November 27, 2019

Millennials, Social Capital, and Decision Making

Jessica polingBy Jessica Poling

Sociology Ph.D. student, Rutgers University

In his landmark book, Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu laid out a framework that characterized social stratification as the unequal distribution of “capital” among members of a given society. Bourdieu broadly defines capital as accumulated labor that can be found in material objects (such as valuable household items), embodied within individuals (such as unique knowledge or a skill that one might possess), or institutionalized. Bourdieu argues that it is by possessing capital that individuals gain social status; however, there is a limited quantity of capital within a social sphere, consequently motivating individuals to hoard capital to gain an advantage over others.

Capital is found in three forms: economic, cultural, and social. Whereas economic capital is that which can easily be converted into money, cultural capital includes accumulated knowledge, behaviors, or skills that demonstrate cultural competency. Finally, and of interest to this post, social capital encompasses realized or potential resources connected to one’s social network.

For example, when applying for a new job, you might use family connections to recommend you to future employers. Similarly, children from highly educated families may have an easier time being accepted into a college because their parents know how to successfully navigate the higher education system. In this way, like all forms of capital, social capital can be used to advance one’s social status.

While we might use our social capital for social mobility, social capital can also be used to help us navigate important decisions in our lives. The people we know and our social networks may shape what we choose to prioritize and how we navigate our social environments. Ingrid A. Nelson addresses this issue in “Social Capital and Residential Decision Making Among Rural and Nonrural College Graduates.” Nelson’s work adds to ongoing conversations about young, rural college graduates and how they navigate the choice between living close to their hometowns or living in less rural areas with more financial opportunities.


Thus far, this conversation has largely focused on socioeconomic inequality between rural and urban areas. This inequality has often been referred to as the “rural brain drain”; the process in which individuals leave rural areas for economic opportunity, thereby exacerbating economic stratification. However, Nelson argues that there is a piece missing from the story. Rather than just focusing on the economic limitations of rural life, Nelson’s work investigates how recent college graduates actively decide where to live using their social capital.

Nelson uses interviews with recent college graduates who grew up in rural and nonrural areas to answer this question. Nelson argues that young people in rural areas use their social capital to make residential decisions in three distinct ways. First, individuals who chose to stay in rural areas made choices about their future careers early in order to identify college campuses that offered their desired major and were close to home.

Moreover, these individuals relied on their family and community to help them make these decisions. In doing so, these individuals were able to achieve their career goals without sacrificing proximity to their family. Furthermore, Nelson finds that most of her rural respondents cited proximity to family as a driving force behind their residential decisions. Although proximity to family did not outweigh their desire to find gainful employment, these individuals used their social capital and familial ties to guide their residential decision-making. Finally, rural college graduates reported that finding a familiar “sense of place” helped them decide where to reside. Rural individuals who wished to return to a rural town stated that they wished to find a place with social networks similar to where they grew up. For example, many individuals cited people in small towns as being friendlier and thought a small, tight-knit social network is beneficial. Thus, in some cases, rural individuals’ experiences with their small town social capital influenced which areas felt worthy of calling home.

This research illuminates the importance social capital has in our everyday lives. As Nelson argues, young college graduates are able to use their social capital to navigate the seemingly impossible choice between financial gain and family. By using social capital as a means of guiding choices, these individuals are able to find balance and make valuable decisions. Moreover, Nelson’s research finds that contrary to popular belief, these individuals do not feel constrained by their circumstances; rather, by mobilizing their capital they are able to make calculated and informed decisions.


Residential decision making is far from the only aspect of millennial life to be analyzed or scrutinized by the public. Thinking about social capital might help us shift some of these public conversations towards a better understanding of millennials’ choices. For example, social commentators have repeatedly remarked on how millennials choose to split their time with their friends and family.

According to a survey conducted by, the advent of social media has allowed younger generations to stay connected to people outside their family, leading to an increased investment in their friends over family. This investment reflects both how millennials choose to spend their time as well as their economic resources.

The celebration of “Friendsgiving,” for example, reflects younger generations’ investment in their friend communities. As Ashley Fetters of The Atlantic reflects, “another reason Thanksgiving celebrations have changed may be that families themselves have changed—and non relatives have become more likely to take on family-like roles in people’s lives.” Moreover, millennials’ reportedly prioritize spending money where it will benefit friendships, sometimes at the expense of spending beyond their means.

These choices may seem strange until we take social capital into account. What seems clear is that millennials are not making arbitrary decisions about how to spend their time and their money; rather, these trends have emerged because millennials think about their social capital differently than previous generations. Much like the participants in Nelson’s work, these trends show that millennials use their social capital to guide their decisions about where they should spend their money and how to split their time among their social networks. Similarly, by framing these trends as active, calculated choices, we can change the conversation around millennials’ social habits.

Economic capital may give us the financial means for social mobility, and cultural capital may give us the ability to navigate exclusive spaces. As Nelson demonstrates, social capital gives us tools to navigate important life decisions in addition to material resources for social advancement. Although valuable social capital is distributed unequally throughout our social field, this work illustrates that all of us are able to use our meaningful relationships to guide our own lives.


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