Why has South Korean series Squid Game become such a global hit for Netflix, even in places like Britain, where the merest hint of a subtitle usually has viewers reaching for the remote? The show focuses on a disparate group of 456 characters enticed by a shadowy organisation to compete in a series of murderous games on an offshore island. The reward? A large cash prize. So far, so dystopian, so seen the same sort of thing before.
What gives Squid Game its resonance, beyond a high quality script and bloodthirsty violence, are the predicaments of the main characters and the economy they struggle to survive in. The lead character, Seong Gi-hun/Number 456, is a degenerate gambler who is failing to support his daughter and in debt to loan sharks. A foreign worker from Pakistan trying to support his family isn’t being paid by his corrupt boss. A North Korean defector needs money to get her family out of the hermit state. A securities firm worker is on the run having defrauded his clients. And so on.
All these people are in a financial no-win situation, and they all hail from, or work in, a country which experienced rapid economic growth and a correspondingly rapid rise in inequality. These are young people trying to survive in a hyper-competitive society in which the pressure to “get on” is intense but where good, well paying, secure jobs are desperately hard to come by. House prices have spiralled beyond the reach of most. Household debt is common, ditto concerns about its sustainability. These can all be filed under the heading “economic insecurity”. Sound familiar?
Using the Gini coefficient, an economic measure where 0 represents complete equality and 1 complete inequality, South Korea is the 11th most unequal country among the 38 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The UK is, drumroll please, in seventh place, just behind the US in sixth.
Neither of those nations, which have both enthusiastically taken to Squid Game, have undergone the same sort of sudden and rapid growth that South Korea experienced, with the inevitable societal dislocation these cause. But the impossible financial dilemmas the show’s protagonists experience, the disparities of wealth, and the economic insecurities, are all too common. You can easily find work on a zero hours contract, or in a meat factory, but the same sort of competition for good jobs? That’s here. Likewise unaffordable and perpetually rising house prices, sky high bills, debt, debt, and more debt.
It is not uncommon for people to turn to gambling to try and solve their financial dilemmas and to end up in further trouble as a result. This doesn’t always look like what we traditionally think of as gambling. The Financial Conduct Authority recently told me of its concerns about young furloughed workers seeking to make extra money by “investing” in cryptocurrencies, only to find themselves ensnared in scams. But even where the crypto hawkers are legitimate, what they’re selling is not investment but, rather, a roll of the dice.
The regulator cut the payday loan monsters down to size a few years ago, but there are plenty of other ways to get caught in a bind and there are rising concerns about “buy now, pay later” companies, which don’t charge interest but whose customers can very easily find themselves in debtor hell.
Meanwhile, energy prices are spiking. Food prices are set to follow. Universal credit has been slashed. People whose incomings fail to meet their outgoings frequently borrow to make the numbers add up. They do this hoping that something will come along to bail them out. It almost never does.
“Let’s play a game,” says the Squid Game salesman, offering a gambling challenge with a financial reward if you win, but a slap in the face if you lose. The characters in Squid Game all play. Are there not people in Britain today who would, if offered a similar game, willingly play? At least at the risk of a hard slap in the face? Would some of them take the next step if the reward was sufficiently large to cover their debts with riches to spare? If they’ve poured all their money into a crypto scam, face child support payments and loan repayments and have landlords, or banks, banging at the door with debt collectors one step behind?
This is the reality of a Britain whose government has promised “levelling up” but, beyond mouthing platitudes and seeking out scapegoats for an unsightly game of “villain of the week that’s not us”, appears not to have the faintest idea of how to achieve it. The nation’s mostly wealthy, privileged, and privately educated leadership appears to have scant understanding of the real problems of ordinary people, much less where they come from.
So, coming to your TV next week, the real-life Squid Game. Watch as people rip each other to shreds for £28.2m (the Squid Game prize fund in sterling). Or just £2.8m. Or even £280,000? How much would you have to put up to make this fly? It mightn’t be as much as you, or the show’s creators, think. Not in today’s Britain.
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