Youth, age and ageing in the co-operative commonwealth

In January, Co-operative News tweeted about an event in Brussels that was looking at support for youth in co-ops. This kickstarted a conversation about age and the co-operative movement...

In January, Co-operative News tweeted about an event in Brussels that was looking at support for youth in co-ops. This kickstarted a conversation about age and the co-operative movement which went on to discuss inter-sector collusion, co-generational working, and wider attitudes and assumptions about the notions of youth, age and ageing in the co-operative movement. The debate continued online and offline, and recently carried on in the form of a conversation held via a Google Hangout, featuring representatives from different ages, sectors and co-operative backgrounds. Here we invite you to drop into that conversation, and join the debate…

Who was taking part?

Alon Aviram (25) is a co-founder of the Bristol Cable, a multimedia co-op that publishes journalism online and in a quarterly print edition which is distributed across the city. The organisation is a year old and had over 400 members.

Cheryl Barrott (55) and Mervyn Eastman (66) are Change AGEnts. A multi-stakeholder co-operative, Change AGEnts is an older people’s participation co-operative that works in a co-generational way. The three types of stakeholders are older people themselves, practitioners and organisations that agree with the co-op’s aims and objectives.

Mike Shaw (23) is from Students for Co-operation, a democratic federation of student co-operatives across the UK, organising for social change.

Kathryn Rose (31) is the outgoing chair of the Co-operative Party National Youth Committee (but could only join the conversation for a short while).

Richard O’Farrell (65) started a VOX retail campaign for social inclusion among non-member communities for ethical shoppers  and works in collaboration with Change AGEnts, rediscovering the lost art of conversation.

On ageing, exclusion and defining ‘youth’

Cheryl: There’s just been an article published looking at the health properties of blood of younger people. That sits alongside this thing that happens within the co-operative sector where people talk about needing ‘young blood’. What that does is commodifies a quality that is ‘youth’, and then wants to extract it from younger people.

Mervyn: We can have a long debate about defining youth. I’d also say that I don’t believe the word youth, as it stands, is divisive, but I think there are divisive attitudes towards young people. One thing that we have found is that if you talk to people in their 60s, 70s and 80s they will use a narrative of exclusion, of being isolated and ignored. And if you talk to groups of young people, many of them have the same sorts of experiences, that they’re not spoken to, they’re spoken at.

Mike: A lot of the antagonism in recent years has come from things like the younger generation feeling that a lot of the benefits older generations had have dried up. There’s not as much support for the next generation, and the younger generation has inherited a whole host of problems, the main one being climate change.

Alon: When we were setting up Bristol Cable, we came to the decision not to subscribe to the narrow idea that we have to appeal to a particular age group or particular section of society. People might come from different communities or be of different ages but have intersecting interests and values. I’m 25 – most of the core team is 25 and under. But in terms of our actual co-op membership, you’ve got pensioners, teenagers, people from all walks of life. We all have different kinds of skill sets to offer, different experiences and different political perspectives.

Richard: Do you consider yourself to be a youth at 25?

Alon: I’m not sure ‘youth’ is a useful term. I find I can have a lot in common with someone who’s 50 years older than I, and then I’m very different to someone else who’s 25 living in another part of the city. That’s why at the Bristol Cable we are trying to speaking people with certain interests and values rather than narrow demographic indicators.

On ‘engaging’ youth

Alon: Quite often you see these concerted efforts by organisations, co-operative or not, to ‘engage’ youth. Speaking for myself, I find it consistently patronising to see these kinds of systems put in place to speak about what are deemed to be young people’s interests. It’s important to go the extra mile to try to reach out to young people, but at Bristol Cable we found that having separate sections for youth or older people was unnecessary and didn’t really appeal to people. For us it’s about just trying to break out of those kind of those constraints and those habits which box people into ‘OK this is what you’re interested in, this is what we’re interested in’. It’s also about breaking free from some of the language that’s used, like ‘engaging’ and ‘empowering’. If you actually speak to most kids hanging out on a street corner about empowerment and engagement, they’re bored of it and to them it just sounds like they’re in school.

Kathryn: With the Co-operative Party, the youth committee is actually quite important. The problem is that there is a culture within management that means whoever has got the tenure in certain roles keeps the tenure. So it’s difficult when you come in as a young member, because you don’t have tenure. They want you to be there so they can say they ‘have youth’ and so they can get youth to do things that they want done. But in terms of actually listening, and youth deciding for themselves what they want to do, or being given meaningful roles, it doesn’t happen in itself because of this culture of tenure. It’s only when young people are given the opportunity to empower themselves without having to deal with the whole ‘have you been in the movement for 30 years’ question that they can actually achieve things.

Mike: Kathryn said a lot of what I wanted to say. I curiously asked around as to how difficult would it be for me to get onto the board of Scotmid or get involved in one of the committees and was just told ‘don’t bother’. So you can talk about ‘empowering’ people, but if you’re not actually giving them the paths and the ability to have a position of power, or try to spread that power, then it’s all useless.

