Is ‘Squid Game’ so popular because of debt anxiety?

An image from “Squid Game," a fictional Netflix series.
(Noh Juhan/Netflix)

‘Squid Game’ is Netflix’s most popular show ever. Some say the bloody show hits close to home.


“Squid Game” is the most popular show in Netflix history.

The bloody South Korean show details characters in debt who are willing to put their lives on the line to get a better financial future.

The series has resonated worldwide, tapping into growing economic fears and concern over debt.

Personal debt in the U.S. has become a political problem for the Biden administration as lawmakers continue to push for some form of student loan cancelation, which now is around $1.73 trillion.

Q: Is “Squid Game” so popular because of debt anxiety?

Norm Miller, University of San Diego

NO: “Squid Game” seems popular for the same reason as “The Hunger Games,” that is, it is an extreme competition with the ultimate price for losing, and within the context of what would people do to survive? The use of debt anxiety is simply to make it relatable for many struggling viewers. Not having seen the show, I suspect other likely plots like capitalism versus labor, or other “injustices” where we can all take sides as young people compete in a sometimes unfair world.

Jamie Moraga, IntelliSolutions

NO: While that may be an interesting aspect of the show, it isn’t the driving reason for its popularity. Consumer behavior is motivated by psychological, personal, and social factors. Humans are often influenced by the behaviors and choices of other people. Word of mouth, news headlines, and social media hashtags or memes generate curiosity and the desire to be “in the know.” The ability to easily replicate games/challenges from the show that are TikTok and Instagram-worthy are also contributing to going viral.

David Ely, San Diego State University

YES: Given that all of the participants in “Squid Game” share the common circumstance of being heavily in debt, this factor surely contributes to the popularity of the series. Anxiety over meeting debt obligations, a lack of good pathways for escaping debt burdens, a sense of societal unfairness, and the hazards of interacting with non-traditional lenders are all dimensions of indebtedness that have a presence in the series and that audiences can relate to.

Ray Major, SANDAG

Not participating this week.

Lynn Reaser, Point Loma Nazarene University

YES: Shows that offer captivating drama and a personal connection often resonate well. “Squid Game” clicks on both fronts. Although South Korea’s shadowy lending practices are not prevalent in the U.S., many do struggle with debt burdens. Only mortgages now exceed student debt. Last year, the average college student graduated with about $30,000 in student loans. While the program also mirrors the extremes of social power, debt loads, especially for those under 40, remain a constant worry.

Reginald Jones, Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation

YES: Economic insecurity alters decision-making. The mindset that comes with needing money to meet basic obligations or repay debt can bring adverse behaviors. Many households are now vulnerable —particularly minorities. PolicyLink data suggests two out of three households of color cannot sustain their needs if income is disrupted. Dire circumstances drive mental stress, suicide, family destruction, and the vice and violence plaguing our communities. Push is warranted to propel financial well-being for more people.

Kelly Cunningham, San Diego Institute for Economic Research

NO: More likely popular because of the innovative depiction of facets for human desperation seemingly resonating with viewers across multiple cultures. Much like the recent presentations of dystopian conditions in “The Hunger Games” and “Parasite,” the Netflix series depicts suspenseful conceptions combining the popularity of reality television, game shows and violence as entertainment. The film’s narrative was conceived more than 10 years ago, whereas enacting death games has been around since at least Roman coliseum times.

Phil Blair, Manpower

YES: Having watched a few segments of the show I understand how they are playing on the stress level that many people, especially young people, are feeling in balancing their work life, their home life, and still keeping up with the Joneses in risky, long-shot investments. But this is balanced with a large group of people who were able to add to their net worth due to financial supplements and who are now exiting the job market with early retirement, choosing to stay at home with their children, or able to be very selective about what jobs they are willing to take.

Gary London, London Moeder Advisors

NO: If anything, there is less debt, more savings and more spending, at least in our nation. The popularity of “Squid Game” stems from its celebration of violence, creating a game of life and death foisted upon debt-plagued victims recruited by a wealthy demagogue. Sound familiar? It should because it is a fictional account of what is more cryptically promoted to the socially ostracized through the work of social media plutocrats and lying politicians on the political right.

Alan Gin, University of San Diego

NO: While U.S. debt levels are high, many people were able to reduce their debts during the pandemic. Those who kept their jobs had limited places to spend the money, so some paid down their debts. The popularity of the show is likely due to its offbeat premise, including its violent aspects. It is similar to the popularity of reality TV and conflict-laden talk shows. The television-watching audience is not a total loss though given the popularity of the high-quality “Queen’s Gambit” last year.

Bob Rauch, R.A. Rauch & Associates

NO: It is popular because it is like “The Hunger Games” and plays off the fear of losing your life. Debt anxiety seems to be much more prevalent in South Korea than in the U.S. Here, government payback protection program loans and very liberal policies on student debt repayment, no evictions, unemployment bonuses, child care credits and more have kept most citizens flush with cash.

James Hamilton, UC San Diego

Not participating this week.

Austin Neudecker, Weave Growth

NO: The popularity of “Squid Game” stems from several overlapping trends: (Genre) violent thrillers centered around games; (Societal) abuse of disadvantaged citizens and lack of treatment for addiction; and (Global receptiveness) a rise in openness to foreign content. South Korea has been producing fantastic content for years but is only recently being recognized in the U.S. The show’s premise is enticing because of its creepy plausibility and commentary on how expendable we treat certain members of our society.

Chris Van Gorder, Scripps Health

NO: While the show will resonate with some for personal reasons, I think it’s just a well-made show from a USC film grad. Debt anxiety does not exist because of a show — it exists because we have permitted bad loans to those unable to pay it back. It’s not unlike zero deposit home loans that defaulted in the not-too-distant past. I just hope that the debt the U.S. is planning on increasing does not do the same to our country.

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