Breaking Bad: Will Walter White’s Tale Remain Fiction for Today’s Youth?

Breaking Bad: Will Walter White’s Tale Remain Fiction for Today’s Youth?

As the hit AMC show Breaking Bad prepares to end its run this August, it is easy to see what made the show so compelling. In addition to the stellar writing and Emmy Award-winning performances, the premise of a high school chemistry teacher driven to criminal activity when he is unable to afford his medical bills is unfortunately not that difficult to imagine for many Americans.

And it was not health costs alone: the main character, Walter White, needed to supplement his teacher’s salary (educating the next generation in an all-too-important STEM field) by working at a carwash, even before he learned of his cancer diagnosis. This, too, is familiar for many Americans. Last year, the youth unemployment rate stood at 17.1% and rose to 28.6% among Blacks. As a result, teens find adults who are lacking advanced skills, or are driven to a second job due to underemployment, occupying the positions that would normally be available.

Now, while it is unlikely the current social and economic conditions will lead to a generation of international drug lords, the implications for the country’s youth are nonetheless dire if we do not address these pressing issues. While the economy has seen improvement since the debut of Breaking Bad in 2008, it has been marked by lower-than-expected job growth, leading some to call it a “jobless recovery.” The implications for youth are troublesome on many fronts.

First, many have noted the connection between joblessness, poverty and high crime rates. One must look no further than D.C. to see the link between the most dangerous neighborhoods and the areas with the highest levels of unemployment. In Boston, research has found that low-income teens with summer jobs have far lower rates of not only violence, but also drug and alcohol abuse, compared to those without. Teens who engage in this behavior now will find it even tougher to find employment with a criminal record, causing the cycle to continue.

And while the numbers for youth unemployment in Europe have been making headlines, there are even more alarming stories right at our border. In Mexico, the approximately 8 million unemployed young people are finding that they can make three times the national salary as an enforcer for the drug cartels, according to this report from The Christian Science Monitor, making them a “driving factor in organized crime.” For these teens, the plot of Breaking Bad is almost autobiographical.

In addition to the implications for the physical well-being of our youth, the current unemployment numbers are troubling because research has shown how critical one’s early career is to future earnings. Niraj Chokshi of National Journal reports, “Being unemployed young can reduce earnings by as much as 20 percent for up to two decades, and those who are jobless early in their careers also end up less satisfied with the work they do find later in life.”

There are mental health implications as well. He goes on to say, “unemployment before age 23 can lower life satisfaction for as much as two decades.” Fans of Breaking Bad will recall that money is not Walter White’s only motivations. His helplessness at being unable to provide for his family is compounded by his frustration with his job(s) and his dissatisfaction with his station in life.

While the main character of Breaking Bad finds wealth, power and fulfillment as a result of his narcotics-based career change, real life (and the show’s great narrative) show that these outcomes are not only fleeting but also compounded by even worse ramifications. The consequences for our youth are hopefully not as extreme as those faced by White. However, if we are not careful, a generation faced with diminished economic opportunity may come to view the character as less of an anti-hero and as more of an inspiration.

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