Mervyn: That’s absolutely right. There are certain grandees and elites that become very powerful in any organisation, or any movement – particularly the co-operative movement, which has a fairly ageing membership base. Many older people – not necessarily within the co-operative movement – feel the notion of engagement is patronising and paternalistic. The language that is used turns people off. I take the view that engagement is a process by which we share, and where a conversation takes place. A conversation implies non-patronising, non-paternalistic narratives because we are all equal in the conversation unless someone is controlling it. I understand what Alon was saying about co-generational membership working for the Bristol Cable, but I do think Kathryn’s right, there does need to be some sort of segmentation because then peers have a conversation with each other about their experiences and that’s a very useful operation.

Richard: The solution could be an intergenerational conversation, with different ideas coming in from everywhere. And then as you explore those, what develops from them is what’s missing in every community and every village today: conversation. Across communities there’s a huge body of knowledge that will be lost without conversation.

Kathryn: I think the number one problem here is the nature of this engagement. It’s all controlled engagement. There are plenty of people who aren’t youth who are telling me what youth wants. People need to ask young people what they want and act on it rather than telling them what they should want. And so many of these engagements are controlled in order to ensure that only the things that you ‘should’ care about are discussed. It’s disheartening when you’ve got the ideas and actively contribute and you are given an agenda saying ‘well we’ve decided what’s wrong and we’ve decided roughly how to fix it and now we need you to rubber stamp it and then we can talk about other things we think you should care about’.

Mervyn: The same applies to older people in the co-operative movement, and to wider engagement generally. But I really believe that the principles and values of co-operation are powerful and potentially influential enough that they could really change the narrative around age and ageing.

Cheryl: I think we need to have conversations within our communities of interest. Older people or younger people do need to have the facility to have conversations to unite them around their shared experience of what it is to be excluded or to be commodified or to be told what their experience is as an older or younger person. But I think we then also need to be able to come together and have conversations together – because what we’ve seen here is how much we’ve got in common.

Alon: Bringing people into a conversation is important for those who are already in the conversation. But there are so many people who don’t know anything about co-ops. Even for the people who deal with co-operatives on a daily basis, whether as a consumer or an employee, it doesn’t actually make much of a tangible difference on many people’s lives most of the time.

Richard: We need to do what we’re doing today on a national scale. It takes someone to set it up, but all it takes is bringing co-operative discussion onto a wider stage.

On digital

Mike: I’ve heard a lot of language today talking about ‘networks’ and ‘nodes’. As a young person, almost every conversation within the co-op movement I have around youth comes back to the view that ‘we need to be using social media more’.

I just get fed up with it as a young person because yes social media is really important, but the thing that builds movements is strong ties. There is no equivalent really to physically meeting up, having conversations and holding people’s hands a bit to build up the confidence to get involved. At Students for Co-operation, we put a lot of effort into having at least four meetings a year to physically meet up, and we spend a lot of money getting everyone there.

Alon: As a media organisation we’ve harnessed online communications for our work from day to day. But when we were starting up, one of the first things we did that set us apart from other businesses or charities was that we were actually knocking on people’s doors. People were quite surprised to see a face as opposed to just an e-mail. It depends on the nature of your co-op, but I think that in the bid to professionalise and streamline operations, a lot of people can forget how important it is to see someone face to face.

Cheryl: Interestingly from an older person’s perspective, older people are often seen in deficit, as not understanding new technology and therefore excluded from it because of what is seen as their refusal to embrace the IT revolution. But what’s just been said from a younger person is that ‘while we know how to use that technology, we still want a human contact’ – something that is usually used against older people.

Richard: But also, co-operative communities are going to be left behind without engaging in the digital world. Co-operatives will argue that they are in the digital world because they have a website. As any young person will tell us, that is a far cry from actually relating to this digital world.

Mervyn: It needs to be a mixture between using the digital world, but also meeting face to face. However, what we’re not yet in a position to do is to create a unifying co-generational narrative within the co-operative movement. I don’t see those conversations being welcomed just yet.

On the future: what next?

Mervyn: What this conversation today has put me in touch with is that while I know a lot about what older people are thinking, I’ve realised that I’ve not actually engaged in any shape or form with discussing with the younger generations, and I’m not actually as familiar with those conversations as perhaps I should be, to work intergenerationally. I can draw on my own youth, my own experience. But that was in the 1950s and 60s. The world is totally different and I’m not engaged in that. I need more conversations with young people. The fact that I’ve been there is absolutely meaningless. That I was a young person in the 1950s and 60s has no relevance to young people today.

Alon: One of the things we need to definitely bear in mind is that there is no blueprint for this. It isn’t just a case of people within their own environments, organisations and co-operatives understanding themselves within. It’s about having these conversations, sharing experiences, exchanging this information. At Bristol Cable we’ve actually felt really isolated in some ways from the rest of the co-operative movement. We could do more to reach out, but at the same time we’ve just found that in some respects it’s fairly isolating and kind of lonely.

Mike: I think a lot of what we’re talking about I would consider as a symptom of a deeper issue, which is that we’re failing to properly address the issues that matter to people and that people need help with. We are not sufficiently meeting the challenges of today.


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Youth, age and ageing

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