The morphology of massive star-forming galaxies at high redshift is often dominated by giant clumps of mass ∼108–109 M⊙ and size ∼100–1000 pc. Previous studies have proposed that giant clumps might have an important role in the evolution of their host galaxy, particularly in building the central bulge. However, this depends on whether clumps live long enough to migrate from their original location in the disc or whether they get disrupted by their own stellar feedback before reaching the centre of the galaxy. We use cosmological hydrodynamical simulations from the FIRE (Feedback in Realistic Environments) project which implement explicit treatments of stellar feedback and interstellar medium physics to study the properties of these clumps. We follow the evolution of giant clumps in a massive (M* ∼ 1010.8 M⊙ at z = 1), discy, gas-rich galaxy from redshift z ≳ 2 to z = 1. Even though the clumpy phase of this galaxy lasts over a gigayear, individual gas clumps are short-lived, with mean lifetime of massive clumps of ∼20 Myr. During that time, they turn between 0.1 per cent and 20 per cent of their gas into stars before being disrupted, similar to local giant molecular clouds. Clumps with M ≳ 107 M⊙ account for ∼20 per cent of the total star formation in the galaxy during the clumpy phase, producing ∼1010 M⊙ of stars. We do not find evidence for net inward migration of clumps within the galaxy. The number of giant clumps and their mass decrease at lower redshifts, following the decrease in the overall gas fraction and star formation rate.