Eastern Cape Socio-Economic Consultative Council

Alternative Futures of Youth and Work

Published: November 24, 2021

On the 24 November Ms Siv Helen Hesjedal presented the seminar Alternative futures of youth and work’ at ECSECC. The seminar was based on research conducted for an MPhil in Futures Studies.

Siv Helen Hesjedal is a futurist, researcher and facilitator and was employed by ECSECC from 2003 to 2021. She remains an associate of ECSECC and an associate of Nelson Mandela University.

The starting point is a familiar one. In August 2021 youth unemployment was reported to have reached 64.4% and 42.9% for the 15 to24 and 25 to 34 year age groups respectively, and South Africa is in a long economic downturn. Youth unemployment in South Africa is ranked among the highest in the world. The Covid-19 pandemic has further worsened the situation for many young people. The 2021 Africa Youth Survey found that 19% of 4500 young people polled across the continent became unemployed as result of the pandemic, 8% had their pay cut or docked, 18% had been forced to move back home and 7% had been forced to enter the informal economy or take on an additional job to pay their bills. 37% of youth polled across the continent also had to pause or stop their education.

If the present is a period of no work, what might the future be? And what will drive the future of work for young people in South Africa?

Work in this study is understood as constituting a link between the individual and the economy and serving three main functions: As a socio-cultural value work is part of the moral core of life; As a social function, work orientates the present and the future and is central to social organisation; As an economic function, work is related to the organisation of labour and capital in production processes at micro- and macro level. At the most basic individual level, work is an activity performed to gain the necessities of life.

Siv’s research outlined four drivers of change over the next three decades. These are the trends that will significantly affect youth and work:

     i.         The first is socio-economic and health status of an urbanising youth population, with education, nutrition and mental health as pivotal drivers and enablers of intergenerational social mobility.

    ii.         Secondly there is AI, encompassing, data, automation, and smart technologies. While there are still limitations to connectivity and high costs of data, it is assumed that connectivity will be ubiquitous and costs progressively lowered over the coming decade, enabling widespread development and application of AI and an increasingly role of AI determining access to, organisation of and distribution of work.

  iii.          Climate change is third, with global temperature increases exceeding 1.5 degrees in the study period, climate related transformation of energy, industrial, ecological, urban and settlement systems.

  iv.          Finally, there is politics, with key drivers across the three main forms of political organisation: political parties; worker organisations; and social movements. Closely associated with political parties is state power, democracy, and the dominant social values. Three parallel drivers are brought though to this synthesis: firstly, multiple threats to democracy: declining trust in traditional democratic institutions, the state and political parties combined with increasing willingness to forego democratic principles in favour of stability and ‘delivery’; secondly, increasing securitisation of politics, enabled by surveillance technology; and third, the seemingly opposing driver youth activism and of persistence of a plethora of forms of social organisation.

Through exploring possible intersections of the four drivers of work in the context of three different images of the future, she generated three alternative scenarios for the futures of youth and work in South Africa to 2050: ‘Work and security redefined’; ‘Senzeni Na?’; and ‘Decolonise! Decarbonise!’. In all three, climate change impact and related socio-technical transition play a major role and impact on individual and collective behaviour and activity. Embedded and ubiquitous AI and related technology are present in all three scenarios, albeit purpose, ownership and uses differ. Work is not absent in any of the future worlds depicted in these scenarios, but the scenarios explore different ways of organising and valuing work through alternative political value systems.

The presentation concluded that in South Africa, it is not expected that work as a socio-cultural value will be redundant in the study period (2021-2050). Work will need to be performed, and if not directly for income, then for individual and collective survival as well as self-realisation. Work in 2050 may be done in the metaverse, in one’s home or in a more traditional institutional context. While distribution and organisation of work may be algorithmic, or algorithmically mediated, it will be highly unequal. The study explored what work may need to be done in a future South Africa, particularly in terms of circular economies, ecological reconstruction, learning and knowledge practice.

The seminar discussed the need for re-thinking the future, and present, of youth and work and how futures research enables interrogating assumptions behind policy. While short term solutions must be put in place for the millions of young people that are without work, fundamental re-think of the connection between work and income is needed. Further consideration of Further consideration of how to enable socially meaningful work and collective activities that contribute to progressive change.

Please contact ECSECC for more information, or contact Siv directly on

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