Personal Finance on Film: The Up Series

“Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” — attributed to Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order

Though there are many fine books about money available for the general reader, I've always been disappointed that there are so few movies about money. Anything directly about finance tends to be sensationalist in one way or another.

Despite this, I think that excellent films about money do exist — you just have to know where to look for them. Two years ago, for example, I reviewed The Farmer's Wife, a poignant six-hour documentary about a Nebraska family struggling to make ends meet. “This is a great film,” I wrote. And it is. Today I want to share a series of documentary films that's just as good.

In 1964, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) produced a short film called Seven Up that explored the lives of fourteen seven-year-olds from various cities and social classes. Every seven years since, director Michael Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, James Bond's The World is Not Enough, and the forthcoming The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) has returned to interview these same fourteen subjects, documenting their growth into adulthood.

“[These children are] like any other children, except that they come form startlingly different backgrounds. We've brought these children together because we wanted a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The shop steward and the executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.” — from Seven Up

The Up series is fascinating. Sure, we all get to see our families and friends grow up around us. (And then we watch their children grow.) But that happens in slow motion (well, in real time, actually.) These films allow viewers to watch fourteen people grow from childhood to middle age in a matter of hours. We see them pass through adolescence, get married, have children, lose their parents, become grandparents, and more.

Here's a clip from the most recent installment, 49 Up:

Though the Up films explore all aspects of their subjects' lives, there's no doubt that questions of money and class play a huge role in their biographies. Viewers are allowed to decide for themselves whether the Jesuit maxim is true: Can one actually see the future adult by examining a seven year old child? Or even a fourteen year old? Do our class origins dictate our lives? Does wealth bring happiness? And what is it that gives life meaning?

Each participant has a different relationship with the films and the filmmaker. Some of the group actively dislike director Michael Apted and are reluctant to be forthcoming. But the most illuminating stories come from those who are willing to open up and share everything — warts and all.

  • For example, Tony was brought up lower class in London's East End. He dropped out of school at fifteen to become a jockey, but it didn't work out. He became a taxi driver instead, a job he's held for nearly thirty years. By 42, Tony and his family had left the East End after buying a second house in Essex. By 49, they'd taken out a second mortgage on their London house to buy a third house in Spain. Tony seems to have pulled himself up to the middle class — but I wonder how much of this was financed by debt.
  • Suzy comes from an upper-class family. Hers is not a happy family, though. During the 1960s, her parents become divorced. Suzy grows disaffected. Up until the age of 21, one might guess she was headed for a life of spoiled indulgence. Ultimately, however, she settles down and raises a lovely family. Though she lives a comfortable life, she faces a different sort of money worry than the other participants. Her husband undertakes a business venture that puts some of their capital at risk.
  • The participant with the most poignant life is Neil. As a seven-year-old, Neil is happy and bright, a charming lad from a working class Liverpool family. By 21, though, he's dropped out of college, works odd jobs, and squats in an abandoned building. For the next twenty years, he's essentially homeless, roaming around Britain. He's dogged by mental health problems. But Neil is a deeply intelligent man, and he appears to turn things around during his forties. He still lives on a pittance (including some public money), but he's become involved in local politics and seems content with his situation.

The participants sometimes chafe at the roles they believe they're forced to play. In 21 Up, Apted asks the subjects if they think their class has affected their choices. The answers are surprising.

The three prep school boys (John, Andrew, and Charles) argue that their situation has actually limited their choices, that they've been boxed in by a rigid set of expectations. The three East End girls (Jackie, Lynn, and Sue) make the same argument, but from the opposite end of the class spectrum. They believe they have more choices than those in the upper classes have.

But as they age, the answers to this question change. (Perhaps people are being more honest.) In 49 Up, for example, Andrew admits that his origins played a big role in granting him the opportunities he's had in life.


A clip from 49 Up showing some of Neil's background.

Again, money is just one of the subjects these films cover. The Up series also explores family, love, spirituality, and more. As with The Farmer's Wife, these films aren't for everyone. I think many would find them boring. But for those with patience, the Up series can provide a rare glimpse into what it means to live.

