Can co-operatives meet the need of the younger generation? Thoughts and reflections.

Three years ago I entered the co-operative world — a complicated, fascinating, interesting, inspiring community of people that I had had no idea existed until a few months previously.

I was inspired by young people setting up co-operative businesses as a positive alternative to high levels of youth unemployment across Portugal and Spain. I returned to the UK excited to learn more about the co-operative movement that existed and with a desire to focus on sharing the co-operative values and model to help young people in the UK also find a positive solution to the rising un- and underemployment we as a generation were and still are experiencing.

With time I founded AltGen, along with my co-founder Constance Laisne. The aim of AltGen was to inspire, facilitate and support young adults (18–29) to set up co-operative businesses as an empowering and collaborative solution to youth unemployment. We also hoped to create a wider impact of contributing to building a more democratic, equal and sustainable economy where we as workers experienced agency, ownership and a share of the collective wealth generated.

AltGen has had many successes over the last few years. This included building a partnership with Co-operatives UK to deliver the Young Co-operators Prize, in which we worked with 15 universities across the country to inform and inspire over 5,000 students and graduates with the co-operative model, brought together young people interested in starting co-operatives and supported 6 youth led co-operatives to get off the ground.

We also supported the launch of a national network of young co-operatives and co-operators — the Young Co-operators Network in the UK — as well as the launch of a European equivalent — The Young European Co-operators Network . The aim of both networks is to share, learn and support one another. Most recently we developed a partnership with CDS Housing Co-operative to launch a co-operative education and incubation co-working space in central London.

AltGen has achieved a lot in a short space of time, and I hope will continue to grow from strength to strength. However in January this year I experienced profound burn out which then led to depression and anxiety. Whilst nothing can be said with absolute confidence, many, from doctors to therapists, have attributed the mental health problems I experienced to the high stress and pressure of living a fast paced life in London. This included running a new organisation and working endless evenings and weekends to support many other young people to overcome the difficult economic situation that faces my generation, whilst also working two other jobs to financially support myself to live, oh and of course sharing a room with a friend so I could afford rent in London — another growing problem my generation is facing.

Following this experience I decided to leave AltGen — to give myself some time and space to heal, as well as study a masters that will allow me to bring more sustainable and holistic practices into the way I work and my approach to changing the economy.

I may or may not end up returning to the co-operative movement, however at this point I felt it was important to share some thoughts and reflections on the co-operative movement, what I feel it could learn and positive changes it could make for the future.

Gratitude and Appreciation

Firstly I want to start by saying how grateful I am for the time I have spent in the co-operative movement and how much I appreciate the incredible number of people that helped both AltGen and myself along the way. There were many moments when I felt amazed and overwhelmed by the support of so many in the co-operative and social enterprise movement, who gave us hours of free time and advice, trusted us, and took a risk with us — we could not have achieved what we have without them.

To Sion Whellens, our mentor right from the beginning and still with AltGen today, to Dave Boyle for explaining how the co-operative movement worked and making the necessary introductions, To Ed Mayo for taking the initial risk and for trusting and supporting us at so many points along the way, to Debbie So for supporting us to stay in The Hub — an inspiring co-working space, to James Robertson for providing invaluable advice in times of crisis, and to Linda Wallace for supporting us to create our own co-op incubation space in London.

Most of all my biggest thanks go to Constance Laisne, for being my partner in crime, for teaching me about the power of visual imagery, the power of vulnerability, the power of kindness. With you AltGen would not be what it is today. Thank you for your commitment to justice, to collaboration, to equality.

Reflections and Suggestions

So what reflections do I have after these three years in the co-operative movement? And what suggestions do I have for moving forward?

  1. Entry Routes into the movement

The first thing that became clear to me when I entered the co-operative movement was that it was a complicated and political place. I wanted to get involved — but there was no clear way to do so — nowhere to sign up — get information about who was doing what where — find other co-operators — chat to them about their experiences — find out who I needed to work with to start this project.

