Post-war vs. Post-Occupy: Speaking Across the Generations of Canada’s Co-op Movement

Post-war vs. Post-Occupy: Speaking Across the Generations of Canada’s Co-op Movement

Philip Glennie – Director of Communications, MOSS Digital

Introduction

Since 2010, Canada has seen a surge in media reports about how the “millennial” generation[1] is changing the makeup of North America’s workforce and corporate culture. Yet fewer stories address how this new generation is specifically affecting the co-operative movement. This is a topic of some urgency, because the young people who make up this generation represent the future of co-operatives, and understanding their unique needs and aspirations is essential to building a more democratic and sustainable future for all.

In short, millennials are drawn to the co-op movement for different reasons than those who galvanized it in the first half of the 20th century. This brief article will attempt to outline some of these differences in hopes of fostering a better understanding of where co-ops have been and where they might go in the future. With that in mind, here is a breakdown of some of the major issues that the co-op movement must address if it wishes to understand the worldviews of both its oldest and youngest supporters.

  1. Real-World Experience/University Education

It’s a moot point that the farmers, fishermen, and social activists who founded Canada’s first co-ops and credit unions had direct experience of economic hardship and strong feelings of solidarity with the working class. While some of the movement’s first proponents (like Moses Coady or Jimmy Tompkins of the Antigonish Movement) were educated at the highest of levels, the movement clearly grew out of the difficult working conditions and predatory marketplaces faced by working-class Canadians. These people formed co-operatives to fight back against the creditors and capital owners who controlled their communities.  Their needs and aspirations were more locally based than those of current generations, and their ability to form co-operatives was steeped in a hands-on relationship with both land and sea. The millennials, on the other hand, have become famous (or infamous) for their lack of hands-on experience and their unprecedented capacity for critical/conceptual thinking.

It has become an established point that in terms of formal schooling, the millennials are the most educated generation in Canada’s history. For this same reason, they are often criticized for lacking direct, real-world experience. But perhaps the most important fact about this generation is that despite its unprecedented level of education, it will be the first cohort in living memory to be financially worse off than its parents’ generation. This economic downturn for the millennials was part of what made them the driving force behind the Occupy Movement of 2011–12, when millions of people around the world camped out in urban spaces to protest capitalism’s erosion of democracy both at home and abroad. Compared to the pioneers of Canada’s co-op movement, these young people were protesting the injustices of capitalism on a much more global scale. Their concern for democracy grew out of philosophical conviction just as much as (or even more than) financial need. Indeed, these impulses align strongly with the traditional values of the co-op movement; but they also give these young people a worldview that is distinct in some ways from that of older generations of co-op supporters.

In short, millennials with a post-Occupy mindset are working to fight the ways that global capitalism erodes democracy both in the workplace and in the marketplace. They see their struggle as one against global flows of capital and not just against the owner of a local grain elevator. To be fair, the co-op movement as a whole has successfully embraced the need to think globally in recent decades. Yet there remain differences in the perspectives that different generations bring to this effort. For example, millennials might not have the real-world experience and skills that the co-op movement’s founders did, but their unprecedented capacity for critical thinking and self-expression makes them ideal participants in any democratically run organization. One of the most chronic problems faced by Canada’s co-operatives is the problem of keeping members educated and engaged on the co-op’s governance, and it is difficult to think of any generation that is better equipped for this challenge than the millennials.

  1. Community/Democracy

As the previous section suggested, there can be important distinctions in the approaches that people with post-war and post-Occupy mindsets bring to the co-op movement. One could simplify the difference by saying that the earlier generation emphasizes community inclusion while the post-Occupy generation emphasizes the right to individual freedom and democratic self-expression. Millennials want a seat at the table when it comes to determining the practices of their workplace and their marketplace, ensuring that their unique voices can be heard. To a pre-1970s mindset, this self-interested approach to democratic empowerment might smack of the dreaded “Me” generation and the erosion of community-based values that came in its wake. Yet one could argue that this self-interested approach to democratic participation is now so entrenched that co-ops must consider whether working with it is more productive than trying to change it.

The post-Occupy mindset seeks one thing above all else, which is the fostering of democracy in nearly every aspect of economic life. Yes, a slower economy means that millennials have the financial incentive to create work for themselves. But the rise of the Internet, social media, and this generation’s high level of education also make millennials more likely to reject a non-democratic workplace for philosophical reasons as much as financial ones. As we saw before, this urge to escape corporate hierarchies overlaps very well with the principles of the co-op movement; but it also highlights the need to understand the differing contexts that the movement’s oldest and youngest participants bring to the table.

  1. Co-op/Democratic Enterprise

Addressing the generational differences in the co-op movement can sometimes bring us into uncomfortable territory. For example, one might ask whether the term “co-op” still has the power to attract the greatest number of young people to the movement. Some groups in the US have already begun referring to worker co-operatives as WSDEs or Worker Self-Directed Enterprises in an effort to shake off the clunky and outdated connotations of the word “co-op.” To be fair, this new term seems even more cumbersome than the old one, yet it raises the question of whether today’s co-ops would do better to abandon the term “co-op” altogether and replace it with something more meaningful to the post-Occupy generation, such as “worker-owned enterprise,” “worker-controlled business,” or “democratically-managed enterprise.” This is not to say that the movement must abandon its history. But co-op executives and grassroots members alike need to think more carefully about when the term “co-op” does the movement more harm than good.

Anecdotal experience suggests that many North Americans think solely of co-operative grocery stores, credit unions, or farmer’s co-ops when they hear the word “co-op.” The word certainly does not bring up thoughts of a large corporation like Mondragon or the extremely efficient co-operative business network one finds in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.  Rather, it makes young people think of the food store their family never visited because they were not members (i.e. barriers to entry), or it generally represents something old and unappealing compared to the brands of sleek, modern corporations like Apple. This decline in the positive associations of “co-op” is without doubt the effect of decades of corporate ideology pushing people away from the movement as a whole; yet its effects remain very real and they force us to ask, once again, whether the word “co-op” is salvageable when it comes to attracting young people to the movement.

Conclusion

Regardless of how we try to speak across the generations of the co-op movement, what remains clear is that generational differences exist and that the millennials are an ideal group to create a massive surge in co-op development and promotion. Yet mobilizing them may require a fundamental rethinking of the movement that will require us to ensure that representatives from the millennial generation have a greater voice in co-ops, especially on the executive level. Simply put, the different generations that make up the co-op movement have different aspirations. And yes, we should work to bring these aspirations together. But the movement as a whole is bound to miss out on a huge opportunity if it fails to develop a detailed understanding of the post-Occupy mindset and to consider how this mindset differs from – and sometimes even conflicts with – that which built the movement in the early 20th century. Every time members of different generations get together to talk about the co-op movement or even the workings of an individual co-op, it is crucial that they take time to discuss the different philosophical perspectives they bring to the table. All generations have much to learn from one another, and by acknowledging our differing perspectives, we can grow our ranks and build a co-op movement that can thrive in the 21st century.

[1] A generation that refers broadly to people born between the early 80s and late 90s.