“There are many things that might have happened in my life that haven't happened. There's little point in being regretful and angry about it. Life comes once and it's quite short. You have to appreciate what's good in it.” — Neil Hughes, 49 Up

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Laura O.
Laura O.
11 years ago

I canceled my cable in March of 2008 to save money (of course). This was a big step, since I had never been without some kind of TV. To help me through this transition, I decided to subscribe to Netflix. As I was perusing the site, I came across the Up series and decided to try it out. I quickly became addicted! It was so fascinating; it wasn’t boring in the least. And I was definitely very touched my Neil’s story. Although, you have to wonder how being filmed every seven years changed the course of the participants’ lives in… Read more »

B
B
11 years ago

There’s also an episode of The Simpsons based upon the documentary; a true sign of enduring social significance.

Tyler@FrugallyGreen
11 years ago

My girlfriend was telling me about this series a few weeks ago and I was really interested. I’m excited to check it out.

Roxie
Roxie
11 years ago

Amazing, fascinating series. I can’t say enough good things about it.

Lynn
Lynn
11 years ago

I’m so glad to see you write about this series; I’ve been addicted to it since I first stumbled across one of the series (35 Up) while in undergrad. It is completely fascinating and thought-provoking – you can’t help but reflect on your own life while watching and for a long time after.

Patricia A. Smith
Patricia A. Smith
11 years ago

I watched the entire series two or three summers ago with my older daughter who is a kindergarten teacher and has summers off. We are both looking forward to the next one that will come out when the participants will be 56 years old. You can’t help getting attached to kids when you see them growing up. This daughter of mine was a very bossy seven year old and now she can be the boss of her classroom. I suppose it would be nicer of me to say that she showed leadership abilities when she was playing with her childhood… Read more »

JACK
JACK
11 years ago

J.D., you should do a search on NPR’s site for this film. They recently played a long interview with one of the participants (who teaches at Wisconsin now) and his view of the whole filming is quite thought provoking. He doesn’t trash the project, but at the same time he doesn’t have high praise for the producers either.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

Thanks, Jack. I’ll look for that. The interview would be with Nick, who moved to the U.S. sometime in the late seventies or early eighties. I’d love to read a measured evaluation from him. He’s a smart guy, and doesn’t seem wholly opposed to the project during the films. I’d love to read an insider’s thoughts.

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
11 years ago

Another documentary that’s interesting from a financial perspective is “My Kid Could Paint That”, which is about a very young girl who painted abstract paintings that started selling for ridiculously high amounts. That documentary is interesting financially because it debates both the value that is placed on artwork by different people as well as debating at what point a parent crosses the line between positively helping their kid succeed into using a child to achieve their own goals.

luneray
luneray
11 years ago

Have you seen “Friends with Money”? It’s not a documentary, but wickedly sharp satire about about money and social class.

frugalgrad
frugalgrad
11 years ago

I have never heard of this series but I’m glad I know it now. It’s so vivid to watch live autobiography. Feels like a time machine. Life is unexpected and all you can do is to prepare. How many ” I want to be…. when I grow up” actually come true? Sometime dreams are just still dreams. Time changes, you are, and I am too.

JKC
JKC
11 years ago

@ Jack (# 7), *searching NPR’s website right now* Maybe I am a bad looker, but I can’t find the damn thing. If anyone finds it, could you please post the link. I’m a big fan of the UP series, I’ve been watching them for years, and would love to hear the interview you describe. Nick is one of my favorite characters. He always has smart stuff to say. But my favorite quote from 49up is “I’m guarded about being guarded” a bit of an inside joke, but if you know the series, you will smile to yourself to remember… Read more »

geekmom
geekmom
11 years ago

I think I’ve found the interview on the PRI website:

http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/pri/.jukebox?action=viewPodcast&podcastId=15343

The link is about halfway down the page.

Austin
Austin
11 years ago

JD, It’s a shame that many people might find this kind of series boring. It looks much more fascinating and insightful than most of today’s “reality tv” programs.

Although it seems like a reality for most people, it was still sad to see such excited expressions (and dreams) from the children transformed into more somber outlooks as they got older.

Writer's Coin
Writer's Coin
11 years ago

When I heard of this series, I thought it was a fascinating idea. And it is, but after watching the first installment I just didn’t find it very engaging.

