For centuries, economic relations in southern Africa were profoundly shaped by interventions that sought to attract and coerce workers to participate in colonial and apartheid economies. These interventions included efforts to change the meaning of labour. Colonial powers sought to instil in colonial subjects a belief that work has worth beyond its productive value, and that work itself is virtuous. In recent decades, the classic labour question of how to create workers has been upended: public discourse emphasises the need to create jobs. This jobcreation agenda is not limited to southern Africa; this is evident in the inclusion of decent work as one of the new Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. There has, however, been limited critical inquiry into the contemporary relevance of the modern work ethic in a context of widespread unemployment and limited demand for labour. In this article, we draw on interviews with people in South Africa’s waste-management sector to argue that the modern work ethic continues to have influence despite the sector’s limited ability to provide adequate financial remuneration for productive labour. Interviewees contrast the positive value of work with negatively connoted state ‘handouts’, and indicate ambivalence about the substitution of labour with technology. They also emphasise entrepreneurialism, suggesting extensions of the historically understood work ethic: good, respectable, dignified citizens are no longer just those who labour; they now must also work to create a need for their labour. We argue that reflecting upon the disjuncture between an ethic that compels labour and an economic context with limited scope for productive labour usefully contributes towards a project of deconstructing the assumption that jobs ought to be the primary means through which to claim resources, dignity, moral worth and full citizenship.