What I mean is that the X Factor, along with other things such as the massive pay for top footballers and for celebrities such as Katie Price, tempts young people towards winner-take-all careers and away from careers where pay-offs are more certain and less skewed. This encourages them to over-invest in football and singing skills and the pursuit of celebrity and to under-invest in academic work.
This preference is not necessarily irrational. In simple expected utility terms, a 1% chance of getting £2m a year is equal to a 50% chance of getting £40,000. Add to this the greater disutility of jobs with the latter salaries - plus the fact they won‘t buy you a house - it’s easy to see why people might prefer the 1% chance.
However, this preference might be exacerbated by three less rational biases:
- Role model effects. Role models matter because they play upon the availability heuristic. If we see someone like us doing something, we believe that there’s a chance we can do it as well. The problem is that if you’re from a poor inner-city, you’ll probably see more pop stars, footballers and reality show micro-celebs like you than you’ll see middle-class professionals. This will bias you towards the former careers and away from the latter.
- Overconfidence. We often over-rate our chances of success. People become pop singers thinking they’ll sell millions, not that they’ll be embittered club singers scuffling for a £100 gig - even though the odds point to the latter.
What’s more, we know from other work that, especially where “superstar” markets exist, there is at least a possibility of a misallocation of labour; this sort of thing likes behind the decades-old complaints that the City diverts talent away from other occupations such as science or manufacturing.
All of which makes me fear that the X Factor might be contributing to what might be a serious problem, insofar as some young people do neglect their school work in favour of chasing dreams.