Co-operatives, engagement and the question of youth

How do we engage young people? How do we increase youth participation? What support can we give to young co-operators? These aren’t new questions, but have been a...

How do we engage young people? How do we increase youth participation? What support can we give to young co-operators?

These aren’t new questions, but have been a constant since the start of the movement, asked and asked again as the youth they once applied to grew up and put the same queries to the next generation.

While co-operative businesses are seen as fair and honest, 2011 research by Co-operatives UK found that over 40% of people think of them as old fashioned. This perception is rooted in two factors.

Firstly, several people we have spoken to have commented that co-ops have been slow to embrace technology, both on small and large scales. Co-operative Food stores only introduced self-service checkouts in 2012 – four years after they were a regular feature of local branches of larger supermarket chains. And smaller, eco-conscious co-ops will often not prioritise communication through websites or social media due to time or budget constraints, lack of training, or belief that it would not benefit their members and/or customers.

Secondly, few of the individuals forming the public face of co-operatives could be categorised as ‘youth’ – despite the fact that many were involved in co-ops from a relatively young age. Group chair Ursula Lidbetter, for example, was a co-operative graduate trainee aged 21, while the Phone Co-op’s Vivian Woodell got involved in his local co-op supermarket in Oxford, also in his early 20s.

Young people have been at the forefront of co-operatives since the movement’s founding 170 years ago: over half of the original 28 Rochdale pioneers were under 30 at the time of its inception, and a couple were under 20. Gillian Lonergan, head of heritage resources at the National Co-operative Archive, believes this fact is largely forgotten due to the iconic image of 13 of the pioneers.

“There is a misconception that they were all middle-aged when they set up the society,” she says. “But the image was taken 20 years after it was founded, when the model was being adopted by communities and people wanted to know what they looked like.”

The youngest pioneer was Sam Ashworth, a weaver from an active political family who, at 19, was the public face of the society on the shop floor. He served behind the counter at the Toad Lane store for the first three months without pay, with Billy Cooper (aged 22), a cashier who worked for the movement throughout his life and became known as ‘the handyman of co-operation’.

Two of the youngest pioneers: Sam Ashworth (left) was 19, and Billy Cooper (right) 20
Two of the youngest pioneers: Sam Ashworth (left) was 19, and Billy Cooper (right) 20

Another well-established co-operative that was started by youth is Woodcraft Folk, founded in 1924 by 19-year-old Leslie Paul and other young people who were disenchanted by the militaristic direction of Baden-Powell’s Scouts following the First World War.

And, although slightly older, Louis Milcent set up France’s first agriculture bank in 1885 at the age of 28. His Société de Crédit Agricole de l’arrondissement de Poligny, together with other local banks, formed the beginnings of Crédit Agricole – now the largest retail banking group in France and the third largest bank in the world.

What age does ‘youth’ end?

One of the challenges of analysing youth engagement is the definition of ‘youth’. For UK employment statistics, the government categorises ‘young people’ as aged 16-24. The Co-operative Group’s Young Members’ Board is aimed at 16-25s. AltGen, which supports young people setting up worker co-operatives as a collaborative and empowering solution to youth unemployment, works with 18-29 year olds – and Woodcraft Folk has groups for 6-20 year olds.

“The age at which ‘youth’ ends varies from person to person,” says Andrew Ridge, community advisor (social goals) at the Group. “In part, it’s a state of mind.”

Sean Farmelo, of Students for Co-operation, also thinks it’s a tough question, and not one with an easy answer. “At the ICA Global Conference in Cape Town last year, the youth caucus – which was dominated by 30 year olds – decided that ‘youth’ could refer to anyone under 35,” he says.

“That could make sense in the UK, but not internationally, where some countries have appallingly low life expectancies.” In Africa, there are six counties where male life expectancy is under 50.

Youth and co-operatives

In the UK, there are three predominant relationships between youth and co-operatives: co-ops which provide a service for youth; those which are run entirely by young people themselves; and organisations which make a concerted effort to include the younger generation. There are overlaps between each of these, but the way they involve young people does vary.

Co-operatives for young people

Co-operatives providing a service for young people are often strongly involved in education, introducing school-age children to the idea of co-operation for the first time.

