Short dance videos and comedic lip-syncs have long dominated TikTok. But as you scroll down your FYP today, it’s becoming increasingly common to see influencers creating self-help-style content.
The creators within this niche – often self-proclaimed ‘wellness coaches’ – seek to guide their followers’ through a self-improvement journey, covering anything from fitness and mindfulness to career development. Whether it be a creator urging their viewers to romanticise their life or practice manifestation techniques to achieve a particular goal, the pursuit of personal growth is almost ubiquitous across TikTok. We only need to cast our minds back to the rise of ‘Lucky Girl Syndrome‘ to appreciate how this sort of pop psychology has seeped into the mainstream.
But a new buzzword has recently entered TikTok’s self-help lexicon…
Introducing ‘Identity Capital’
While ‘Identity Capital’ is not a TikTok-specific concept, discussion around the term began after @legalbaddie – real name Dellara – created a video explaining the idea on January 18.
“You guys need to stop obsessing over picking the right university major and your GPA and start obsessing over your identity capital,” she begins.
Dellara goes on to outline the concept’s origins, attributing its popularity to Meg Jay, the author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them Now. In her book, Jay writes, “Identity capital is a collection of personal assets. It is the repertoire of individual resources that we assemble over time… Identity capital is what we bring to the adult marketplace. It is the currency we use to metaphorically purchase jobs and other things we want.”
But identity capital doesn’t necessarily boil down to test scores and professional achievement – personal characteristics also matter. In fact, Jay provides two examples in her definition, explaining that identity capital also comes down to things like “how we speak or how we solve problems.”
The question now is, how do we build identity capital? In Dellara’s words, “be an interesting bitch.”
Many influencers have gone on to stitch the original video, listing specific steps or activities to invest in your identity. Gen Z career expert @zero2sudo shared that he travelled solo and created a scholarship fund throughout his early twenties. Meanwhile, other creators have emphasised the importance of a “through-line,” that is, a story that can bridge personal and professional characteristics and choices that form who you are.
At the time of publication, #identitycapital has amassed over 149K views on TikTok. And while some social media users have welcomed the philosophy, others have criticised the concept.
TikTok’s Identity Capital debate
There is no denying that many TikTok users resonate with this self-help-style content, and who can blame them? It makes sense that many of us are seeking a sense of comfort, control, and confidence in a post-pandemic world. As Daisy Schofield writes for Refinery29, “Self-help has become a glimmer of hope against the backdrop of a bleak socio-economic landscape where opportunities are scarce.” And with concepts like identity capital encouraging people to invest in their personal life, it’s hardly surprising that some Gen Zs are jumping on board.
TikTok creator @katiexsocials epitomises this sentiment. Stitching Dellara’s video, Katie shared her experiences after deciding to drop out of college and build her business. She explained how investing in her identity, rather than following the conventional path, opened the doors to personal and professional growth.
“I am so here for what she is saying… I was so scared of setting back my entire timeline, and it is crazy how different I feel,” she goes on to say. “I am growing every single day being a business owner… I have a significantly better understanding of what skills I want to have, who I want to talk to [and] what opportunities actually make sense for me.”
Meanwhile, other creators remain skeptical of identity capital and what it means to commodify personal characteristics, hobbies, and leisure. For instance, TikTok user @ryuhhnn jumped in on the discourse, sharing “three problems” they have with Dellara’s video.
“I think we need to stop using the language of finance to talk about human beings. You are a person. You have emotions, thoughts, ambition… We need to stop talking about people as if they are instruments of financial capital,” they note. “Obsessing over your GPA and your major certainly is not good for you, but the ‘solution’ that [Dellara] offers is equally bad. Want to live a healthy and fulfilled life? Focus on building community.”
In their video, Ryan speaks to Gen Z’s fatigue with productivity culture. As hyper-consumerism and capitalist norms continue to obscure personal choice, we have seen young people prioritise communal spaces over individualistic pursuits; Gen Z has even started to reject crafting a coherent personal brand on social media in the past few years. And since identity capital is all about selling your personal and professional development choices, it’s no wonder that the philosophy has failed to resonate with some TikTok users.
While there is no question that building identity capital and seeking out unique experiences is beneficial for young people as they start university and enter the workforce – it can be a slippery slope. Seeing ourselves through capitalism is not healthy, nor is it sustainable. And as Gen Z moves through their formative years, the struggle will be finding a compromise between profiting off identity capital and genuine self-empowerment.