Finding out how all the different structures worked -e.g.. the difference between Co-operatives UK and The Co-operative Group and finding out about how the different local and regional structures worked — especially who held power, and who held money — was very challenging and not at all transparent.

I was lucky to be put in touch with two absolute legends — Sion Whellens and Dave Boyle — very early on — who helped me understand and navigate this complicated space — as well as arranging me a meeting with Ed Mayo (head of Co-operatives UK) so we could discuss building a mutually beneficial partnership. But a new person entering into and trying to understand or get involved with the co-operative world should not be dependent on a couple of dedicated individuals drawing all sorts of diagrams and maps and making email connections — there should be a much easier, simpler way to be able to join the co-operative movement (if you are not already a member of a co-op) and to gain an understanding of how it works, meet other people, and generally get involved.

2. Gender and Generational Inequality

Aside from notable individuals and experiences here and there, my experience as a young woman in the co-operative movement was frequently filled with challenges and frustration that took a lot of energy from me and conversely reduced the amount of energy I had to give to building the alternative economic system many co-operators believe in.

The intersecting characteristics of being both a young person and a woman meant that when attending various meetings and events in the co-operative world, or collaborating with other colleagues on a piece of work, I was often spoken at, spoken down to, spoken over, told my opinions were just opinion whilst those of others (generally older white men) were presented as common knowledge and fact. I was often not taken seriously, often told not be so ‘angry’ ‘emotional’ ‘irrational’ or ‘idealistic’.

In a movement that is about equality — this simply is not good enough.

Although they combined to create my overall experience, I would like to speak about generational and gender inequality each in turn.

Generational Equality

After three years of campaigning it is now widely acknowledged within both the UK co-operative movement, and the international co-operative movement that there is a generational problem, that by and large the majority of people comprising the membership of co-operatives, institutions, staff are over the age of 40.

This acknowledgement is a huge step forward: when I first entered the co-operative movement and began talking about this issue I was looked at with confusion and disdain — it is now not only acknowledged but also on the priority list for many co-operatives and institutions. However there is still a huge cultural shift that needs to happen in terms of the way the older generation interacts with younger people joining the movement — and indeed how the different generations can learn to work, co-operate and act in solidarity with one another.

In a lot of the work I have done over the last few years, I — and AltGen as an organisation — have focused on external communication being one of the key reasons the co-operative world has failed to attract the younger generation, through a failure to communicate its values and relevance in an engaging way to the outside world.

However what I want to focus on here is the way that one is treated as a young person in the co-operative movement. I left every single co-operative event feeling some degree of anger and frustration at the way I had been spoken to. If you don’t have this experience yourself it’s often quite hard to understand so I want to give a few examples of the comments I experienced on a regular basis:

“I’ve been in the co-operative movement for 40 years — who do you think you are just coming along and thinking you can get change to happen fast.”

“That’s not how things are done in the co-operative movement — you can try — but we are pretty stuck in our ways.”

“You don’t know what you are talking about, come back and talk to me once you have been around 10 years.”

These are genuinely things that were said to me, and I won’t bore you with more, but if you can imagine these things being said to you over and over in different looks and tones you get the picture.

Despite all of the above I want to make one thing really clear — I highly value the knowledge, experience and wisdom of people who have been in the co-operative movement for years — it is incredibly important that this knowledge is appreciated, listened to, passed on and learned from.

But the knowledge, experience and wisdom of the young generation joining the movement is equally important and needs to be equally appreciated, listened to, passed on and learned from.

