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Too Big To Fail: Millennials on the Margins
Anita Sands and Madeline Goodman

Social Capital

At the end of the nineteenth century—the beginning of the modern age—Emile Durkheim, the French philosopher, worried a lot about the fraying connections between individuals and their society. So tightly bound did he believe the individual and society to be that he specifically studied how rates of suicide—what he termed "anomic suicide"—could be tied to the level of social disarray. It's curious—and frightening—that researchers and the media have begun to document a new phenomenon in America: the rise of suicides (particularly among those with low levels of educational attainment—the only measure of skills used in these studies) in what have come to be known as "deaths of despair."73 Angus Deaton and Anne Case, authors of a study on the rise of the death rate among white middle-age Americans with less than a high school education, acknowledge that the concern indeed extends to the millennial population. "America is not a great place for people with only a high school degree," Case notes, "and I don't think that's going to get better any time soon."74 The large number of millennials with low skill levels, along with the complex and important relationship between skills and what researchers call "social capital," clearly has far reaching and profound consequences.

How skills exactly interact with social capital is a complex and critical question. The OECD launched an initiative to examine patterns of trust, an important component of social capital, across its member nations in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. In a 2015 report, they found evidence that nations with higher overall cognitive skills exhibited higher levels of trust.75 In 2014, Patricia Dinis da Costa et al., of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, explored the relationship between education, skills, and social well-being across select PIAAC participating European Union countries. Her data indicate that "individuals' competences and abilities are key for an effective and fruitful participation in the social and economic life of current globalized economies."76

PIAAC data allows us to explore how skill levels align with notions of social capital through a number of questions in the background questionnaire.77 Here, as in the section above, we examine these issues by looking at the percentages computed on the total number at each skill level. Aspects of an individual's level of trust are examined using two questions: "There are only a few people you can trust completely" and "If you are not careful, other people will take advantage of you." Our analysis shows that for all millennials, high levels of trust in others is not evident. However, those with lower skill levels appear to have lower levels of trust than their higher-skilled peers. Just over three quarters of the millennials who performed at or below Level 1 (76 percent in literacy and 77 percent in numeracy) reported that they either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that "There are only a few people who you can trust completely" (Table 10). These percentages were higher than those who performed at or above Level 3 (65 percent in literacy and 62 percent in numeracy). In addition, 82 percent of those who performed at or below Level 1 in literacy and 84 percent in numeracy agreed or strongly agreed that "If you are not careful, other people will take advantage of you"—likewise higher than for those who performed at or above Level 3 in both domains (74 and 72 percent in literacy and numeracy, respectively). According to the Pew Research Center, "people who feel vulnerable or disadvantaged for whatever reason find it riskier to trust because they're less well-fortified to deal with the consequences of misplaced trust."78 These data on trust should be seen as especially alarming, particularly in regard to a population that is entering adulthood.

Research also shows that levels of trust correlate to donations of time and money.79 Rates of volunteerism were ascertained in PIAAC with a question that asked participants, "In the last 12 months, how often, if at all, did you do voluntary work, including unpaid work for a charity, political party, trade union or other non-profit organization?" Mirroring findings on trust, 63 percent of those who performed at or below Level 1 in literacy and 57 percent in numeracy reported that they never volunteer, while 35 percent of those who performed at or above Level 3 in literacy and 33 percent in numeracy reported never volunteering.

Adults taking PIAAC were also asked about their level of political efficacy ("People like me don't have any say about what the government does"). Again, as we observed with measures of trust, lower-skilled millennials were more likely to report unfavorable attitudes vis-à-vis this aspect of social capital. In fact, millennials who performed at or below Level 1 were 20 percentage points more likely in literacy and 17 points in numeracy to believe they "don't have any say about what the government does" than those who performed at or above Level 3. Given the strong correlation between skills and income, Robert Putnam's succinct statement on the divide between the haves and have-nots in terms of impact on government likely applies here: "Rich kids are more confident that they can influence government, and they are largely right about that. Not surprisingly, poor kids are less likely to try."80

PIAAC data related to social capital—social trust, political efficacy, and civic engagement—provide nuance to a general pattern reported in other surveys and research. Pew's data confirm that, as a group, millennials are less likely than older cohorts to possess social and political affiliations and have trust in public institutions.81 Pew attributed some of the divide between cohorts to the higher percentage of minorities and those of lower socioeconomic status among the younger cohorts; while plausible, another reason for low levels of trust among the millennial population (or portions thereof) may also lie in the complex relationship between skill levels, opportunity, and life outcomes.

Table 10: Percentage of millennials performing at select proficiency levels on PIAAC literacy and numeracy scales, by social cohesion indicators: 2012/2014


73 For the original work studying the rise in mortality and morbidity in the twenty-first century, see Anne Case and Angus Deaton, "Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, no. 49 (2015): 15078-15083. For a discussion of this in relation to millennials, see Jeanna Smialek, "Young White America Is Haunted by a Crisis of Despair," Bloomberg, April 18, 2017,; Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2017).

74 Smialek, "Young White America."

75 Francesca Borgonovi and Tracey Burns, The Educational Roots of Trust, OECD Education Working Papers No. 119 (Paris, OECD Publishing, 2015),

76 Patricia Dinis da Costa, Margarida Rodrigues, Esperanza Vera-Toscano, and Anke Weber, "Education Adult Skills and Social Outcomes Empirical Evidence from the Survey on Adult Skills (PIAAC 2013)," (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2014), 57.

77 For more information on the PIAAC background questionnaire, see

78 Pew Research Center, Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends, 2014,

79 Wilkinson and Pickett, Spirit Level.

80 Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 235. For more on millennials and voting patterns see Richard Fry, Millennials Match Baby Boomers as Largest Generation in U.S. Electorate, But Will They Vote?, Facttank (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2016),

81 Millennials in Adulthood.