What really makes reality TV show contestants weep

It's easy to sneer at reality TV contestants as they tearily pursue their dreams of fame and riches. But for many people, it may be the only route they can take.

Reality TV is generally pretty exhausting to watch. Be the prize a job as a chef, a contract with a modelling agency, fame and glory as an entertainer or just a small pile of cash, everyone "wants it" more than anything they have ever known. It is their "last chance". They really "need a break". They are doing it for the "best mum in the world" who raised them alone.

Even if you've only watched the genre for a few minutes you'll know how emotional this stuff can get. I was almost in tears myself by the end of Masterchef last night. But all the weeping is usually dismissed by the audience as no more than a pathetic over-indulgence. It isn't anyone's last chance, we mutter. If they want to be a chef they can start off cooking sausages in a pub and work their way up. Want to be a model? Slog round the agencies with your look book like everyone else. Want a £150,000 job with an international company? Start as a graduate trainee and work hard.

However, look at the jobless figures and it isn't easy to stay so callous. There are now 352,000 households in which no one has ever had a job. There are 3.9m workless households. That's up by 389,000 in the last two years. Among 18 to 24 year-olds, 728,000 are unemployed, and numbers out tomorrow are likely to show that number rising not falling. Thousands of young people are joining the dole queues every month.

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That makes the life chances of those at the bottom of the pile the ones the production companies flock to for their shows even worse than usual: even the temporary and unskilled work usually available to them dries up when well-educated graduates enter the pool looking for something to tide them over.

We also know that, for the poorly educated, getting a job is hardly a path to a good life. The minimum wage will pay you not much more than £11,000 a year. So get a minimum wage job and stay on one which the people at the bottom of the educational and social piles almost certainly will and you certainly won't end life thinking that you got any kind of 'break'.

So maybe the voted-off contestants on the get-a-job shows aren't weeping because they can't be bothered to put in the hours needed to get to the top via the one-time normal routes. Instead it is because they know that these days it mostly doesn't matter how hard you work: if you have a rubbish education and no money behind you (to pay for internships, travel and the like) odds are that if you don't get one on the telly, you aren't ever going to get a break.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.