Breaking Bad is one of the most successful TV shows of all time. For those who’ve yet to see it, the plot centres around a chemistry teacher who, when diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, sets out provide for his family by making and selling methamphetamines (aka crystal meth) to the denizens of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Walter White, or Heisenberg as he calls himself, goes on to build an enormous drug empire, although not without a series of deadly encounters along the way. He manages to lose his wife, alienate his son and put his family in mortal danger. And yet he continues to pursue his venture, despite amassing more money than he knows what to do with. In the space of just a year he turns from inert wimp to murderous drug villain, or as the writer put it, from Mr Chips to Scarface.
Sound familiar? Probably not. So why then did the actor Bryan Cranston recently suggest that “there’s a Walter White in every person in the world”? Well, take a step back. This is a man who is both driven by a desire to protect his family and a determination to escape (and exact revenge) on a world that he sees as unjust. He is paid a pittance as a chemistry teacher, mocked by his students, harried by his boss at the car wash (his other job), and patronised by friends and family who feel sorry for his lack of achievements.
The parallels between Walter’s life and those of millions of middle class Americans (and Brits) is no accident. Rather, it a conscious decision by the writers to tap into feelings of discontent that have become widespread since the economic crash. Living standards for low-middle income households in the UK are set to be 15 per cent lower in 2020 than they were in 2008, and the IFS calculate that real wages have fallen by more than in any other 5 year period.
But this isn’t just about money. People are also restless for more control, meaning and agency – something that cannot be readily satisfied in many of today’s workplaces. The economist David Graeber received lots of attention last year for his essay on 'bullshit jobs', which took issue with the growing number of employment opportunities that seem to lack purpose. While Walter is lucky enough to work in the teaching profession, he still feels that his talents are being wasted – a sentiment shared by millions elsewhere. Indeed, survey after survey shows that barely a third of employees feel engaged at work.
Yet there is an even more fundamental trait shared by Walter and the rest of us: the desire to actually feel something in our daily lives. Few wrote about this more extensively than Aldous Huxley, whose novels and texts are littered with subversive characters seeking to break free from banality in search of ‘genuine living’. Think of Bernard Marx in Brave New World, who sets out to escape his heavily sedated life in search of true feeling, however painful. Or of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984, who attempts to do much the same thing.
These stories were penned over 60 years ago, yet such feelings are arguably more commonplace than ever before. Not just because the economic crisis has shaken things up, but also because modern technologies have introduced more people to new ideas and ways of thinking. The social theorist Manuel Castells has written of how the internet and social media platforms have exposed people to a world of new ideas and outlooks, and as a result nurtured among them a craving for autonomy and a distrust of authority. Likewise, the political scientist Moises Naim has suggested that the world is undergoing an ‘expectation revolution’, fuelled by increasing access to travel, culture and communication tools.
Of course, none of this is to say that everyone will soon be setting up a meth lab in their garage (at least, let’s hope not). But it does point to a restless population in search of some kind of outlet for their desires. Indeed, it is arguably one of the reasons why there has been such a large increase in the numbers of people starting up their own business in recent years. The challenge is to make sure this energy is channelled in such a way that leads to creation rather than destruction.
Anyway, don't take my word for it. Go and watch some Breaking Bad...
* Photo courtesy of Giovani Bellofatto.
The RSA and Etsy are exploring similar themes in a new project, The Power of Small.
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