South Africa’s youth are not ‘millennials’

It’s June, which means it’s Youth Month. But young South Africans are often misunderstood and generalisations tend to abound. So, let me offer something specific: don’t assume young South Africans are millennials.

In recent years “millennial” has become a popular way to describe South African youth. It’s in opinion piece after opinion piece and in government statistics.

Young South Africans aren’t millennials, at least not how the term is understood in the United States, where it originated. This category refers to economic factors, generational lineages and historical circumstances, which don’t adequately map onto the South African milieu where inequality and generational lineages are shaped by race and the legacy of apartheid.

The point I wish to make is that young South Africans are misunderstood — so much so that generational differences are an underappreciated issue. Although generational identities are imprecise, continuing to refer to them as millennials reflects this misunderstanding and the broad generational gulf in South Africa.

Let’s start with the category of millennial: when does it begin and end? According to the Pew Research Centre, an American research-based think-tank, millennial refers to people born between 1981 and 1996. The Millennial Dialogue Project, part of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, refers to people born between 1980 and 2000. And the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, an annual report about millennial attitudes around the world, uses the parameters of 1983 and 1994.

Keeping in mind these parameters, the differences between a South African born in the early 1980s and the mid- or late 1990s are tremendous. It’s true that being born at the beginning or end of a generational category has implications for one’s outlook and experiences. 

In the South African context these implications are tied to growing up during the end of apartheid and the transition to democracy. These ­experiences are also significantly shaped by race. Such contrasts alone are great enough to warrant alternative categories.

Certain characteristics generally define millennials. According to the Pew Research Centre’s 2010 report Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change, American millennials tend to be confident, liberal and open-minded. They’re considered history’s first “always connected” generation. And almost 90% believe they’ll eventually meet their long-term financial goals, despite entering the job market during the Great Recession in the late 2000s.

The 2019 Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, which included 300 respondents from South Africa, gives us a broader view of millennial concerns. They’re mainly focused on climate change (29%), income inequality (22%), unemployment (21%), crime (20%) corruption (20%), terrorism (19%) and political instability (18%).

These concerns and characteristics are somewhat mirrored in South Africa. According to the Institute for Security Studies’ 2016 report Do you want my vote?, young South Africans are frustrated by socioeconomic problems such as unemployment and corruption. 

These factors lead to low levels of trust in the government, because economic opportunities and individual confidence are constrained. They are also fed up with infrastructural inconsistencies affecting millennial traits such as hyperconnectivity.

Although millennials are broadly described as the first “always connected” generation, race and income determine access to technology despite increasing accessibility in South Africa. 

Whether one lives in an urban or rural environment also influences access. The same holds true for employment; black South Africans tend to be unemployed in far greater numbers than white South Africans.

Generational identities don’t exist in isolation either. To refer to a millennial is to invoke previous generational identities such as Generation X (born between the mid-1960s and early 1980s) and baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). We rarely see these categories invoked in South Africa. 

Attempts to think of older South Africans as baby boomers fall apart given the country’s turbulent history of racism and violence. 

American baby boomers, who were born during a period of exceptional growth and prosperity after the end of World War II, hold a vast amount of wealth in the United States and have the highest rate of home ownership. These figures are averages and don’t illustrate differences in wealth and homeownership according to race and income.

Such differences in a South African context are again so vast that alternative categories accounting for significant racial disparities are needed. The post-World War II boom experienced in the US occurred at the same time white South African society sanctioned apartheid, leading to a boom in racialised inequality. The legacy of this inequality contributes to the inadequacy of a category such as millennial. 

For instance, as the baby boomer generation continues to age in the United States the “great wealth transfer” is set to take place, when some $30-trillion will be passed on to millennials. This financial cushion allows millennials to be taken care of by their parents or families in the event of an emergency.

In South Africa, the opposite is largely true. Because of racialised inequality there’s little wealth to be inherited. Many South Africans, in particular black people, don’t have the luxury of being able to rely on parents or family in an emergency. Instead young — especially black — South Africans are often the sole breadwinners in their families. This sets up a different dynamic: “black tax”, where younger black South Africans tend to support older or unemployed family members.

It’s important to consider the role of generational differences in South Africa more broadly. Although it’s not discussed as often as it should be, South African history has tended to turn on a generational swivel.

One example is the formation of the ANC Youth League in 1944. Frustrated by passive appeals to colonial institutions and frameworks, a generation of educated and urbanising younger black South Africans worked to create an organisation that enabled active modes of resistance, leading to an important shift in how white supremacy was resisted. 

Members of this generation spearheaded the creation of the Freedom Charter in 1955, and led the country through the transition to democracy.

A second example is the 1976 Soweto riots. After black opposition politics was effectively neutralised in the early 1960s domestic resistance to apartheid fell into a lull. When schoolchildren rose up against education instruction in Afrikaans, resistance to apartheid experienced a resurgence that carried on into the 1980s.

A third example is the Fees Must Fall protests at universities in 2015 and 2016. Universities have consistently featured as sites of struggles. But these protests represented a pushback — if not rejection — of the aspirations of the democratic project in South Africa heralded by the same members of the ANC that started the Youth League. 

This example suggests the gulf between old and young South Africans is wider than we realise and deserves more attention. 

To be fair, there are similarities between millennials in the US and so-called “millennials” in South Africa. Both cohorts are affected by broad national aspirations failing to meet reality. Moreover, despite increased levels of education, changing or stagnant economies have affected people’s attitudes about the future. 

These similarities reflect a flattening of identities from a global vantage point. But this flattening looks different on the ground in the US and South Africa, reminding us of the influence of national history and societal contrasts.

 If we do not understand the extent to which the wide gulf between young and old South Africans has on the social fabric, we run the risk of being unable to anticipate major pivots. If we misunderstand young South Africans as “millennials”, we may not be able to do so.

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

David Reiersgord
David Reiersgord works in international higher education, specifically curriculum development and academic management for American study abroad students in South Africa, where he also lectures part time. He is interested in literature, history and politics.

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Shell v Wild Coast: Science, research and erring on the...

Court applicants have argued that the company should be required to conduct an environmental impact assessment, based on the best available science, which has advanced considerably since Shell’s permit to conduct seismic surveys was granted

How spies shape South Africa’s political path

From Mbeki to Zuma to Ramaphosa, the facts and fictions of the intelligence networks have shadowed political players and settled power struggles

I’m just a lawyer going to court, says attorney on...

The Mthatha attorney is angered by a tweet alleging he sways the high court and the Judicial Services Commission

Death of Zimbabwe’s funeral business

Burial societies and companies have collapsed and people can no longer afford decent burials for their family members

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…