Generation co-op: What happens to youth co-ops when young co-operators grow older?

Engaging more young people within the co-operative movement remains a key challenge for co-operatives. Another issue is continuity. In recent years more and more young people have been...

Engaging more young people within the co-operative movement remains a key challenge for co-operatives. Another issue is continuity. In recent years more and more young people have been exploring the co-operative model as an alternative to existing business models. But can co-ops keep up the momentum?

Anca Voinea talks to some of the young people involved in co-ops across the world to see how they feel about their role within the sector, the future of the movement and ensuring continuity.

Gabriela Buffa, youth representative on the board of the International Co-operative Alliance, was in Uruguay in May to help the co-operative movement there set up a national youth committee. Many young people in the country are involved in housing co-ops, but not all participate actively in their co-ops.

The youth movement is also continuing to grow in Argentina, her home country, where young professionals set up co-operatives in communication, IT, design, arts, journalist and media and cooking.

“The problem of ensuring continuity exists all over the world,” she says. “Some organisations focus on training young managers, starting from involving them in the management of the co-op or forming a youth committee. There are also co-ops that organise recreational activities such as games, sporting events or holiday camps and cultural activities such as workshops, cinema days or theatre performances for young people. Through these initiatives they also teach about co-operatives.”

A report by the International Labour Organization’s Cooperatives Unit highlights that co-operatives are not systematically part of business development services offered by governments at the national or local level. Nor are they included as a subject matter in school curricula at all levels. This leads to a gap in young people’s ability to choose the co-operative option to doing business.

To explore some of the challenges faced by young co-operators we talked to Ieva Padagaitė, member owner of Blake House Filmmakers Co-op; Jesus Lucero, director of membership and engagement at the Co-op Youth Council in the USA (USACYC) and Tatiana Baskakova, founder-member at Ceramics Studio Co-op.

Ieva Padagaitė, member owner of Blake House Filmmakers Co-op

Ieva Padagaite
Ieva Padagaitė (Photo: Agata Kulka)

Anca Voinea: What were the key challenges you faced when setting up Blake House?

Ieva Padagaitė: I started Blake House Filmmakers Co-op with fellow filmmaker Simon Ball as a response to the inaccessible film industry and dried-up grant funding for entry level filmmakers. We were very lucky to discover the worker co-op model at a time when Altgen brought together a bunch of young co-operators. That the beginning of the Young Cooperators Network, providing space for peer-to-peer support and sharing problems and ideas. The main challenge was not having access to finance, which slowed down our progress to become sustainable, and the somewhat off-putting language used by representative bodies of co-ops in the UK and internationally.

I feel like we could have grown quicker and contributed more to the wider co-operative movement if it hadn’t been a constant battle juggling exhausting jobs at cafés, bars and demoralising corporations to subsidise our survival budget when setting up a business. But, at the same time, I feel that we were very privileged and lucky to be able to do even that. For many young people, survival budgets are much bigger and daily jobs too extractive to be able to plan further than next month’s rent.

AV: Do you think there is growing interest in co-ops among young people in the UK?

IP: We grew up with a different kind of awareness than our parents. We know about the human impact on our environment, we understand staggering inequalities and the consequences of corporate greed. At the same time, we are being confused by narcissistic lifestyles being sold and imposed on us by the older generation, who first see Millennials as a market to target and then dismiss us for being lazy or too self absorbed. Looking back at myself a few years ago and those around me, I see young people growing disillusioned, broke, priced out away from their friends and communities, exploited and left no choice but to participate in this detrimental rat race. We are losing faith that meritocracy works and our patience pops one by one.

Starting a co-operative and building alternative systems of mutual support, solidarity and fairness is one way to go and it’s an exciting one. I think it’s an incredibly exciting time for co-operation because of how existentially and practically relevant co-operatives are in answering our needs and aspirations.

AV: Is the movement likely to grow?

