Alternative Generation: Youth Look to Co-Ops for Work

Photo credit: Broken Spoke Bike Co-op

Photo credit: Broken Spoke Bike Co-op

A new crop of co-ops run by young people present a non-conventional route to viable employment, as youth still suffer the effects of the economic downturn.

When graduate Rhiannon Colvin became increasingly frustrated with applying for endless unpaid internships, she took the bold decision to launch her own business, the AltGen co-op.

“Young people are starting to realize that, as long as we continue to fight each other for unpaid or underpaid work, then we remain incredibly powerless. The only way we can change this reality is if we start collaborating, co-operating, and working together,” says 24-year-old Colvin.

“We’ve now taken matters into our own hands to create a more sustainable and equal economy, one where our work allows us to generate an income, do what we love, and have a positive social impact. Co-operatives are one way of achieving this.”

Launched this July as a worker’s co-operative, AltGen aims to support 18-29-year-olds to set up their own co-operative businesses as an empowering and collaborative solution to the crippling issue of youth unemployment. Currently, in the UK, where AltGen is based, 18% of young people aged 16 to 24 are unemployed, compared with the overall national figure of 7%.

A report published earlier this summer by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) illustrates how young people have taken a disproportionate hit during the economic downturn. The report found that between 2007 and 2013 the employment rate among 22-30 year-olds fell by 4% while among 31-59 year olds it remained stable. Over the same period, young people aged 22-30 saw their household incomes fall by 13% while those aged 31-59 saw a 7% drop. “Pay, employment, and incomes have all been hit hardest for those in their twenties,” concludes Jonathan Cribb, research economist at the IFS.

One of the first projects that AltGen has unveiled is the Young Co-operators Prize which will award five £2,000 start-up grants to young people who have ideas for potentially successful co-ops. The competition is a collaboration with ten leading universities including Bristol, Goldsmiths, and Leeds, and Co-operatives UK, the trade body for the UK’s co-operative movement.

“The main aim is to inspire young people to start thinking outside standard career routes and to explore what would be more beneficial for them, rather than fighting for unpaid work,” says 26-year-old Amanda Walters, AltGen’s online content editor.

“What we’ve found is that the co-operative movement hasn’t been great at communicating with young people and letting them know that working as a co-op is a viable alternative to working for a mainstream company.”

Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, accepts the criticism and promises more action on the issue: “The co-operative movement needs to be more open and less insular, using 21st-century technology to spread our message, reaching younger generations which we need to support in every way possible,” says Mayo.

“The work that AltGen is doing to address youth unemployment by promoting co-ops as a viable business model is to be applauded. There are some wonderful examples emerging of young co-operation and the co-op sector certainly recognises and welcomes the contribution young people have to make.”

The examples of young co-operatives that Mayo refers to are now taking root right across the country with businesses such as Glad Rags, a cut-price fashion shop in Glasgow, Coffee Cranks, a bike-powered mobile tea and coffee shop in Manchester, and Broken Spoke Bike bicycle workshop in Oxford. In Scotland, the Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative, one of the first and biggest student housing co-ops in the UK, will be providing affordable accommodation to 106 students from the autumn.

“We were fed up with extortionate rent, dodgy landlords, and substandard housing,” says 22-year-old Mike Shaw, who was one of the dedicated team of half a dozen students which launched the co-op. “We wanted to increase the amount of affordable housing for students and create a sustainable, non-exploitative, community-led housing co-operative as an alternative to the private rental market.”

Shaw is also network coordinator for Students for Co-operation which was launched last year and has now grown to almost 30 member co-ops. “Most of our members operate food buying co-ops which offer substantial financial savings for students,” says Shaw, who explains why there’s a renewed interest in co-ops amongst students. “The squeeze on student finances and the need to take on more part-time jobs to support ourselves is a key driver.”

To further encourage students to put co-operatives on their potential employment radar, this autumn AltGen will be visiting universities around the country where they’ll be holding workshops and meeting students at careers fairs.

“We want students who are thinking about their careers to know that setting up a co-op and working for a co-op is a real possibility,” Walters concludes.

Originally published in The Guardian.