Social Capital Our Kids Need

It pays to be popular. Literally.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It pays to be popular. Literally.

In a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers found that a student’s popularity correlates to how much he or she makes later in life.

According to Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Derby, “Quantifying something that is as ephemeral as popularity is a tricky proposition for the researchers.”  Rather than measuring what a person may have thought about their popularity, the role of family income or other influencing factors, the study measures popularity by looking at social connections and the ability to form friendships.


A small group of smiling young adults, joking and looking at a phone.


Photo by Tulane Public Relations via WikiCommons

For those of us who wouldn’t have considered ourselves the “popular” kids in high school, this may feel like a continuation of the challenge that it was to be 15. Whether or not you agree with the study’s findings, from my point of view there is and always seems to have been at least three reasons why “popular” kids do well later on in life.

First, as the study notes, those who learn to create social capital in high school have an easier time down the road when the ability to form connections with other adults really matter. In other words, those who learn the social skills to build relationships at 15 are those who seem to be able to apply similar skills at 45, 65 and beyond.

Building relationships is one thing. Making those relationships work for you is something else entirely.  The second reason “popular” kids come out ahead, according to the study, is because they have learned how to leverage their networks to achieve what they care about. In the high school context, this influence plays out as successful bids for Homecoming Queen and the like. In the workplace it manifests as being picked as the project leader for having the ability to engage with others or having your idea adopted for the organization’s strategic plan because of frequent and ongoing opportunities to engage with senior leadership.

The study points out that students tend to associate with those like themselves—in other words, popular kids tend to associate with other popular kids. Therefore, the third reason popular kids do so well is because they form relationships with other popular people who have the social capital to help them get ahead. While the statement “it’s not what you know, but who you know” is probably a gross overreach, it is fair to say that knowing the right people makes it easier to get what you want. “Popular” kids have a relative leg up in this area.

So what is a well-meaning and potentially “unpopular” kid to do? The study argues that the ability to leverage social skills is a meaningful and important set of values for students to learn and for schools to teach. I agree.

Schools should help kids become “popular” in the sense of teaching students how to build strong social connections, helping them develop a set of relationships that start the networking and social capital-building process, and ensuring that they possess the social wherewithal to open up new doors when others shut.  

As a teacher I remember taking a group of students to a taping of the CBS early morning show. It was cold and my students and I rode the subway and walked to the outdoor taping of the show. While we waited, students from a wealthier part of town sat in a warm bus until just moments before the show began. Then these students, with lots of social (and obviously financial) capital, took the prime viewing spots for the show. I was furious and held my ground, pulling a few of my students back to the spots they had just been bumped out of. This was an opportunity for my kids to practice standing their ground literally and figuratively and to not allow unequal social capital to steal their opportunities.

If schools, families and others don’t find a way to help students learn the social skills to build and leverage their networks to get what they want even when access to social capital is unequal, then the “popular” kids will continue to rise to the top. But if we teach our students how to “play the game” of school and life as well as we can, then they will have dramatically increased the tools needed to succeed in business and beyond. . .and might just wind up opening their own doors in the process.


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