‘I want a network of young people creating a different economy’

With young people trapped between unemployment and underemployment, the political response is too paternalistic, says new organisation AltGen. Launching an award for new co-operative enterprises, it is encouraging 18-29-year-olds to shape their own futures

“I’m glad there’s an economic crisis.”

It’s not something you hear very often, but 25-year-old Rhiannon Colvin believes that the global economic crash of 2008 and its aftermath have presented the perfect opportunity for her generation to start creating a new economy.

“I’m not glad that people are unemployed,” she continues, “but I don’t believe in this economy and how it works. It’s very unsustainable, very unequal and young people are exploited.”

As co-founder and director of start-up business AltGen, that’s what Colvin hopes to change. Launched in May, AltGen is helping 18-29-year-olds set up their own worker co-ops – businesses owned and managed by their employees – in an effort to help tackle the UK’s youth unemployment crisis.

Although employment figures released in October suggest that such an approach might not be necessary – UK unemployment fell to less than two million for the first time since 2008 – the headlines arguably failed to reveal the full picture. The same data shows that since 2008 the type of employment people are in is shifting, with now nearly one million more people in part-time work and almost one million more freelancers than there were six years ago.

“When you look at the kind of jobs being created, barely any of them are full-time, secure and with rights,” says Colvin. “It’s not just unemployment, but it’s underemployment.”

“It’s not just about solving youth unemployment. We see it as a really exciting way for us to create a more equal and sustainable economy.”

AltGen is focusing on young people in particular because, since the financial crisis began, it is the under-30s that have been hit hardest. According to a 2014 report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, employment among 22-30-year-olds dropped by four percent over the past five years compared to no overall change for 31-59-year-olds. Currently 18 percent of 16-24-year-olds are unemployed, compared with the overall national figure of seven percent.

Colvin believes that the government is partly to blame and hasn’t done enough to help young people: “All of the political parties are so uncreative and short-sighted in their policies – all they’re thinking about is getting more young people into work, but they’re not thinking what kind of work and what future that will lead to. It’s paternalistic instead of empowering.”

Through co-ops, AltGen – itself a workers co-op – intends to give young people the power to create their own work. “Co-ops give us ownership, they give us a say over our life and our work and most importantly they allow the freedom of freelancing but with job security, workers rights and the support of a team,” says Colvin. “And it’s not just about solving youth unemployment. We see it as a really exciting way for us to create a more equal and sustainable economy.”

Working together, not fighting for jobs

But before founding AltGen, Colvin felt, like many graduates, that her only path into a career she wanted was to undertake unpaid internships. And it was in 2012 following an unsuccessful application, for an unpaid placement with a youth empowerment organisation, that Colvin had a revelation.

“I was one of 150 young people who wanted to work on empowering other young people and because this one job existed only one person was going to do that,” she says. “I realised that we’re all fighting each other for unpaid work and noticed that a lot of young people’s energy was going to waste in this process and thought: why aren’t we working together to create our own work?”

Colvin then took a break from endless applications and decided to pursue her idea further. In the autumn of 2012 she embarked on a three-month trip to Spain, where youth unemployment was then around 55 percent. “I was looking at what alternatives were emerging out of that crisis,” says Colvin. “Co-ops in Spain were my inspiring answer.

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“They’re really big in Spain, so lots of young people were turning to them as an alternative. They were going back to the land, taking over old buildings, producing their own food, making furniture and setting up book shops as co-ops. I hadn’t even heard about co-ops until I went to Spain.”

After returning home Colvin discovered that things were very different in the UK. Despite British business the Rochdale Pioneers, founded in 1844, being widely considered the first successful co-operative enterprise and the UK currently having nearly 13 million members of co-operatives, Colvin was disappointed by what she found. “People’s perception is that the co-operative movement is just a supermarket and a bank – not the diverse and interesting sector it really is,” she says.

She believes that the sector is particularly failing to attract young people. “The movement has a vast amount of knowledge and resources on how to create a more equal and sustainable economy, but no idea how to communicate with young people – that’s what we do.”

Ed Mayo, secretary general for Co-operatives UK, the national body for co-ops, agrees: “The co-operative movement needs to be more open and less insular, reaching younger generations, which we need to support in every way possible. The work that AltGen is doing promoting co-ops as a viable business model is to be applauded.”

A prize for youth-driven co-ops

To get its first co-ops off the ground, AltGen is working with Co-operatives UK and 10 partner universities across the country to run a competition called the Young Co-operators Prize (YCP). Launching on 1 November, five winners will receive a £2,000 grant, skills training and connection to a mentor co-op in their sector and region.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for a young person to set up a co-op,” says Colvin. “We want it to be that co-ops are seen as a viable career pathway and if you choose to take it, you know where to go to get start-up capital and who can help you with your business plan. It needs to be a supportive process and right now it’s really hard.”

But even with this support, Colvin says that getting a business up and running will be no easy task. As well as working on the YCP, AltGen currently generates income by running workshops in universities. But although the aim is to expand their services to carry out consultancy work for other co-ops, at present they can only employ three people part-time.

“It’s a social business so it’s not about making a huge profit, but we need to be able to live from doing this,” says Colvin. “It can’t support us fully yet and that’s the most likely way all these co-ops will happen. People will have to have other jobs for a while before it gets to that point.”

However, with the UK’s co-operative economy growing by 21% since 2008, compared to just 3.4% for the economy overall, Colvin sees the setting-up of the five YCP co-ops as just the beginning. “We want a network of young people that are creating this different economy, that are sharing ideas and maybe trading with each other,” she says.

It’s an exciting prospect, and one that perhaps wouldn’t be happening without the economic crash. “Without the crisis I don’t think I would have been pushed to start my own organisation in the same way – it was that experience of fighting and trying to get a job. It’s pushed people to look at different options out there, it’s made the space for us to create a better economy and for us to be leading the way and it should be my generation at the forefront of this,” says Colvin.

“AltGen is the alternative generation – we aren’t the generation without a future, we can create a different one.”

Entries for the Young Co-operators Prize are open from November 2014 – March 2015. For more details and to apply visit www.y-c-p.co.uk