IP: It’s up to young people in the movement to inspire and energise the growth of the movement and it’s up to older co-operators to enable that growth by sharing wealth, resources and knowledge. I think the co-operative movement is going through a mid-life crisis and it’s up to us whether we let it grow old and die or bring it back to teenage-hood – innovative, daring and full of energy. We need to step out of our comfort zone, change the old language that has become so corporate over the years and make room for play and transformation.

AV: What happens when the current generation grows older?

IP: When we grow older and the new generation comes along and starts making waves, I hope I will have patience to listen and remember that the problems they deal with are not necessarily the same ones I was dealing with at their age and that I’m not necessarily capable to understand and know the best solutions to them.

AV: How can we ensure continuity and succession?

IP: To ensure continuity and succession we need space and resources to allow diverse voices to be heard and active participation to be encouraged. We need to truly understand why co-operatives are so relevant to young people and talk in a language that is relatable, making people feel that they are not alone in their struggles and there is a fertile ground for alternatives to grow.

Related: A student’s guide to starting a co-operative

Jesus Lucero, director of membership and engagement at the Co-operative Youth Council in the USA (USACYC)

Jesus H Lucero
Jesus H Lucero

AV: Is interest in co-ops growing among young people in the USA?

Jesus Lucero: I think more and more as youth, which we define as 17-30 years old, start heading out into the world, we’re seeing a very different side of life that we haven’t been exposed to before. I speak from experience as I myself am 22, am no longer in school after 18 years of successive schooling and have moved 14 hours away from home. I am now living on my own and figuring out how to navigate the intricacies of life without parents to support me at every turn. We live with blinders on and we once we get exposed, it’s a little shocking. For lack of better words, we see how messed up our world really is and our economy is one of those many factors. It’s becoming increasingly popular to explore the solidarity economy – an economy that is fair for everyone across the board. That’s what is attracting youth to the co-op movement. The possibility of changing something bigger than ourselves and essentially making our world a better place. Not to mention the attraction of being your own boss and sharing the benefits and costs of a business with-like minded peers.

AV: Is the movement likely to grow?

JL: For the sake of our organisation, I sure hope so! However, I do believe that the movement is growing in very different ways. In the USA, we’re experiencing a time of chaos. I think people are trying to find a solution to that chaos and they’re finding that solution not only in co-operatives as an enterprise but in co-operation. 

Solidarity and movement work is all about banding together with people and we’re seeing it unfold before us with heavy protesting and the creation of organisations seeking liberation and equality for all people under oppressive forces.

There’s a limited view that co-operatives get. They’re seen as simple business models but co-operation is at the root of the enterprise and once you shed that image and look at the people doing the work, it’s easy to get swept up and amazed at how you’re really relying on each other, not the business. I hope that the movement is growing and will continue to grow once people see the social impacts that co-operation can have societally.

AV: What happens when the current generation of youth in co-operatives grows older? How can we ensure continuity and succession?

JL: When the current generation of young co-operators ages out of that category we’re hoping they will see the impact that they’ve had and want to continue the work they’ve been doing by letting more youth into “elder” spaces.

Young people are dismissed from professional positions such as board members because we “don’t have enough experience” or we’re “unqualified” and yet we get asked to come up with new innovative ways to get more young people involved. We as youth need a platform to voice our concerns for our futures because it’s eventually going to be our world that we’re living in.

We want this current generation to dream big and loud and shake the foundations of organisations that have been stagnant for decades. Change is good and sometimes needed. The youth coming up under us should be allowed the space to do what we’re dreaming to do. Maybe our plan as future elders should be to take these spaces over and be ready to step down once we realise that it isn’t our future one day. A wise man once said: “We know when we are elders when we start looking back more than we can look forward to things.” Let’s let the people who can look forward lead the way for us.

Tatiana Baskakova, co-founderCeramics Studio Co-op

Tatiana Baskakova
Tatiana Baskakova

AV: What were the key challenges you faced when setting up Ceramics Studio Co-op?

