This article was originally posted on the Career Guidance for Social Justice site on 1st March. I’m adding it here in case you missed it, but it is well worth subscribing to the Career Guidance for Social Justice site as well.
I’ve been watching the excellent show Superstore on Netflix over the last few weeks. In many ways it is a standard US sitcom full of slapstick, larger than life characters and improbable situations. What lifts it above a lot of other shows like it, is that it accords a level of dignity and empathy to working class characters, is highly critical of corporations and actively explores forms of resistance including labour unions and political activism.
It is well worth a watch and should reward readers of this site who are interested in representations of working life, career and politics.
What do TV characters earn?
Watching this show made me think of how few shows are based around working class characters, or even people in the lower half of the income distribution. So, I thought that I would review my Netflix viewing over the last few months and see where the main characters in the shows that I’ve been watching fitted in.
This isn’t an easy exercise as television transports us across the world and into the past and future. But, as this is just for fun, I thought that it would be interesting to slot people into where they relatively might fit in the social and economic hierarchy if they were living in the UK in 2021.
To start with I looked up the income distribution in the UK and put together a table breaking it down by deciles. I used UK government statistics to do this. There are some problems with these figures as they probably miss out some people at the bottom and the top, but they are useful as a rough guide. Also, income is only a part of the story when we are looking at wealth.
I then used Indeed and the salary calculator to make an estimate of what the main character in each show earns. There is a lot of guess work in this, but hopefully you get the point. Many of the characters undergo some social and income mobility as part of their dramatic arc, but I’ve tried to guess the salary point where they spend most of their time. I’ve left out the ones that are mainly based on criminal activities as they were a bit difficult to categorise.
|Top 1%||>£175,000||Bridgerton, Bojack Horseman, What/If, The Windsors, House of Cards, The Umbrella Academy, Borgen|
|Top 10%||£54,900||45 RPM, Call my agent, You, me, her, Greyzone|
|£33,600||Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Master of None|
|£28,400||Parks and Recreation, Friday Night Dinner|
|£18,600||Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt|
So, what do we learn from doing this?
- I clearly watch too much TV. But, come on, I’ve been locked down for a year.
- The income distribution was a bit different from what I thought. In general, I would have guessed that the top 10% as a bit higher and that this would stretch the rest up a bit.
- There is a clear preference for TV shows about people higher up the income scale. But, there are also some that focus on those lower down.
- Most of the characters in these shows live beyond their means. Either they are running up huge debts or the TV is not a faithful representation of reality.
A role for careers education?
This kind of reflection on the labour market and income positions of the people we see on the TV might be useful as a bit of career learning. It could be a good starting point for researching the labour market and thinking about how the characters we see and aspire to be sustain their lifestyles, fashion choices and so on. But it might also be useful in helping people to think about how realistically TV represents life and work. We need to try and resist the unrealistic expectations that are foisted onto us and learn to be more critical.
In a way it is the shows that dodge these issues that are worse than those that simply celebrate excess. We all know that the people in Bridgerton are rich. That is the point of the show. But, shows like Friends which grant everyone access to the good life regardless of what they do are far more pernicious. These shows diminish the centrality of work and career and present wealth as a lifestyle choice rather than the outcome of education, work and social and economic advantage.
Careers education should be encouraging people to think about these things and arming them with tools to deconstruct the simulacra of reality that are dancing on the screen in front of them.