“Identity Capital”

Jay defines identity capital as “our collection of personal assets” (6). It took me a few tries to understand this somewhat nebulous concept. This kind of capital consists of “investments we make in ourselves, the things we do well enough, or long enough, that they become part of who we are” (6). Some examples Jay gives of identity capital that go on a resume are “degrees, jobs, test scores” (6). Other capital cannot go on a resume, but is still useful in the process of building a life, such as “how we speak, where we are from, . . . how we look” (6). Okay, so this “identity capital” seems to be essentially all the characteristics and experiences that makes us who we are, and it “is the currency we use to metaphorically purchase jobs and relationships and the other things we want” (7).

So far, this concept just makes me feel sad. Not only do we already trade our hours in a capitalist marketplace, but now we’re also supposed to fracture our identities into metaphorical doubloons that we can use to purchase a job or a family? I think I understand where Jay is coming from — she wants twentysomethings to understand our lives as a system that can be manipulated to show x outcome by inputting y action so we don’t feel so overwhelmed by the task of building a life we want that we never even try. Still, I just can’t fully get behind this metaphor. Capitalism breeds greed and greed turns human lives into dollar signs. It’s no state secret — look at Facebook or Amazon or the Sackler family. Jay’s words are resonating while I sit at two distinct junctures: one a moment in history in which we have a president fueled by greed and amorality, a moment that could alter and is altering the direction of our country’s sense of justice, the other a moment in life that Jay proves to be “a critical period, a time when we are primed for growth and change” (xxviii). At these particular junctures, do we really need to encourage viewing our own and each other’s traits and experiences as another form of capital to “purchase jobs and relationships and the other things we want” (7)? Is that a helpful message to the future leaders of a country in the throes of the negative effects of democracy and capitalism? I don’t know the answer, but for the sake of this conversation with Jay, I’ll adhere momentarily to the concept of identity capital.

Jay uses herself as an example, citing the time after graduating college that she spent four years “driving vans all over the backcountry” and working as an instructor for Outward Bound (8-9). This was not her long-term plan, but when it came time for graduate school, interviewers “would glance at [her] resume and start excitedly with ‘Tell me about Outward Bound!’” (10). The Outward Bound identity capital earned her a spot in grad school. She urges one of her therapy clients, a twentysomething yoga instructor and nanny, to earn some solid, resume-worthy identity capital. “No one [is] going to start of [the client’s] next job interview by saying, ‘So tell me about being a nanny!’” (10).

Hold on. Did she really just say that? How exactly is nannying a less worthy conversation starter than being a backpacking instructor? Nannying requires multitasking, clear communication and decision-making skills, and consistency. If the interviewer was a mother, father, or had nannied in the past, he or she would have recognized that and probably respected the work. Exactly what chart is Jay using to judge these pieces of capital on? Who’s to be sure that nannying is not a “door-opening [piece] of identity capital” (10)? Okay. Mini-rant over.

Finally, in this section Jay discusses underemployment, the trend in which twentysomethings “work at jobs they are overqualified for or they work only part time” (11). This underemployment supposedly leads to depression and decreased motivation” (12). She says that the coffee shop job can be breezy and fun, but it will ultimately make you sad and won’t help you get the job you want. Apparently, underemployment encompasses coffee shop work and nannying, but not camping.

While I don’t necessarily agree with quantifying one’s identity in capital or Jay’s judgement of which pieces of capital are worthy, her quantifications do in fact provide a tangible framework by which an underemployed twentysomething can inch toward his or her ideal job. I’m uncomfortable with elements of that framework, with some of the values and assumptions inherent in it, but I’m also admittedly entrenched in it. I work a 9-5 in publishing, a job my identity capital certainly played a role in getting. Can Jay’s advice be unhealthy, judgmental, encouraging of self-deprecation, terror-inducing, but also true?

Jay, Meg. The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter — and how to make the most of them now.New York City, Hachette Book Group, 2012.

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