Tatiana Baskakova: From the very beginning, running a business without much experience was quite a challenge. We had to work everything out from zero, including building our own website and setting up our e-commerce system, arranging leases and contracts, and making our educational programme what we wanted it to be. We are a London-based co-op, so some of the problems we faced were more specific to the region – finding appropriate premises wasn’t easy. Other issues included finding a committed team willing to either be involved in running a workshop or become our first customers. We luckily inherited some pieces of old equipment from Ceramics Studio Bermondsey, but our first year was particularly difficult on the technical side until most of the equipment could be replaced.

One of the co-operative challenges was trying to connect with other co-operatives in our area – and realising most of them are not interested, realising that not all co-operatives are operating within co-op principles despite their claims. Seeing a lack of will and established mechanisms for co-operation among co-ops, which makes us locked within our own personal survival stories, was a challenge.

So during the setup, everything was difficult and everything was new – but the best part of it was that we weren’t on our own. We have found a great team and there was much needed help and care from other worker co-ops. We went though all of this together, and together we can take it much further.

AV: What do you think the level of interest in co-ops is like among young people in the UK?

TB: There is definitely a growing interest in economic democracy. We are living though an economic and social crisis that is not being addressed on practical levels by government and state institutions. The need for organising the commons and economy so that we can sustain our basic livelihoods is evident for anyone who does not have much to lose.

People are looking for sustainable and ethical ways to run their lives, their jobs. In this context, the co-operative model is interesting as a challenge for the hyper-individualised competitive models neo-liberalism is selling us everyday.

It is a known practical way of resisting what is being offered through the dominant narratives of our society, and there is interest in the new generation of young people in leading lives of values and basically doing good. Governmental regulation, and inclusion of social enterprise models, can act as a proof that this is being acknowledged by policy makers…

AV: Is the co-op movement likely to grow?

TB: I can see surging interest in worker and community co-operatives in my area, south east London. It makes me feel optimistic about the movement and gives me more work to do on the side of co-op development and education. As someone who joined the movement quite recently, I can see worker co-operatives being active through the worker co-op weekend and SolidFund. These are indicators of some good creative energy among workers co-op activists and shows our movement to be on the up rather than down.

AV: What happens when the current generation of young co-operators grows older?

TB: I hope we will totally transform the co-operative movement and grow it to be the movement of people, not capital. Of course it is possible that the younger generation of co-operators will lose its touch, but I very much hope that by that time we would have more open and engaged platforms for critique and conversation. Hopefully shorter workdays and collectively organised care will enable us all to be more involved in the movement and not let leading co-operative voices sell out our values and ethics.

AV: How can we ensure continuity and succession?

TB: If we can ensure education around the relevance of co-operatives by escaping neo-liberal models and language for marketing our memberships, goods, services and ethics, this would be a big step. It would also help if we dealt with hypocrisy within the movement where major co-ops can be seen using governance structures that directly contradict co-op principles. We need a greater sense of integrity among co-operators, as we are a source of inspiration for coming generations and those looking for fairer ways of organising the economy and social sphere.

When I bumped into the co-op movement two and a half years ago after losing my job, I knew nothing of it, its values, principles or ethics. I went to co-operatively organised schools and lived in a co-operative block of flats as a child in Russia. I have full-on British education, including a politics MA, and I didn’t know about co-ops existing. Despite being involved in labour and working conditions activism I never came across people talking about the political relevance of the worker co-op model. I knew nothing about co-ops until actually starting to set up a co-op business. Talking to our mentor Sion Whellens (of Calverts) and looking at exactly what is written down in the co-operative principles was what made it clear. It felt like the whole world was finally in colour, not black and white as before.

In the end it was quite a long search for something that people already within the co-op movement may imagine to be highly evident. That something was simply how to start a workplace with values of solidarity, mutual aid, equality and equity. This journey could have been so much shorter.

Some of this is not just about awareness and being true to the values we claim to have, it is also about young people and children growing up with values of co-operation. We need institutions that can make organising alternative social and educational lives for co-operators a reality: summer camps, schools and nurseries, colleges, social care that can help people of all generations develop skills much needed to enable the smooth succession and development of co-operatives and their politics.

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