Young people and the future of cooperation in Europe

Alice Toomer-McAlpine speaks with two delegates at the Cooperatives Europe youth event held in Cardiff late last year

In challenging times, what does the future of co-operation in Europe look like? One approach to this question is to consider the future leaders of the movement – their priorities, concerns and ideas – and with this in mind, Cooperatives Europe hosted a youth conference in Cardiff.

Running from 21-22 November, the Young People and the Future of Cooperation in Europe event brought together experienced and new co-operators from across Europe. It was held alongside a meeting of the Young European Cooperators Network (YECN) and Cooperatives Europe’s board meeting.

The main conference kicked off with a session on young people, co-ops and entrepreneurship, with inputs from academics and co-operative practitioners involving young people in co-operative entrepreneurship.

Amelia Crews, energy innovation co-ordinator at the Midcounties Co-op, spoke about Youth EmPowered, a community energy group she runs where 70% of the board are under 30. 

“We created this body to help raise awareness of community energy to young people,” she told me after the conference, “but also in the near future, we will be opening up investment opportunities to allow the public, and hopefully encourage more young people, to invest in community energy projects, which brings a revenue stream back to the community and also brings return on investment.” 

Related: Co-op Group and its charity sign pledge to act on youth empowerment

Crews was surprised to see community energy as a recurring theme throughout the conference, with a session on day two about co-op solutions for the energy crisis. Attendees “were really intrigued to find out how young people can be at the heart of that,” she said, “because it’s an angle that hasn’t necessarily been talked about too much before.”

She added: “There were lots of people who work in community energy around Europe and because sometimes I feel like we’re quite in our silos, it was great to speak as a part of a wider movement and realise this is going on in different areas around Europe. And it was interesting to see how it’s expressed in different cultures.”

Exploring ideas for community (Image: Cooperatives Europe)

The second panel on day one looked at how to inspire young people to co-operate. Chaired by Co-operatives UK CEO Rose Marley, the panel included a range of ages from across the movement, including Johanna Kühner of Supercoop Berlin. 

Speaking after the conference, she told me that inspiring youth is more than a matter of good marketing. “We cannot just say, ‘co-ops are the greatest thing on earth and we just need to push them forward’,” she said. “We also need to really see if they truly fulfil their purpose – are they social? For whom are they social? And then I think they can be part of a huge transformation … and can be attractive for the youth.”

On the subject of youth representation within the co-op movement, Kühner said: “It’s about really having a voice, really having the feeling of being able to make a difference. And this is what makes it attractive to be part of, for many young people … We don’t have much time and we really want to change something, so I want to be in a place where I can make a difference.”

Related: Report from the National Co-op Youth Summit

Day two saw a ‘Coopathon’ brainstorming session for new co-op ventures. Kühner’s group spent the session thinking about how the community emerging from the event can stay connected. Ideas included sharing videos of co-operative work from their different countries, and a marketplace where young co-operators can exchange services. 

“I really hope we can implement the ideas that we came up with,” said Kühner, who would like to see “a tool where we can all communicate and connect with each other”.

There will be more opportunities for the young delegates to stay connected and continue the process of reactivating the Young European Cooperators Network, with Kühner and Crews both planning to take part.

The conference also saw a strategy session where Cooperatives Europe members reflected on three topics: gender equality, education and research, and youth and entrepreneurship. These sessions will feed into its strategy for the next few years as it looks to make co-ops a force for growth and social change.

Reflecting on the conference, Crews applauded its intergenerational approach, saying, “there were people there who have led in the co-op movement for years, so they’ve got the knowledge and the experience, and then you’ve got the fresh talent coming in, and they have all the curiosity and are willing to challenge. 

“You can see naturally that there are things that are cropping up that maybe do need to shift and do need to change, just as naturally needs to happen with any kind of change in times.”

Similar sentiments were shared by Kühner, who said that the changes needed to bring co-ops into the future “may be uncomfortable, and we need to dig into these uncomfortable things as well, to bring the movement forward in a good way and to make it comfortable for all of us afterwards.”

Both Crews and Kühner reflected that while there was a good balance of ages and genders at the conference, more work is still needed in terms of racial diversity.

Kühner also appreciated opportunities for honest reflection at the conference, saying: “I’ve been to some conferences and it was just self-glorification … No, okay, let’s be a bit self-critical. Because otherwise, we cannot improve. If we are not looking at ourselves, how can we move forward and build a future where we are better than we are now?”

Another key take-away for Johanna was the opportunity to learn from other co-operators across Europe and cross-pollinate ideas and practical examples from across the movement.

Similarly, Crews said that she left the conference with more energy.

“It was really great to get exposure to the wider movement,” she said. “When you zoom out and everything kind of pieces together like a jigsaw. It’s nice to see everything come to life, and see other people driving what you’re also passionate about.

“You can just tell that the young people who were there are going to be the leaders of the co-operative movement in a few years.”