Neither is more superior than the other — just as being 40 does not make you inherently more important than being 15, each person has a unique experience and perspective to bring from their life and all knowledge should be valued. If the co-operative movement wants to be a place where the young generation feels supported and welcome — it needs to stop talking to us like we are somehow lesser than the people that have been there for years, and treat us like equals. That way we can create a space where we can genuinely learn, share and inspire one another without there being some kind of power game at hand. The older generation has a lot of experience to share from the history of the co-operative movement, the younger has a lot it can share in terms of how to make the movement digital and relevant to modern needs and struggles. Most recently the idea of ‘Inter-Gen’ came into my head because actually in some ways I feel it was a mistake to focus on solely youth led co-ops and there is huge value that can happen in intergenerational exchange and support — but for me to even step near that idea I would need to trust and experience the older generation interacting and engaging with me as an equal.

Gender Equality

Although women have been at the heart of The Co-operative movement since its inception and gender equality indicators are generally better within the co-operative movement in comparison to the private sector — as a recent article in The Guardian has suggested there is still a huge way to go before we each gender equality.

This is most clearly seen in terms of who are in positions of power such as the board and the executive, however what contributes an equal amount to the experience of gender inequity is not just the things we can all see — ie — this room is only full of white, older, men — but it is also the culture and ways of behaving — that subtly undermine and put down women continuously.

I want to give two pertinent examples from my experience:

The first was at a Co-operatives Europe General Assembly in Paris.

During the main assembly I had given a speech representing the views of the Young European Co-operators Network — a new network launched to build relationships between and represent the interests of young co-operators across Europe. During this speech I outlined various challenges the co-operative movement faced with regards to gender and generational inequality.

The speech was well received and following this I was invited to join the ‘head table’ for the gala dinner later that evening. To me it was slightly odd that there was a ‘head table’ in a movement about equality, but it was a kind offer and I gracefully accepted.

When I arrived to join the table that evening I was the only young woman at a table with 10 or so older men, which proved my case in point — and as I sat down I wondered whether I had been invited to join the table to make Co-operatives Europe look more diverse or because the people at that table were genuinely interested to hear my ideas and views. Time would tell. And it did. I spent the duration of the dinner battling to get my opinion and voice heard. I was continuously spoken over, interrupted, told my opinions were ideas whilst others were presented as facts, my opinion was frequently devalued and undermined with subtle jokes, comments, looks or gestures. I often had to stand my ground by saying things like: ‘could I finish my sentence please’ which quickly became exhausting. Luckily there is now a well established term for this experience which is ‘mansplaining’ which according to the Oxford Dictionary is: (Of a man) explain (something) to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing — but at the time I didn’t have a concept to help me make sense of the frustration and injustice I was experiencing. I kept thinking — what is the point in inviting me to sit at this table if you don’t genuinely want to hear my opinion — and I often felt like I was a little girl being told how the world works. My solution to this onslaught of mansplaining was a combination of fighting back, laughing it off, and drinking copious amounts of wine, but the next day I was so upset and angry I had to meditate for an hour and hit a punch bag for 20 minutes before all the fury, shame and sadness had left my body.

A second experience was at the Young European Co-operators Gathering in Italy.

Before I start this story it is important to highlight that before attending this gathering in Italy, a colleague and I had been doing some consultancy work for a large co-operative housing provider in Sweden — and the contrast between the way women are treated in these two countries was astounding. Half way through our trip in Sweden we suddenly realised that not only had we not experienced street harassment once, but men (even men in positions of power) actually listened to us as equals rather than speaking over us — so power to Sweden — you rock!

However as soon as we arrived in Italy we were harassed on the street and at various points felt unsafe late at night. That is often a common experience when traveling as a young woman so I was not that surprised, but what I did not expect was the additional sexism we would experience on top of this from our fellow young co-operators.

During the main session of the Young European Co-operators gathering we had break out sessions where we worked in small groups to discuss different topics of importance. Half way through this session I bumped into a woman in the toilets who was crying and was clearly distressed. I asked her what had happened and she said she was feeling belittled and shaky from the way she had been physically surrounded by the men in her group (they were all standing — she was sitting) and spoken down to (quite literally) and over.

