With the jobs market increasingly bleak for graduates, AltGen are trying to convince people to start their own cooperatives rather than taking crappy jobs or unpaid internships.
If you have recently started the final year of your studies, or the looming £44,000 debt means you're fretting ahead of time, you may have noticed – or even been to – one of the many parades of cheap suits and clammy handshakes that is the careers fair. In fact, with many universities dropping any pretence of academia and existing as sausage factories for the knowledge economy, you'd have to have buried your head deep in the sand to have avoided talking about what happens after uni – work, a career, or the lack thereof.
I went to a careers fair hosted jointly by Sussex and Brighton Universities last Wednesday. To put a twist on things, I went along with an organisation called AltGen ("Alternative Generation"). While it sounds like a failed X Factor band, AltGen was in fact started by a bunch of disillusioned graduates aiming to empower young people to set up workers' co-operatives – businesses owned and run by their workers – as a solution to youth unemployment and an alternative to the current graduate job market. Incorporated as a workers' co-op itself this May, AltGen have been going to careers fairs across the UK telling students they don't have to accept a crappy job working for a boss they don't like for too little money. By clubbing together with mates and working for each other, they argue, you can have a whole bakery, rather than a little slice of swiss roll.
The general outlook to which they're posing this alternative is rather bleak. Despite a slight drop in graduate unemployment – from 8.5 percent among 2012 graduates, to 7.3 percent among the 2013 cohort – things are still aren't great. A recent report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimated that a mere 27 percent of the students paying £9000-a-year will actually manage to pay off their entire debt. There is an average of 39 applicants for every graduate job, with at least 13 percent ending up settling for non-graduate jobs such as spending Friday night on the wrong side of the bar. 37 percent of people on zero-hours contracts are aged between 16 and 24, and for the last few years we have actually been competing with each other to work for free – racing to get scarce unpaid internships seems pretty normal now but is actually a bit of a first in human history.
On arrival, we were told AltGen had been allocated a stand in the "not-for-profit" section of the careers fair, ironically located in the BMW Lounge, inside Brighton & Hove Football Club's American Express Stadium.
While AltGen is not-for-profit in practice, what it really wants is to encourage young entrepreneurial hopefuls to start co-operative businesses that share profits among their workers. That's instead of trying to float their tech start-ups on the stock market and getting a load of depressed people they just graduated with, or people in China, to do their work for peanuts. This, they argue, is not only a necessary shift in a UK economy that has seen real wages consistently falling under the coalition government. It is also better than competing with your mates for an unpaid internship at Poundland.
"It is a complete waste of energy fighting each other for unpaid internships. This hit me last year while waiting for an interview for an unpaid internship that 150 other graduates had applied for," Rhiannon Colvin, one of AltGen's founders. "It's not our fault that the economy isn't set up to put our generation's skills and talents to positive use. But I think that it's going to have to be us that changes it. We believe workers' co-ops are a model which allow us to combine forces to change this and make the economy work for us."
AltGen have charged themselves with the role of bringing the idea of co-ops to young people. As well going to careers fairs across the country, they run workshops in universities explaining how co-operatives work, and have just launched the Young Co-operator's Prize – five £2,000 start-up grants for 18-29 year olds with a co-operative business idea.
Before students began flooding into the careers fair, there were speeches from bigwigs at Sussex and Brighton welcoming the room of corporate suits over hot drinks and dry pastries. It was a warm welcome – and so it should have been, with multinationals paying £300 for a stand, a bargain compared to the £500 they pay at Oxbridge and the University of London, according to the head of the careers service at the University of Brighton.
Professor Chris Pole, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Brighton, said this was one of the most important services his university provided their "consumers". The Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Sussex, Professor Michael Davies, explained that students were now coming to careers fairs as early as first year, unlike when he went to university, where "getting a job at the end of it was probably the last thing on my mind". Oh the good old days! Unsurprisingly, no mention was made of the primary cause of this new breed of proactive students, ie. the regime of astronomical student debt of which Vice-Chancellors such as these are the willing administrators and beneficiaries.
Old stereotypes about students being lazy don't really apply any more, because people just don't have the luxury of slacking these days. Come 11AM, students were turning up in droves and queuing outside in the bitter wind and resembling those famous "Labour Isn't Working" posters that Thatcher used in the 1970s.
These people were exemplars of the "squeezed middle". Most of the students I spoke to were unsure of what they wanted to do, and almost all of them felt they had a tougher deal than their parents. The phrase "first world problems" came to mind – except rather than people pretending to complain about pesto and thinking they're funny, these were people who were relatively privileged but had legitimate cause for grievance.
As you might imagine, the vibe of the "not-for-profit" section in the BMW Lounge – where AltGen were sat – was somewhat different from the Entrepreneurship, Finance and IT section in the Bupa Lounge, filled with shady consultancy firms and the odd arms manufacturer (Thales, who left after a student "die-in" protest in front of their stand). In this wider context, AltGen were clearly a welcome relief for students – and not only to the kind of people who look like they occupy lecture theatres just for fun, such as Sammarah, who told me about her career plan: "I want to destroy capitalism".
Students studying degrees in childcare lit up on hearing of a new co-operatively run nursery in Lambeth, South London. Others were more enthused by the idea of the £2000 start-up grants. Still others were baffled or sceptical about their chances of creating a viable workers' co-op.
This didn't worry Constance Laisné, AltGen's other founder – she was convinced that horrible, horrible real life will bring people round to the idea. "I think a lot of students believe 'it'll be different for me'. But a couple of years into the bitter reality of being a graduate might push them into thinking about the alternatives. And not just for themselves, but for our whole generation."
Some see AltGen as naively optimistic, others find their practical emphasis on changing work timely and pragmatic. In any case, there is a buzz about them. An excitable crowd of 100 attended their launch in Bethnal Green in July. Last month they got flown over to Montréal to speak at the International Summit of Co-operatives. Whatever way you look at it, AltGen are undoubtedly tapping into some kind of global recession zeitgeist.