Working paper number: 474

Author(s): John Spyropoulos
Unit: CSSR


This paper examines the experience and conditions for ‘spend[ing] like there is no tomorrow’ by a group of individual young adults who are of mixed gender, aged 25-35, in 2016, and living in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, which is a mainly poor, Black African residential area of Cape Town.

The paper points to historical continuity in youth cultures, of identity formation and social distinction, that go back to the 1950s and 1960s and are based on distinctive dress codes and lifestyle. However, there is also discontinuity with earlier historical situations in that the post-apartheid scene includes a massive expansion of consumer credit linked to the retail sector. The paper shows that the domestic moral economy of the young adults bridges and underpins these continuities and discontinuities. For the household, the ‘objects of aspiration’, such as furniture, suggest a future economic well-being and a confirmation of kinship mutuality. For the individual participants, positional consumption manifests a social deception in the face of private deprivation. The extent that young adults enact the consumption practices of those with money is symbolic of a capacity to aspire. The construct of ‘capacity to aspire’ links the external social and political economic context through both local role models and media- generated images of the ‘good life’, and is monetised as consumer debt taken from the familial workforce by the administrative technologies of the retail and finance sectors.

This paper contributes to scholarship a case of the making of youth (young adults) identity through dress, drink and revelry that is embedded in everyday life and normalised in a symbolic violence, in the normalisation of the material and emotional exhaustion of the capacity to aspire as an individual and collective resource, in the recognition of chronic depletion by the low and unreliable earnings spent on episodic extravagant displays of positional consumption.

 Publication file: WP474Spyropoulos.pdf