Later that evening I found myself supporting another friend to calm down, following a panic attack she experienced after trying to defend a point she was making at a table full of men.

It is important to note that I am not trying to say that all men in the co-operative movement have behaved this way — there have been a number of men that have treated me as equal and acted as allies (read more about how to be an ally here) , but overwhelmingly my experience reflects the stories above. Neither of these experiences should be happening to women at all. But especially not in a movement about equality. If the co-operative movement really wants to live up to its values it is going to need to take a serious look into its structures, cultures and behaviours that contribute to a daily experience of oppression and inequality by those that are not in a privileged position because of their gender, race or age.

3. Risk and Innovation

The co-operative movement is very averse to taking risks. I very much understand this aversion in a global context where markets and capitalism are messing up the economy and the planet by taking huge risks with people’s money and lives. However unless the co-operative movement starts taking risks and investing in new co-operatives, projects, people and ideas — we aren’t going to significantly impact and change the nature of the economy in which we have to function, and we are not going to be the movement behind the next (co-operative) AirBnB or Uber, we are not going to be the leader in creating the REAL sharing economy — where there is genuine distribution of profit and ownership.

Innovation is dependent upon risk — upon supporting a number of experiments and new ideas — and being ok with the fact that some of them will work and some of them won’t, accepting failure as part of the process of innovation.

More specifically if the co-operative movement wants to stay relevant in the 21st century and be behind innovative new ideas that could contribute to creating a more just and equal economy then the movement needs to think not just about how they might better listen to the ideas and opinions of new or young co-operators but also how they can create a supportive and nurturing environment for people and ideas to blossom and grow. Both nationally and internationally I would argue for co-operatives pooling resources together to create innovation funds and hubs that could support people (young, old, new to the movement — or with years of experience — preferably a mixture) to develop the ethical and co-operative innovations that could provide solutions to the multiple problems our world is facing. Currently there are some of these initiatives and ideas in the co-operative movement. Take Students for Co-operation looking at housing solutions in the UK, or Ethical Bay — creating an ethical online marketplace in Germany, or Enspiral creating online co-operative communication platforms such as Loomio in New Zealand — but predominantly these are happening in spite of rather than because of the established co-operative movement.

In 2014 the global turnover of the top 300 co-operatives and mutuals was $2.2 trillion — so there isn’t a lack of money and resources. The crucial issue is that co-operatives still have to act primarily in the interests of their current members, rather than investing in projects that will benefit younger members of the future.

A good example of this was when AltGen was working with a co-operative social housing provider in Sweden. There is a complicated situation in Stockholm currently that means that it is almost impossible for a young person to find an apartment to rent — especially an affordable one. When speaking to the co-operative housing provider about whether they could do something to meet this increasing need and indeed crisis of young people needing access to affordable housing, they said they would like to — but such a project (which they would have to run at a loss) would mean they would not be acting in the interest of their current members as it would mean there was not as much profit for them. This seems inherently problematic to me as unless we have some serious investment of the current wealth in the co-operative movement into the new generation of co-ops there will be no co-operative movement left.

4. The Limitations of Co-ops in Capitalism

The final point I want to touch on is not necessarily to do with the limitations of co-operatives per se, but with the limits we face whilst we still have to act within a capitalist political economy that is competitive and unsupportive in nature.

One reason I was so interested in co-operatives is that they overcome a lot of the things I find problematic about standard start ups, entrepreneurship and social enterprises. In this often very individualised, competitive and egotistical space — they bring in a collective culture rather than an individualist one, they redistribute wealth and bring in democratic voice and ownership, they are based on the benefits of working with rather than against one another. However there are a few issues that they do not overcome and this has made me think deeply about the limitations of co-operatives in our current context.

Although the co-operative movement has quite a working class history — it is now overwhelming dominated by people who are white and middle class.

