BLOG | Co-operatives and the World of Work: Youth

On 8-10 November, at the International Labour Organization’s Co-operatives and the World of Work Research Conference in Antalya, Turkey, delegates will be learning more about youth co-operatives and...

On 8-10 November, at the International Labour Organization’s Co-operatives and the World of Work Research Conference in Antalya, Turkey, delegates will be learning more about youth co-operatives and how they make a difference. Young people will be also given a chance on the first day of the meeting to talk about their research and work on co-operatives. In the first of a series of conference blogs, Betsy Dribben, attorney, lobbyist and former director of policy at the ICA, talks about the challenges facing youth globally, and the co-operative solutions being embraced.

When you’re young you have a lot going for you: energy, optimism, maybe even a newly minted degree or training. But in today’s world the odds are stacked against you. There are over 75 million youth worldwide who are unemployed. The OECD notes that youth (approx. ages 18-24) are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. Heading into the job market, youth lack the experience, networks and logistical skills to get noticed and hired. However, there’s another path for unemployed youth – creating a workers’ co-operative. You can get the training you need, develop contacts that make a difference and move into the economy.

Co-ops are businesses to scale – expanding or contracting as the need arises. Inherently they make a commitment to train every member and for every member to benefit from the fruits of their labour. The co-operative approach also puts workers first, reducing profit margins as markets shrink before they consider eliminating staff. This is particularly important for youth employment where newly hired staff or those with less work experience are first to be let go in hard times.

Youth co-ops come in every language and subject. For example, Lesotho’s unemployment rate is a staggering 45%. Nevertheless, a co-op model helped a group of mainly youth in North East Lesotho find employment right on their own doorstep with their creation of the Subeng Dinosaur Youth Co-operative.

Having found dinosaur tracks in their village, they decided to capitalise on this by setting up a co-operative tourist business. Each member does their share of work and equally shares in the profits. They provide guided tours of the footprints and produce handicrafts to sell, such as moulds of the dinosaur footprints, jewellery and artwork. Recently, they put up road signs notifying drivers on the main road of the existence of the footprints. This helped bring in more tourists and raise profits from entrance fees. The fees they get are reinvested in the co-op while sales of handicrafts are used for personal income.

Seis 60 in Spain
Seis60 in Spain is an events and communications co-operative


In another part of the world there’s a Spanish co-operative called Seis60, defying that country’s dubious distinction of having the highest youth unemployment in Europe. A group of university graduates with communications backgrounds wanted a lifestyle without bosses and with flexibility in how they worked. They decided the co-operative model was what they needed. So they created Seis60. This co-operative offers event planning, web work, communications strategy, etc. and has just celebrated its sixth successful year in business.

Not all co-ops will succeed. But not all jobs you go into at any age will be lifelong or successful. However, the co-operative model gives youth a good possibility to move from informal employment to an effective formal business; gain training to be competitive; have job satisfaction not at some point in the distant future but pretty quickly and earn a living. As large numbers of youth worldwide seek employment, universities, government agencies and civic leaders should be considering the co-operative model as a means for getting youth into the work force not as an afterthought but as a first thought.

What is needed is more research and evaluation that looks at how to develop youth co-operatives. This can provide the underpinnings for decision makers, investors and civic leaders to support youth co-operatives. Reforms of legislation and regulations are also needed to make sure that youth co-operatives are not impeded or stopped in their tracks by unnecessarily frustrating laws and procedures. While youth easily shed old ways, the same cannot be said for government officials and those in decision-making positions. Tackling stereotypes that developed in the 60s and 70s about co-ops also need to be addressed and set to rest.

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