How could co-operatives become more important in the future?

The dual purpose of this essay is to raise questions about the role of young people in the co-operative movement and to introduce issues surrounding the socio-political environment in Australia that could affect decisions young people might make in thinking about becoming involved in co-operatives. Unfortunately, the attitudes and behaviours of young people towards co-operatives have not been closely studied, nor is it easy to ascertain how many young people are “active” members of current co-operatives. It is possible, however, to see the potential for young people to actualize their feelings towards relevant social movements in practical terms by either joining existing co-operatives or by setting up their own.

Melucci describes identifying with social movements as being an emotional investment, which “enables individuals to feel like part of a common unity.”  Furthermore, “participation in forms of collective mobilization or in social movements, involvements in forms of cultural innovation, voluntary action inspired by altruism – all of these are grounded in this need for identity and desire to help satisfy it.”

This raises important questions as to how an individual can find and engage with a collective that represents their beliefs and ideologies. The jump from identifying with a social movement to being prepared to join the structured nature of a formalized co-operative may be an interesting dilemma for this generation, which is used to fluidity of choice and subsequently behaving ephemerally.

Hunt, Benford, and Snow explore the extensive literature supporting the notion that changes in identity in new social movements reflect broader macro social change.  This “macro” change is a constant source of uncertainty and often of concern. How young people finds themselves “feeling” in this sense may lead to a desire to actively involve themselves in a structure to address the uncertainty or concern.

Young people naturally gravitate towards places and people who represent their sense of “self.” It is commonly accepted that the notion of belonging holds a lot of meaning to young people who are developing a sense of identity and structural meaning for their futures. Questions being asked by the co-operative movement in Australia are: How are co-operatives relevant to young people? Are they aware of co-operatives and their potential to formulate and create a sense of belonging and ‘self’? What kinds of co-operatives might young people gravitate towards?

The 2003 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes indicates that 58 per cent of Generation Xers (born between 1969 and 1985) believe that “co-operatives show that people can still work together,” while only about 30 per cent believe co-operatives to be old fashioned. There is also a suggestion that one of the major factors influencing this belief is the nature of Generation Xers to “express a desire for unions to have more power…and for the mass media to have less power.”  A prime example of this: many Generation Xers support environmental social movements as they learn about the un-sustainability of development; they are increasingly aware of the ways in which “modernization and globalization as progress” are causing long-term harm to the environment and threatening the survival of many species. 

Following from this, young people are in an excellent position to counteract the pure “‘for profit” market and some of its questionable ethical practices. Historically, the co-operative movement is dotted with different types of people who were unhappy about being exploited within the capitalist context. Similar attitudes and issues seem to exist today, though now they are not confined to work and health; they have encroached upon our daily intake of food. The Genetically Modified (GM) products appearing at an increasing rate are generating not only protests from activist but also from “boutique” food co-operatives specializing in organic food products- not surprisingly housed within many University Food Co-ops.

Young people are aware of both positive and negative developments within consumer markets. They also possess underlying suspicions concerning what they do not know, as they have become accustomed to being lied to or having information concealed by large companies and governments…only to have details controversially revealed at a later date.

This creates interest to see if they take this feeling and information as a cue to join or start co-operatives that promote openness and democratic decision-making. Will youth who are members of the university food co-ops continue going to the campus after graduation to do their grocery shopping? Will they set up larger food co-ops closer to where they live or work to be shared by a wider community of people? They have resources and skills – Australia being a fairly free and opportunist country – to develop their own comfortable niches in which to exist and share with others having like-minded concerns.

Young people in Australia now have many options in terms of how they choose to live their lives and participate in areas of particular interest or concern. Generally, young people are not as affected by class or educational issues as generations past, and they have been raised to be choosy about what can benefit them and why. Gen Xers are notorious for mixing and matching belief systems, sub cultures and career moves. This appears to be fertile ground for the establishment of new co-operatives that will serve tailor-made purposes for groups of young people seeking innovation and individuality. Such co-operatives would lend themselves more to interest or recreational pursuits: for example, urban visual artists in Sydney have found forming collectives addresses their creative needs better than trying to “break into” a competitive and sponsored market. They claim to form collectives for both financial and philosophical reasons – tying into the reaction against the biased and often unrepresentative nature of the mass market.

Admittedly, these questions relate largely to young people residing in urban areas where there is more exposure to social movements. Particularly in urban centres, slogans and street press are available everywhere to inform and encourage all locals to engage in positive social, financial and environmental balance. The question now raised is: do Australian youth have sufficient knowledge of the co-operative structure to recognize its potential for creation, fairness and local control? If the answer (as we suspect) is no, how does the movement reach out to this group and guide them in?

These questions can only be answered with more research to help us find new examples and trends, more information dissemination of what we do know, and what we can find out about trial and error “on the ground”. If people believe in a concept or cause, they appreciate alternatives, choice and representative structures to engage in meaningfully. Environmental sustainability, organic food, forums to produce and show cultural activities on a local level, freedom from mass market influences, may be a way that the co-operative structure can formally take individuals a step out of identifying with social movement ideology, and engage them in acting collectively, attaining a sense of identity, involvement and achievement in the future.

Lee WilsonLee Wilson works with the Australian Centre for Cooperative Research and Development (ACCORD) as a Research Assistant. ACCORD is a joint venture between the University of Technology, Sydney, Charles Sturt University and the NSW Department of Fair Trading. Lee is involved in research analysis for papers on the formation of New Cooperatives and the potential for cooperative models to fill 'unmet need' gaps in housing and aged care facilities.

Creator - Author(s) Name and Title(s): 
Lee Wilson
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


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