Starting any business is always a risk. I hear my parents speak of the time they spent after university — it was much easier to get a well paid job, the cost of living was much lower, and state support was much easier to obtain and enough to live off — which made it much easier for people from different backgrounds to test new ideas and take risks. Today unless you have some kind of support from family or friends it is overwhelmingly difficult to start a new business — and in many ways it makes no difference whether that’s a co-operative or not — yes you share the risk and can have solidarity with each other — but it still is a huge risk — and one you are unlikely to take unless you have something to fall back on. Even though it was very hard to start AltGen — and even once we had funding I worked two other jobs and shared a room with a friend for two years to afford my rent — in the back of my mind I knew that if I really struggled I my parents could support me with my rent, I had some kind of safety net if things got really bad.

Which leads me on to another related issue. It’s all very fun and exciting to be an entrepreneur starting your own business when you are mentally and physically able, but what happens if a member of your team has a disability, gets ill, or has to take a significant amount of time off work?

Interestingly we had started to consider these questions in AltGen and had been researching and exploring new systems of support for freelancers and members of co-operatives in the form of long term sick pay, holiday pay, etc — most notable are the ‘Brood Funds’ or Bread Funds from Holland — a model that is now being tested in the UK — but these still aren’t a reality yet, and in January this year when I had to take a significant period of time off work due to depression and anxiety caused by the high stress and pressure of running AltGen, I experienced the difficulties of this first hand.

Now I know that if AltGen could have — it would have continued to support me to be able to survive and cover my costs whilst I took time off to get better, but it simply did not have the financial capacity to pay me sick pay and cover the cost of the new staff we needed to take over the work I was doing for AltGen. In the end we had to make a choice between my survival and the the survival of the organisation — and in this instance it was important to prioritise AltGen.

Once again I was lucky to have the support of my parents — but if I didn’t I would have been forced to sign on to benefits and prove that I was mentally unwell or look for other work — something which would have been nearly impossible because of my levels of distress at the time. This situation was not the fault of AltGen — but is a serious problem for any shoestring start up — including co-operatives — most can’t provide the adequate sick pay and workers benefits we all have a right to.

This personal experience has led me to look more broadly at how we can transform the current political- economic context characterised by competition and precarity to one that creates a supportive environment for anyone — no matter their class, race, gender, ability, background to be able to do what they love and collaborate to create ideas that solve the number of problems we face today. One idea I am particularly inspired by — and that is gaining traction across the world — is Basic Income or Citizen’s Income — the idea that every single person in the country over the age of 18 — would get a ‘basic income’ enough money to meet their basic needs — they would then work and pay taxes on whatever they earn additionally to that. This system would replace the current benefits system with a much securer and simpler safety for all. The amount that would be given to each citizen as a basic income vary hugely — from the UK green party suggesting £78 a week, to Switzerland undergoing a referendum vote on the idea of giving each citizen €2,000 a month — however what is clear from studies and trial runs from Namibia to Canada is that basic income creates a more fertile and accessible ground for entrepreneurship.

Conclusion

I have experienced and learned a huge amount from the three years I have spent in the co-operative movement and have been motivated and inspired many times by the heart, energy, solidarity and commitment of many people and co-operatives within it. There is a vast amount of knowledge, wisdom and potential within the movement.

However, if that co-operative movement wants to be a movement that is truly about equality, democracy and participation and if it wants to truly transform the political economy in which we exist rather than just be successful with in it then a lot of reflection, action and changes need to take place in the kind of structures, behaviours and cultures it creates and how they can be more empowering and welcoming for those who face discrimination — whether that’s based on race, gender, class or age.

Furthermore to remain relevant in our current context it not only needs to attract young people — but it needs to create a supportive, welcoming, nurturing environment for people that join the movement to share and grow both themselves and their ideas. This will need to involve inter-co-operation on both national and international scales not seen before to pool resources and create innovation funds, to support youth networks, and to create new structures of solidarity, and support for those incubating the co-operative ideas of the future.