Robert
Robert
11 years ago

I have not seen hardly any of the films you mention, I will have to check them out.

I think people are so caught up with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, they forget about how most people can struggle with everyday life.

Mary
Mary
11 years ago

@Writer’s Coin, I agree that the first installment (7 Up) isn’t that engaging on it’s own. The payoff comes in the cumulative effect, when you can see the changes over time. You might try watching one of the later installments, like 28 or 35 or even 42. They do a recap for each person, so you don’t need to have seen the previous installments.

Ana
Ana
11 years ago

I’ve been watching this series since I was a kid (I’m in my early 30s now). It’s fascinating, but sometimes very sad. We don’t usually get a chance to look back on what people (or ourselves) were like when we were younger.

ackislander1
ackislander1
11 years ago

While we were watching this series, I couldn’t wait for Netflix to come. It is hard for Americans to believe the influence of class on these children. Class is to the UK what race is here — a defining factor in many lives. It helps to understand the influence of class on these children that I lived in England when these children were young and have visited frequently ever since. I could tell stories . . . . I can’t wait for the next “episode” but worry about what will happen when the producer dies. I want to know about… Read more »

john
john
11 years ago

ackislander1:

i totally agree about “reality TV” – the UP series truly is reality.

my wife and i sometimes discuss the characters as if they were friend or relatives – we brought up Nick the prof at Wisconsin, for example, when discussing whether kids who grow up in a rural area are disadvantaged culturally. In many ways, Nick is a great example of merit rising above situation. But, he was outside of the class structure of the urban areas and maybe therefore immune…

i’m glad to see this series get some pub, though – it is truly fascinating

Paul
Paul
11 years ago

I watched the 49UP, and I found this concept intriguing. Perhaps more than anything it made me reflect on my life in terms of the dreams and ambitions that I have. In some ways it was depressing to see the kids at a younger age filled with hopes and dreams, and as the series progressed many of these children had to dealt with the reality of missed opportunities, or mistakes made. I came away from watching this series by making a choice to accomplish my goals and dreams. Although I’m only 25, I don’t want to be 49 and wonder… Read more »

David
David
11 years ago

I think there are obvious reasons why there are not many movies based on personal finance – it’s a boring topic. Now many of you will say “What! No it’s not!” and I would have to agree – it’s not to you and me, but to an average person it is a dull topic.

Think about it – do you think people would rather watch a movie about a family that practices frugal financing or someone trying to save the world from being blown up by aliens?

Am I making sense?

TosaJen
TosaJen
11 years ago

Funny — I just watched 42 Up last week, because I had just added it and 49 Up to my Netflix instant queue. 🙂

As an almost-42 yo, it was both sobering and comforting to see how most people settle into their expectations, and yet some do something radically different.

Leanne
Leanne
11 years ago

Thanks so much for posting this–and the clips. I loved the idea of the series, and watched the first episode (7 Up) but just couldn’t stomach it; kept thinking about how unnatural it was to be pushing and asking these kids these things–and how that *must* have an effect on how they see themselves and how they conduct their lives. Somehow, it didn’t seem fair to do to a bunch of young people. BUT, I’m much more fascinated by the clips here, and the long view afforded by the series as a whole. I’ll have to check out the later… Read more »

Mebs
Mebs
11 years ago

Love this series and am glad you referenced it. The latest is in my queue at blockbuster.com.

Thanks

Canadian
Canadian
11 years ago

I love this series. So poignant. I hope some of the participants who dropped out will decide to drop back in at some point.

MITBeta @ Don't Feed The Alligators
MITBeta @ Don't Feed The Alligators
11 years ago

What I found fascinating about the series was the truth in the Loyola statement. The kids were one way at 7 and then followed this rebellion arc, so to speak, in 14 and 21, and then by 28 most of them were pretty much back to being the same people they were at 7 in terms of outlook on life, etc.

plonkee
plonkee
11 years ago

I read an interview with the makers of this documentary series. One of the things that I found particularly interesting was that they knew that class was likely be a significant factor in how the kids lives would progress, so they picked them accordingly. They hadn’t expected either gender or race to be particularly important, and if they could go back, they said they’d probably have picked a more representative group.

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