When I Grow Up: Children and the Work-World of Television


This article originally appeared in Issue# 47

Television's portrayal of the work world may have changed over the years, but the message absorbed by many children and teenagers, particularly those who watch a lot of television, is not always a positive or realistic one.

The first thing that should strike a viewer as odd about professional life on television is that very few people do any real work at all. Instead, we see lawyers, doctors, police officers, private investigators, and business tycoons spending a great deal of time talking to one another - generally socializing on the job.

When they are working, we often get to see only the most glamorous aspects of what they do for a living: chasing around in sports cars, fancy boats or airplanes, performing life-saving surgery, arguing sensational legal cases in court or hunting down dangerous criminals with sophisticated weapons. The day-to-day routine of most jobs, the behind-the-scenes type of work, is rarely seen at all.

Mundane Reality

Before the era of television, children tended to identify with the kinds of employment they were exposed to on a regular basis. Career aspirations were often gender-oriented (girls were socialized toward the passive, nurturing, indoor jobs and boys toward active, adventurous, outdoor ones), but apart from the sexism their aspirations were based on real-life examples.

Today, television has made many jobs seem mundane and unattractive, while exaggerating the allure of a few professions. Viewers are attracted by careers portrayed as ultra glamorous, exciting, well-paid and trendy. Often children want to be what they see on television - news anchors, film stars, lawyers and corporate executives.

Television writers seem to have forgotten the old adage that a good plumber can earn as much as a doctor. We don't see television programs glamorizing the lives of plumbers, electricians, carpenters or other artisans.

Unrealistic Expectations

Not long ago I asked some 18 year-old media students what they expected from work in the media industry, and I compared their answers with those from cross section of media professionals. The students grossly underrated the amount of clerical, administrative and paperwork they would have to do on a daily bases, and they overestimated the amount of fame, fortune and fun they would reap from their work.

This is not a definitive picture of how naïve young people sometimes are about careers that have all the trappings of wealth and prestige, but it indicates that the work world is often far less glamorous and rewarding than television frequently leads us to believe.

What is more, the motivations that people in real life suggest will get us to the very top are different from those depicted on television. Parents and teachers usually encourage children to study longer, work harder and become more disciplined in order to achieve their ambitions. In contrast, television often implies that they should "wise up" to destructive, unethical ways of getting ahead in their professional lives.

Lifestyles of the Ultrarich

The prime-time soaps, in particular, encourage professional aspirations with expensive veneers on the outside and rotten values on the inside. They take the glamorous aspects of work to extremes by depicting the lives of the ultrarich. The programs' protagonists live in sumptuous mansions or designer homes, drive top-of-the-line imported cars, hop around in private jets and indulge their whims and fancies with the ultimate in conspicuous consumption.

Of course, in real life only a small minority of people live in such luxury, yet to many viewers this lifestyle appears to be widespread, perhaps even inevitable. Children and teenagers, eager to emulate their television heroes and heroines, may even feel that life owes them such an existence, and feel resentment if it does not live up to these expectations.

An equally disturbing implication of the soaps is that characters' unethical behavior contributes to the amassing and protecting of monumental fortunes. The programs suggest that the work ethic is an outdated, useless value because wealth and power are not achieved through hard work but by treacherous and devious means. Every week on a repetitive basis we are shown that murder, blackmail, physical bullying, psychological intimidation, sexual coercion, dishonesty and subterfuge are acceptable behavior - at least for those who want to become rich and stay rich.

These shows also offer particularly offensive stereotypes of the way women accumulate wealth and status. The message is insulting and clear - successful women should not be taken seriously; they did not reach the top because of merit but through their powers of seduction and manipulation. The stereotype that women who climb the corporate ladder are calculating and ruthless is not new; it has been around for many years. What makes this message particularly distressing today is that 52 percent of the population are women, 49 percent of whom work outside the home, many having studied and worked long and hard to enter professional jobs.

Positive Role Models

But the picture is not entirely gloomy, nor do I want to suggest that striving for wealth and power is all bad, or that no television character does an honest day's work for an honest day's pay.

Television is first and foremost an entertainment medium and it makes no promises to be realistic or serious. It offers us a picture of how people make money that is an exaggerated and sometimes amusing caricature of reality, and for everything negative on prime time there is usually something positive to savor as well.

To place the negative influences in their proper perspective, I should add that some newer shows, as well as those that have been around for several seasons, offer us characters who live up to all the best ideals of moral and ethical behavior - fine examples of principled, trustworthy, loyal caring individuals who are positive role models for our children. They show that with hard work and commitment a person can have a comfortable existence without lying, cheating or bullying.

The characters who come to mind include detectives such as Thomas Magnum, Rick and A.J. Simon; mystery writer Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote; a dozen protagonists in situation comedies like Kate and Allie, The Golden Girls and The Cosby Show. Even the prime-time soaps feature one or two redeeming characters such as Mack and Karen of Knots Landing.

Some especially rewarding professional portrayals have been seen on Cagney and Lacey, Hotel, thirtysomething, A Year in the Life, St. Elsewhere and the new Star Trek. Several admirable lawyers have also been featured, like Matlock and the better-intentioned members of the trendy crowd from L.A. Law.

Socializing the Young

We simply need to remind ourselves that children watch a great many programs designed primarily for adults. The typical two to 5-year-old watches some five hours of prime time a week; the average six to 11-year-old devotes about six hours each week to prime-time shows, and 12 to 17-year-olds watch about seven hours a week of prime-time programs.

Although the relationship between what is shown on television and what is absorbed by viewers depends largely on demographics, family structure, social values and parent-child interaction, on a long-term basis television has subtle impacts, particularly on those who rely on it heavily (if not entirely) for their picture of reality.

Actual work experience is the only antidote, but children too young for it can be helped to see that what appears on the screen is only a facsimile, not reality. Comments about favorable shows, sharing of adults' own work life and contact with real-life professionals can all help broaden children's experience before they join the work force.

Adults have a responsibility to mediate the messages of television and to discuss issues central to children's understanding of the diversity of human experience. Work is just one element of that experience, but it's an important one. We must help children build positive, realistic career aspirations, understand how to achieve those goals, and help them to lead productive and satisfying personal and professional lives.

Author Bio: 

Susanna Barber is the chair of the Mass Communication Department at Menlo College in Atherton, California.