Co-operate or Die

Are you annoyed about the whole hypocrisy of unpaid internships within the UK? Have you just graduated with a degree only to be stuck in a queue waiting to apply for a bullshit job? Rhi Colvin found herself in a similar situation, which is why she is trying to get young people to start co operative businessesRhi gives us her opinions on the job market and how to not feel defeated!

Members of a cop growing food

 Illustration by Grace Wilson

Co-operate or Die – by Rhi Colvin

Two years ago I graduated from university and found myself in a reality that I was totally unprepared for. I had what I considered a strong CV: a first class degree from the University of Leeds, a range of part time jobs and a list of different volunteer roles and projects I had been involved in. I was ready to get a good job and start living the London dream.

As I competed against other graduates for unpaid internships, volunteer placements and took up a part time job waitressing, I felt my confidence plummet, aspirations lower, financial situation worsen and a slight existential crisis kicking in. I started to question where my life was going, what I was doing with my time and whether it was just me that felt this way? As I looked around me I began to realise that nobody I knew was getting paid to do a job they loved: friends were running abroad to teach English and escape the crisis here, settling for jobs they hated or taking up low paid, part time jobs to support them whilst they followed their real passions.

One afternoon, after an interview for an unpaid internship that 150 others had applied for, I had a moment of clarity: as long as we all fight for the scraps of work at the bottom of the economy that is all we will get, we will remain powerless and without influence. We will remain the generation without a future. And guess what? We are not the problem. We have ideas, skills, knowledge, energy and talent but the economy we are entering into no longer knows how to utilise our creativity for the common good.

Our role as the next generation should be to change it, to create something better. To create an economy that allows us to earn a living, do what we love and contribute towards nurturing people and our environment rather than destroying it. Ok, yes, in an ideal world I thought, but how in reality am I going to make that happen?

First I decided to gain a better understanding of the context and learn from what’s already happening across Europe. So I embarked upon a three-month research project across Portugal and Spain, where youth unemployment is as high as 50%. My question was: what new ways of living and working are young people creating in response to this crisis?

Youth in Lisbon were setting up social movements to campaign for basic citizens’ income and free transport for the unemployed; in Granada creative hubs to support youth in industries such as art and music; in Madrid social centres offering affordable food, consultation on how to resist housing evictions and free classes in media, web development and dance. Around Barcelona young people had gone back to the land, reclaimed old buildings, begun to grow their own food and sell bread, preserves and furniture. My research showed me that all across the Iberian Peninsula youth were creating new ways of working and living. The alternative that most inspired me, however, was worker’s co-operatives. I found food co-ops, bike co-ops, co-operative bookshops, web development co-ops, co-operative schools and in one example a ‘co-operative integral’ to provide for all basic needs such as housing, transport, education, health and childcare, co-operatively.

Now it’s true that co-ops aren’t particularly new, emerging in the UK with the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844. However, as people are increasingly struggling to meet their basic needs, co-ops seem to be having a resurgence–because they seem to offer solutions to many of the problems my generation faces.

Firstly, they allow us to reclaim control over our work. Co-operatives are a specific form of social enterprise where workers own the business, profit is distributed fairly and equally between the workers rather than distant shareholders, and decisions are made democratically by all members rather than one person at the top. In an economy where wealth is unequally distributed and youth lack decision-making power and agency, this gives us control over a key area of our life and allows us to make decisions about who we want to work with, how much we want to work and for what purpose.

Secondly, they support our generation to stop competing and start collaborating. On our own we are powerless. Together we are more powerful than we could begin to imagine. In contrast to what our education system teaches us, collaboration is key for creativity, for innovation, for finding solutions to all the problems our world faces. In contrast to the idea of the individual entrepreneur making it out there on their own, co-ops offer a more supportive model for young people, who may be afraid of taking a big step outside the standard work options currently offered. One where we can share risk, build confidence, learn together and allow a larger number of young people to get involved with social enterprise – let’s face it, not all of us have the character to make it on Dragons’ Den.

Finally, the seven co-operative principles provide guidelines for an ethical approach to business, both internally and externally. Through the principle of concern for the community, the social and environmental impact a co-operative enterprise has on the world is taken into account. Through the principles of democratic member control and economic participation, the structure of a co-operative reflects the kind of change they want to see in the world, something many other social enterprises and charities could learn from.

Taking on board the insight and inspiration gained from my research I returned to London and set up AltGen. Standing for Alternative Generation, AltGen supports 18-25 year olds to set up worker co-operatives as an empowering and collaborative solution to youth unemployment. It aims to empower our generation to take control over our future by creating an economy in which we feel fulfilled and in which we are solving social and environmental problems rather than creating them.

AltGen is now a registered co-op with three co-founders. In its first year it will achieve its aims through: sharing young peoples’ stories so we can begin to realise we are not alone; running practical workshops to empower and inspire young people to set up co-ops; connecting those that are interesting in creating an alternative economy through an online hub space; running courses on how to set up co-operatives; providing start up grants; and by giving legal and business advice. In the following years we hope to develop and grow a network of young co-operatives across the UK and Europe, trading with one another and sharing knowledge, ideas and resources to create a more fulfilling, equal and sustainable economy. An economy that we are in control of.

As we move forward it is important to acknowledge that the co-operative movement in this country is currently in crisis. The Co-operative Bank and its parent, the Co-operative Group, have been in the news over the last year – and for all the wrong reasons. It’s been the subject of countless press stories: a record trading loss, the Paul Flowers scandal, CEO Euan Sutherland’s abrupt resignation and fines for unethical business behaviour. The Bank and the wider Group’s troubles have been variously attributed to bad business acquisitions, expensive and abandoned IT projects, hubristic management, weak Board oversight – even the very fact that it was a co-operative, owned and controlled by millions of people like you and me, and therefore ungovernable.

As someone recently inspired by the alternative economic future co-operatives can offer young people this left me confused and doubting the whole co-operative model. But as I investigated further I realised it couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the problems stemmed not from the groups egalitarian and ethical principles, but from a straying away from them towards the mainstream model and values of banking and consumerism in this country. From decisions being made by outside ‘experts’ and unaccountable managers, not by members and customers, to organisational structures becoming more top-down and bureaucratic rather than more horizontal and participatory.

Therefore the solution to the co-operative crisis in this country lies not in a rejection of the co-operative model and principles, but by using this crisis as an opportunity to bring the co-operative movement back to its roots of promoting and enacting democracy, equality and transparency. And who better to lead the way than a new generation of young co-operators, supported by the wisdom and history of a movement that is hundreds of years old, but bringing in new ideas for how co-operatives can provide solutions to zero hours contracts and the rise of the freelancer, can move into new industries at the forefront of innovation, or can use technology to make co-operation and collaboration even easier.

The work of AltGen is just beginning, but already I have experienced its potential and power, from the stories young people are sending in to our blog, to the look of excitement I see on a normally apolitical friend’s face when I talk about new ways of working and living. Our generation is waking up and there are numerous ideas being shared for how we can make our life and economy more sustainable, more equal and more fulfilling. I hope that AltGen and the power of co-operatives will play a big role in making it a reality.

Co operate or die

AltGen supports 18-29 year olds to set up workers co-operatives as a way of reclaiming control over their work and creating a more equal and sustainable future.