The twenty-first century has shattered the idea that countries across the world are moving on a common path towards livelihoods secured by salaried work. How then, do young people in South Africa, a country that serves as a microcosm for global divisions and inequalities, experience this new flexible economic situation and its associated precarity? How do they navigate the failure of the promise of permanent work, and how does this shape their economic and social lives? We begin by describing recent changes to global capitalism, before showing how these have affected livelihoods for young people, framing this discussion of youth and work through two key concepts: precarity and capital. Precarity is understood as taking on diverse forms, in relation to the situation of previous generations and vis-a-vis contemporary peers. Capital, refers to both the production of value systemically through capitalism and in the social sense, referring to how social and cultural capital is leveraged through status, sets of resources and networked relationships.

A set of ethnographies illuminate “what young people are already doing”, as a starting point to unpack precarity, capital and how young people can best be supported to generate meaningful livelihoods. The case studies traverse the post-apartheid generation, exploring privileged “gamers”, the children of the white working-classes employed in state enterprises of steel and energy, in Pretoria. On the other side of the racial divide, township hustlers make a living through a carwash and others look for wage labour but experience rampant discrimination. The case studies illuminate relations between the post-apartheid, millennial generation, whose circumstances are shaped by shared social, historical and political conditions. Rather than a lack of skills, employability and experience, the productive livelihood generating practices of these groups, in diverse, precarious contexts, point to a range of possibilities for fulfilling work and a set of challenges linked to how local and global capitalism enable social status, forging social stratification.


Bernard Dubbeld is Chair of the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Stellenbosch University, where he teaches social theory. He is interested in questions of transformation of capitalism and of politics, and has written about the history of dockworkers in Durban, most recently for the journal Critical Historical Studies. He is currently completing a manuscript that considers the experience and effects of post-apartheid governance in the countryside of KwaZulu-Natal, focusing especially on housing, welfare and the absence of wage work.

Adam Cooper is Senior Research Specialist in Inclusive Economic Development at the Human Sciences Research Council. He works on projects at the intersections of the Sociologies of Youth and Education. Most recently he co-edited the Oxford University Press Handbook of Global South Youth Studies (2021). He recently co-edited a special issue with Bernard Dubbeld on young people and the future of work in South Africa for Social Dynamics.