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Yesterday's TV, Today's Economy: Friends


In 2011, the "Friend" who seemed most likely to succeed would in fact be making the least.

Make no mistake, at least two of the characters on NBC's Friends lived impossibly lavish lifestyles in America's most expensive city for the paltry wages they earned. That is, until the show caught too much flack for its misrepresentation of Manhattan as some sort of real estate fantasy island. In 1997, four episodes into its fourth season, the writers explained how Monica, on a chef's salary, and Rachel, as a coffee house waitress, could afford the palace of their Greenwich Village apartment.

As it turned out, Monica had hit the Manhattan housing Powerball by subletting, albeit illegally, her grandmother's rent-controlled digs -- who'd have to have been the lessee since at least 1971. In 2002, tenants in one-bedroom rent-controlled apartments paid as little as $350 per month which basically means that two otherwise bohemian twenty somethings could have afforded to live in a two-bedroom on minimum wage -- which Rachel surely was making.

Today, the rent on that apartment, if still rent controlled, would not exceed $2,000 a month. Meanwhile, Chandler and Joey, across the hall in their fair market apartment, would be paying on average $4,062 -- or $5,708 if the building had a doorman.

Recently, in that landmark pre-war building on the corner of Grove and Bedford, a one-bedroom, roughly the size of Monica's eat-in kitchen, rented for $2,300.

As the show progressed, so did Monica's career. Cycling through several restaurant gigs in between a stretch of unemployment that left her with a bank balance of $127, Monica eventually landed a head chef position at a local restaurant called Alessandro's. In 2004, the year she got the job, she'd have earned about $43,000 while today her salary would round out at around $50,000.

Those figures square with New York chef earnings and restaurant industry sales which climbed nearly $341 billion between 1990 and 2010, when they reached $580 billion. This year, sales are expected to hit a record $604 billion, after recovering from the economic downturn of the past few years that left the industry in its worst shape since the 1991 recession.

In fact, one restaurant casualty from our most recent recession was the Upper West Side institution Café des Artistes which had, at one time, employed Monica as a sous chef.

Rachel also started making a respectable living when she entered the fashion industry and, by season five, ended up at Ralph Lauren as a buyer and then finally a merchandising manager. Today, Rachel's salary would be upwards of $70,000, which with her limited expenses, would leave her plenty to start investing for retirement -- or to stock her humongus closet with designer shoes and pashminas.

Her job security, however, may be a bit iffy. The US apparel market, ravaged by the recession, experienced a five percent decline in 2009 but rebounded slightly in 2010 with a nearly 2% profit. "Even with these improved results the fashion industry is still falling behind other industries," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst, The NPD Group, Inc.

Aside from a stint on Days Of Our Lives as Dr. Drake Ramoray for which he'd be guaranteed no more than one to three days of work per week at an average of $1100 per episode (today's rates), Joey was the Friend without a future. Oddly enough, he was the only one given a spin-off. And look where that lead.

Against all odds, flaky Phoebe would have managed to carve out a comfortable little living in what has become a rapidly growing segment of the health care industry: Massage therapy. While the majority are still sought in spa settings, massages are increasingly being added to medical staff's patient care plans for pain management. According to the American Massage Therapy Association, the practice was a $6-$11 billion a year industry in 2005. By 2009 it had reached $16-20 billion and offered an annual mean wage in New York of $48,900.

Staggering apartment fortune also graced Phoebe who inherited her grandmother's apartment on Morton Street, also in the West Village, where one-bedrooms fetch well over a half million.

Ross and Chandler were easily the most successful of the lot. While a running gag in the series left his pals at a loss about what he did for a living, Chandler's ambiguous job as an IT procurement manager with a specialization in statistical analysis and data reconfiguration earns a median salary of $115,618 in New York and goes as high as $152,352.

A PhD in paleontology, Ross eventually earned tenure as a professor at New York University where he'd also make a six-figure salary, averaged at $109,843.

Not immune to the recession, however, teaching in secondary education has taken a hit with academic pay rising by only 1.2% last year, the smallest increase in 50 years. Private universities, like NYU, report the largest wage pinch. Moreover, budget cuts in retirement contributions, sabbaticals, travel and research are occurring at about 14% of schools and more faculty have been demoted to part-time positions with forced unpaid furloughs.

Poor Ross. No one told him life was gonna be this way.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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