manual worker which sounds somewhat judgemental.

They are knowledge workers not because they need knowledge to do their work, but because their work is to operate on knowledge, transforming it etc. It is the material on which they work that they are named for.

A case could be made for some doctors — surgeons for example — being classed as 'manual' workers.

(edited to add third paragraph, clarifying distinction between need / operate on)

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A roustabout is an unskilled laborer

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That can be referred as layman worker.

Layman: a person without professional or specialized knowledge in a particular subject.

For example,

The book seems well suited to the interested layman.

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