- Young professionals on TikTok are advocating for building “identity capital” to get ahead at work and in life.
- Sociologists use the term to describe one’s experiences, hobbies, and skills.
- Some criticize the philosophy, saying that marketing a personality is “unhealthy.”
Tonna Obaze says her first piece of “identity capital” was her name. Her parents made it up.
“I’m Nigerian-American,” she said. “I always grew up being able to define the meaning of my name like Oprah or Beyonce or Rihanna, and always got to decide what my name meant.”
The former venture capitalist said this is something always she brings up when meeting new people, whether it be at a work event or a social setting. For her, identity capital doesn’t just mean having anecodtes for cocktail parties or job interviews — it’s a way of thinking about legacy.
“When we say ‘identity capital’ about one person, it’s similar to talking about the ‘brand’ or the ‘mission’ or the ‘value’ of a corporation,” said. “But I don’t see it as transactional. Identity capital has a lot more to do with connections and relationships and community.”
Experts told Insider that building identity capital has real social and economic value for young adults in their early adult years, with professionals on TikTok saying that’s been true in their own lives. At the same time, others have expressed skepticism about it, arguing that framing one’s personality in a financial context can only be harmful to their sense of self worth, and that the popularity of that way of thinking is an indictment of capitalism.
The term has blown up on TikTok as of late, with the #identitycapital tag garnering over 100,000 views. The phrase was popularized by Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist, in her 2012 book, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them Now.
“I think of identity capital as anything you do that adds value to who you are,” Jay told Insider. “It is how we spend our time and invest in ourselves not just as professionals but as people too.”
She added that for young adults, the appeal of identity capital as something to build has to do with how flexible it is.
“We can move it across jobs, areas of life, states, and more,” she said. “It is about building and growing and diversifying who you are and what you have to offer — in all areas of life — over time.”
And those who insist on the philosophy say it’s the most important thing for young adults to focus on.
“You guys need to stop obsessing over your GPA and picking the right major and start obsessing over identity capital,” Dellara Gorjian, a California-based lawyer, said in a video that racked up over 500,000 views. “Be an interesting bitch.”
Jay got the term from James E. Côté, a sociology professor at the University of Western Ontario who specializes in youth and identity formation.
Her takeaway from Jay’s book was that a person builds their identity capital through experiences, and that being unique makes one more valuable — traveling, learning languages, taking reprieves from social media, and advocating for causes you care about are all examples she gives.
“The young woman is on the right track with it in the sense of engaging in growth-producing activities in a strategic manner,” Côté told Insider, referring to Gorjian.
Much of Cote’s research concerns the relationship between identity capital and socioeconomic mobility. People who are disadvantaged because of their race, sexual orientation, or financial background are often restricted when it comes to such mobility due to structural barriers.
“The personal resources acquired developmentally become important,” Côté wrote in one 2012 paper, with those personal resources being the experiences that make up identity capital; he calls identity capital the “black box of agency” where there is none.
“All the money in the world can’t get people to care about you, but if you want to forge authentic connections with people, you have to be someone that people want to be around,” Jareen Imam, a 34-year-old senior marketing manager at Amazon, told Insider.
“I think we’re getting way too comfortable commodifying ourselves”
Imam told Insider that building identity capital has helped her distinguish herself as both a student and a professional over the years.
“I grew up not with a lot of money,” she said. “My mom was a single parent and she was a school teacher in Florida. And so I didn’t grow up traveling. I didn’t grow up skiing or having these expensive hobbies.”
But Imam was able to teach herself a few languages, she said. She taught herself how to play the guitar. Those weren’t skills she picked up with the intention of leveraging them for career success, but she said they “added to the depth of my personality.”
“They are not just assets that build up who you are, but these are actual experiences that then you can relate to other people in order to forge a deeper connection,” she said.
When identity capital started to pick up steam online — both among young professionals who swear by it and among young adults looking to learn — some people criticized the way that the growing philosophy around the term for making personalities marketable.
“I think we’re getting way too comfortable commodifying ourselves,” Beverly Joseph, 21, told Insider. “Influencers make it seem like this super cool, fun thing that’ll make your life easier, instead of something that’ll take a big toll on your personhood.”
Joseph said that she understands that identity capital can be related to work or simply involve building relationships. But she says it’s a “line” to avoid crossing anyway.
“Finding a middle ground where you understand you have to monetize some things to make a living, I get,” she said. “A lot of things are predetermined, and telling people ‘you’re in control,’ and ‘bettering your social capital will help you achieve a superhuman thing in your lifetime’ — that’s unhealthy.”
Joseph speaks to what a lot of Gen Z has been vocal about over the last few years: that they think capitalism and productivity-chasing has seeped too much into our personal lives.
Obaze agreed with Joseph’s sentiment. She categorizes her forms of identity capital into different “buckets.” She considers her college education and background in finance to be more traditional forms of that capital, with anything ranging from volunteer work to her taste in music as the non-traditional kind. She said that thinking of her identity this way makes her feel like a “link in a larger chain of cultural capital.”
“I don’t think identity capital is only valued to the extent that it’s seen as profitable,” she said.”It’s this ambiguous framework that empowers people to define who they are and not define themselves by the labels that society gives them, and I have the ability to define what that means by my own standards.”