How co-operatives can help Generation Y take control over their future

Co-operatives can give a generation of graduates the chance to reclaim their future.

Rhiannon Colvin
4 March 2014

One year ago I graduated university and found myself in a fundamentally unjust and unsustainable economy that in my opinion is at the heart of the environmental, social and political crises we face today. As I competed against other graduates for unpaid internships, volunteer placements and took up a part time job waitressing I felt my confidence plummet, aspirations lower, financial situation worsen and a slight existential crisis kicking in. I started to question where my life was going, what I was doing with my time and whether it was just me that felt this way? I looked around me and saw that nobody I knew was getting paid to do a job they loved, friends were running abroad to teach English, settling for jobs they hated or taking up low paid part time jobs to support them whilst they followed their real passions.

One afternoon after an interview for an unpaid internship that 150 others had applied for, I had a moment of clarity; as long as we all fight for the scraps of work at the bottom of the economy that is all we will get, we will remain powerless and without influence. We will remain the generation without a future. And guess what? Its not us that has the problem, we have ideas, skills, knowledge, energy and talent but the economy we are entering into no longer knows how to utilize it effectively.

Our role as the next generation should be to change it, to make something better. To create an economy that allows us to earn a living, do what we love and contribute towards nurturing people and our environment rather than destroying it. Ok nice utopian idea you think, but how are you going to make that happen?

First I decided to gain a better understanding of the context and learn from what’s already out there. So I embarked upon a 3-month research project in Portugal and Spain, where youth unemployment is 50%, with the question: what new ways of living and working are young people creating in response to this crisis?

Youth in Lisbon were setting up social movements to campaign for basic citizens income and free transport for the unemployed, in Granada creative hubs to support youth in industries such as art and music, in Madrid social centres offering affordable food, consultation on how to resist housing evictions and free classes in media, web development and dance. Around Barcelona youth had gone back to the land reclaimed old buildings and begun to grow their own food, sell bread, preserves and furniture. All across the Iberian peninsular new ways of working and living are emerging however the alternative that most inspired me was workers' co-operatives. I found food co-ops, bike co-ops, co-operative bookshops, web development agencies, schools and in one example a ‘co-operative integral’ to provide for all basic needs such as housing, education health and childcare.

Co-ops you say, but that’s not new or alternative and they’ve been around for centuries. And you would be right, co-operatives emerged in the UK with the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844, however as people are increasingly struggling to meet their basic needs co-ops seem to be having a resurgence and in my opinion offer solutions to the economic, political and environmental problems we face.

Firstly, the unequal distribution of wealth in our economy, crystallized by the “99 vs 1%”. A fundamental principle of co-ops is member’s economic participation, which in practice means shares and capital of the business are shared amongst workers according to their contribution, rather than to distant shareholders. Secondly the political crisis of democracy, manifested in the deep sense of disempowerment experienced by youth worldwide. With one member one vote, co-ops are democratically controlled by their members and often involve horizontality or low levels of hierarchy. Thirdly our environmental crisis: at the centre of co-operatives is a concern for the surrounding community and environment. This means that across the world co-operatives are some of the most ethical and environmentally sustainable businesses. So co-ops, yes! Perhaps you are somewhat persuaded by now, but what’s next?

I returned to the UK and set up Altgen. Altgen seeks to inspire, facilitate and support youth to set up workers co-operatives. Through workshops, an online hub space, start up grants, legal and business advice Altgen will encourage and support 18-25 year olds to take control over their future and their work. To be our own bosses, choose whom we work with, what we work for and create an economy that solves social and environmental problems rather than creating them. Altgen is launching in March with its pilot project supported by Co-ops UK and is working closely with the UK based Students for Co-operation and similar movements across Europe. So watch this space the generation with an alternative future has arrived.



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