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'Planet Money' explores the specialized workforce in Britain known as working royals

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

You've heard of the British royal family, but what about the working royals? Wailin Wong and Darian Woods of The Indicator From Planet Money explain how this small labor force gets paid, how its productivity is measured and how it might cope with the health crises of King Charles III and Kate Middleton.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: Elizabeth Holmes is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who now writes a newsletter about the British royal family. She says the working royals take on a bunch of ceremonial duties.

ELIZABETH HOLMES: There are plaques to be unveiled. There are bridges and hospital wings to open.

WONG: The royals also lend their names and public support to lots of charities, which are known as patronages.

HOLMES: You know, it comes back to this idea that Queen Elizabeth said that she needed to be seen to be believed. And such a big part of their job is to be out in public, to be seen.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: There are just 11 working royals who can take on this big responsibility of being seen.

HOLMES: And the current working royals right now are Charles and Camilla and then Will and Kate, obviously, and then the king's siblings - so Anne and Edward and Edward's wife, Sophie. That's sort of the core crew.

WOODS: And the remaining working royals are first cousins of the late Queen Elizabeth II, plus one of their wives.

WONG: Royal family members are now having to pick up the slack as King Charles and Kate Middleton focus on their health. And how hard are they working? Well, Darian, as you know, in the U.S., we have the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which measures productivity.

WOODS: That's right.

WONG: Well, for the royals, they have something called the Court Circular, where every official event gets logged. So in 2023, the hardest-working royal by this measure was Princess Anne, King Charles' sister. She racked up 457 engagements last year.

WOODS: But like with every measure of productivity, you have to ask what it's really measuring. Not all royals think that the Court Circular is a particularly good measurement of productivity. Here's how Prince Harry describes it in the audiobook of his memoir, "Spare."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRINCE HARRY: It was all self-reported, all subjective. Nine private visits with veterans, helping with their mental health - zero points. Flying via helicopter to cut a ribbon at a horse farm - winner.

WONG: And this brings us to how working royals are compensated. They essentially get to draw on a massive expense account called the Sovereign Grant. It's an annual lump sum that comes from the U.K. government - in other words, taxpayers. And the Sovereign Grant pays for costs associated with official duties like staff, security and travel.

WOODS: And this year, the Sovereign Grant is roughly 108 million U.S. dollars. Elizabeth says the palace likes to point out that if you divide by the population of the U.K. that's less than 2 pounds per person.

HOLMES: In the past, the group of working royals included Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, but they officially stepped down from royal duties in 2021 amid a rift with the family. There was also Prince Andrew. He stopped working in 2019 after a now-infamous TV interview about his involvement with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

WOODS: When it comes to the potential pipeline of younger working royals, there are people like Prince Andrew's daughters, Beatrice and Eugenie.

WONG: But Elizabeth says it's unclear whether the next generation will want the kind of workload their older relatives have. Harry and Meghan had asked for a part-time arrangement and were turned down. Elizabeth wonders, though, if the current state of the royal workforce will put that option back on the table.

WOODS: Darian Woods.

WONG: Wailin Wong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.
Darian Woods
Darian Woods is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.