The Co-operative College is a prime example of this. One of its programmes is Young Co-operatives, which supports the establishment of co-ops in schools, colleges and other youth organisations – set up and run by the students themselves. The results of the scheme have been very creative and diverse; although the resources provided by the college focus on three main co-op models, many groups have taken these ideas and built successful co-operatives around their own interests.

The British Youth Film Academy, which became a co-operative five years ago, provides young people with the experience of working on different aspects of a feature film at a series of summer camps, while working together co-operatively. “The camp has changed my opinion on the film set environment,” says Harry Corthorne, one of this years attendees, “but also of co-ops.”

And Woodcraft Folk is still going strong, with more than 400 groups that meet around the country. It aims to help young people ‘grow in confidence, learn about the world and start to understand how to value our planet and each other’, through weekly meetings, camps. It has a strong ethos of encouraging children to contribute ideas and suggestions – and over half of the organisation’s trustees are under 25.

Co-operatives by young people

“Co-operatives are not a new way of doing things. They are a democratic, open and fair way of meeting needs.” This is the view of Sean Farmelo and, he believes, one of the reasons behind a recent surge in co-operatives set up by young people – and students in particular.

Two and a half years ago, Sean co-founded the green Bike Project, a community-led bicycle workshop and co-op based at the University of Birmingham, and following that, the Birmingham Student Housing Co-operative, which aims to help students provide themselves with better, low-cost housing.

“Co-operatives can provide solutions to many of the problems faced by students,” says Sean, “but when we started, there were very few support or self-education networks. As the housing project developed, other young people approached us for advice. People wanted help in setting up student co-operatives.”

This gap led to the creation of Students for Co-operation, a national body that now helps develop and support student co-ops and raises awareness of the model.

“It can be challenging for students to get involved in co-operatives,” says Sean. “They might want to get involved in co-ops, but are also fighting issues such as education fees, climate change and austerity.”

AltGen is is also strongly committed to making a positive social impact. “We believe that work should allow our generation to earn an income, do what we love and have a positive social impact” says founder Rhiannon Colvin. “Young people could create something better if they started working together.”

Piers Telemacque, NUS vice president for society and citizenship, agrees. “I know that young people can change things, and that they want to change things. But for that to happen, we need to empower them properly, acting in solidarity with the rest of society,” he says in article for the News.

Youth involvement

Although the co-ops mentioned above developed specifically with young people in mind, it is important for all co-operatives to involve youth.

In June, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing launched a scheme to give young people a say in the running of the mutual society. And at the Group, the Co-operative Young Members’ Board (CYMB) comprises 15 young people who are involved in high-level discussions and are the voice of youth for the society.

Nathan Wigmore, who was appointed to the CYMB aged 17, believes that to engage youth you need to “involve young people in things that are interesting and relevant to them”. He adds: “Involving young people in co-ops can also bring innovation and creativity to the organisation, and a new perspective.”

Andrew Ridge agrees, and also believes that young people’s innate technological understanding is something all co-operatives can employ. “This is the most connected generation ever,” he says. “Technology is changing the way we communicate and do business. Younger people are digital-native and can bring an understanding of how they want to be marketed to.”

However, Sean Farmelo disagrees with the standard line that to get youth involved we need to be using modern technology. “Of course technology is part of it,” he says, “but the key thing the movement needs to do is actively address certain needs. Young people don’t need technology – they need a decent wage.”

Support for youth co-ops

There is movement-wide agreement that, as future co-operators, youth need to be actively engaged; at Co-operative Congress, delegates looked at different ways to take participation to the next level. Sean successfully pitched for more support for student co-ops – but what has happened since?

“There has been a lot of worded support,” says Sean. “Co-ops say that it’s ‘a good idea’ and that it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, but it’s hard to translate this into tangible support.

“Following Congress, we sent letters to all attendees – we had just one response, from East of England.”

Julie Thorpe, who worked with Woodcraft Folk for many years and now leads the Co-operative College’s schools programmes, believes young people are often underestimated.

“It’s sometimes difficult to believe that young people have the skills, motivation or ability to make things happen and achieve significant success by themselves,” she says. “But with the right support – be it financial or practical – this is absolutely possible.”

Useful links and resources:

Woodcraft Folk:

Young Co-operators:

Students for Co-operation:


Student Guide to Starting a Co-operative:

Click here to find out more about how co-operatives and youth work together.

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