Our UK Project Manager Daniel Cox shares his thoughts and reflections following a trip to the Stir to Action Festival earlier this summer, including how the co-operative movement can engage more young people.

How do we get young people to engage with the co-operative movement? Why should they? How can they? Just a few of the many questions currently being tackled by those such as myself, desperate to further diversify and breathe new life into the co-operative movement.

Recent research by Deloitte (2020) highlighted that young people are more likely to engage with businesses that share values similar to their own and drive positive change in their communities, making co-operatives a perfect match. Could now be the perfect time to re-engage young people in the movement?

This summer I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the ‘Playground for the New Economy Festival’ hosted by Stir to Action at the beautiful Selgars Mill in Devon. With inspirational speakers, radical thinkers and actual – in person! -  human interaction on offer I was there in a flash, and excited to be part of a panel discussing the relaunch of the Young Co-operators Network.

What is the Youth Co-operative Network?

The Young Co-operators Network (YCN), supported by Solid Fund, is currently being given a new lease of life by a spirited group of volunteers from within the movement and has young people and co-creation at its heart. The YCN is:

  • An independent, peer-to-peer network
  • Free to join to anyone under 30 or of any age in a newly established coop
  • Focused on supporting young co-operators through outreach, friendship, collaboration and knowledge sharing,

Further details, including how to become a member, are available here.

What were the highlights of the Stir to Action Festival?

The festival itself was a perfect opportunity to connect with a wide variety of co-operators from across the UK and around the globe, with inspirational and provocative conversations around the movement and the state of the world. I don’t have space here to name check all the amazing speakers and co-operatives I got to see at the festival but from inspirational sessions on food and housing co-ops, to exploring language, identity and community, or speaking truth to power, there were two distinct themes that jumped out at me pertaining to youth engagement: language and incentive.

The importance of language and incentive

Rewinding to the Rochdale Pioneers is a great way to view this language and incentive in action. Back then, there was no point using overly complex language to get the word out, particularly when the majority of their target audience couldn't read or write. With conditions the way they were back then, there were few better incentives than the need to eat and have a say in your future.

Fast forward to today, and although crisis is still rife and the need for intervention remains, there is little in the way of effective language or incentive for younger generations to join us in the movement.

Our YCN panel put the call out for help on this, as we don’t have all the answers, but you do! The beauty of language is that it is constantly shifting and evolving, and I feel the movement needs to emulate this if it wants to speak to those already fluent in its newest forms.

I run a number of brilliant youth and community projects in my role as UK project manager at the Co-operative College, and I face the regular challenge of explaining what a co-operative is, or why the young people I am working with should care.

I can talk about decentralising power or alternative business models to my team, but the young people need more immediately digestible food for thought. ‘Co-ops have values at their core, not just money’ - ‘they value you as an individual’ - ‘They gives you and your fellow co-operators power and freedom’, and most importantly, ‘they need you’ are just some of the examples I use. The question is, what would you say?