Working paper number: 476
Author(s): John Spyropoulos
Unit: CSSR


This paper examines the subjective experience of money by a group of young adults from poor families in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. As a qualitative case study, it contributes to a gap in the scholarly literature on the values and practices of a category of township youth, young adults 25 to 35, on their earning, spending and contribution to household budgets, and the effects of these on social relations in the family households in which they reside or on which they depend, and on their status in their peer milieu.

The research contributes empirically to four themes: employment status in the quantitative labour market literature; the construct of aspiration and positional consumption among young adults as they transition to adulthood; domestic mutuality and financial interdependence, and the literature on life course transition and waithood; and finally, the involvement of external structural conditions and events such as the COVID pandemic in the Domestic Moral Economy (DME) and lifeworld of young adults.

The study shows that flux and uncertainty in employment and low wage earning, and the surprising, even paradoxical, voluntary quitting of employment without having another job to go to correspond with labour market churn and perceptions of an absence in economic mobility. The study participants expressed an anxiety about their economic standing that arose out of a thwarted or curtailed aspiration coupled to a material (monetary) and existential situation of depletion. Personal, individually interested aspirations compete with wider collective demands which are based on obligations, which refer back to deep kinship-based practices of mutual support. ‘The money is never enough’ to support the life to which the subjects aspire. But, through episodic displays of positional consumption, the young adults expressed a ‘capacity to aspire’, they 

made visible a state of having money and spending it while ever conscious of personal sacrifice and impoverishment at home. In the young adults’ experiences of the health and economic effects of the COVID pandemic in 2020 we see a situation where adult status emerges, with economically precarious adult responsibilities in their own households in 2021, from economically dependent adult responsibilities in the parental households in 2016. Employment and money earning remained a key factor, however, in fulfilment of obligations in their DME and thereby attainment of adult status.

Theoretically, the study contributes to the literature on moral economy a South African case of the inseparability of the effects of external economic conditions grounded in South Africa’s racialised capitalist political economy and longstanding values and practices of mutuality in the domestic domain of poor households. Produced at the intersection of economic and cultural factors, the moral economy in the domestic setting (the DME) takes shape as a matrix of obligations and entitlements and consumerist aspirations. Individual participants’ decisions and practices of earning and spending, supported by the household, link the DME back into the capitalist market as high levels of churn and default on consumer finance debts. A further related contribution, to youth studies, is an instance of the progression of young adults to modes of precarious adulthood, framed by theories of ‘waithood’ and ‘non-standard’ transitions to adulthood – that is, delayed, interrupted and insecure transitions to social adulthood, within the frame of economically dependent domestic relations.

 Publication file: WP476Spyropoulos.pdf