Thinking Globally

Young people are increasingly important. According to the United Nations (UN), children and young people, under the age of twenty-five, make up fifty percent of the world’s population. The world has already begun to change to incorporate these billions of young people, by making more of an effort to engage them. Young people are going to have to start playing a larger part economically, socially and politically than they have been accustomed to in the recent past. Unfortunately, young people are also facing their share of problems: for example, one in four people under 25 years old lives in poverty.

So what can co-operatives offer young people?

The United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals specify the need for decent and productive work for young people, especially in developing countries. This is a key area where co-operatives can help. In some areas of the world, co-operatives provide the only opportunities for young people to gain decent employment. The co-operative model can benefit young people who want to start up their own businesses but have little capital. Co-ops can provide support, advice and, in some countries, start up grants to help new co-operatives give young people the opportunity to be independent and to take the responsibility for their lives into their own hands. The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recognise this and are working together to try and develop a program of decent work for young people who choose to use the co-operative model to meet their economic and social needs. Young people are drawn to the values and principles of the co-operative movement and are looking for a fair way of doing business. They value the fact that co-operatives contribute to the community and, in some countries, they have been able to turn to co-operatives as they search for ways to pursue ethical careers, particularly when they are looking for their first jobs.

Co-operatives provide work for young people, both within existing, established co-operatives and through those that young people organize and operate themselves. Co-operative values mean – or should mean – that young people are seen as equals and are encouraged to take an active and responsible part within the movement. Co-operatives can be helpful in assisting young people prepare for their working lives, either within co-ops or outside of them, through training and education programmes that empower young people. Most co-operatives are committed to providing employee and member training and education.

In some parts of the world co-operative schools are very common and provide many opportunities for young people: for example, in Malaysia school co-operatives play an important part in the national curriculum. They run student unions, câfés and shops, and they teach young people democratic leadership skills as they learn how to run a co-operative.
The same is true of co-operative housing. It is often one of the only choices for young people starting off in life on their own, while other people may choose it because of the social assets of living co-operatively. The North American Students Co-operative Organisation (NASCO) helps young people run successful and affordable student housing; a set of tasks that also offers the students chances to play leadership roles in their community.

So co-operatives can help young people improve their lives. Over the past few years, while people have started to accept that co-ops can be beneficial for youth, people have often asked me, in a slightly sceptical tone ‘so what can young people do for co-operatives?’ This is superficially quite a difficult question to answer without falling back on banalities. The fact that the question is being asked at all suggests that co-ops have not yet adequately accepted younger people. Change the question to ‘so what can older people do for co-ops?’ or indeed ‘so what can white men do for co-ops?’ and the problem (and indeed potential offensiveness) of the phrasing of the question becomes clearer. The question should be, “how are co-ops missing out, if a whole sector of the population is not encouraged and able to play their full role in the movement?”

One of the key answers that people focus on, however, is the challenge of planning for the effective succession of leaders; without that, the movement will surely decline. Equally important is the fact that, by failing to incorporate fifty percent of the population, the movement is missing out on many different and new perspectives and ideas. In the words of the 2003 ICA Europe youth conference, “We (young people) are not the future, we are the present. Young people bring energy and vitality to the movement and often have an increased focus on the original values and principles. These are the things that make the co-operative movement stand out and are also one of the main aspects that attracts young people. The Co-op’s aim of balancing economics and social concerns is unique.”

Within the co-op movement there has been such a change since its beginning in Rochdale, United Kingdom. When the British movement went through its permanent creation, most of the recorded Rochdale pioneers were neither young nor female. Now the movement spans 91 countries and involves young and old, men and women, in co-operation. Diversity gives us strength and that is why the co-operative movement is looking to encourage more young people to get involved. In 2003, the International Co-operative Alliance took an historic step by encouraging a young person to sit on the ICA’s main decision-making board. I had the privilege of being the first young person, and I have seen, all around the world, the difference young people can make. Young people do not want to take over the movement; we just want the chance to shape part of our movement, and to try and continue the co-operative values and principles. We have a lot to offer and can help the co-operative movement grow in new and exciting ways. Co-operation is the key, whether it is between old and young, male and female, rich and poor.

Jo Billy ScullianJo Billy-Scullian is a student of politics at Edinburgh University. She has been involved in various aspects of the co-operative movement since the age of six. In 2003 she became the first young person to sit on the ICA Board; she has a special interest in organising global youth co-operation.

Creator - Author(s) Name and Title(s): 
Jo Billy Scullian
Publication Information: 
Youth Reinventing Co-operatives: Young Perspectives on the International Co-operative Movement – (Eds.) Robin Puga, Julia Smith, and Ian MacPherson
Thursday, January 1, 2009
Publisher Information: 
New Rochdale Press, British Columbia Institute for Co-operative Studies