11/01/2012 10:29 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Our Generation Has a Choice

I think of myself as anything but typical, but it turns out that where jobs (nevermind a career) are concerned, I am part of the norm. My CV is a patchwork of short-term contracts -- and I consider myself lucky, as I am one of those who have found consistent, albeit non-linear employment. Faced with a global unemployment crisis that is disproportionately affecting youth, graduates and first-time jobseekers are finding increasingly creative ways to build careers by creating workplaces that answer local demands and serve communities, as well as providing a decent living. In fact, by pooling resources and capital together in a cooperative fashion, young people are building thriving enterprises.

This point was brought forth on a number of occasions during the 2012 International Summit of Cooperatives, an international gathering dubbed by Desjardins CEO Monique Leroux "the Davos of the co-operative movement," which attracted 2,800 of the cooperative movement's thinkers, business leaders and activists.

Jürgen Shwettmann declared youth employment the ILO's top priority during the first Future Cooperative Leaders breakfast panel. In June, the ILO met and produced a call for action for youth employment, with cooperatives framed as a central part of the solution. As the ILO Schwettmann noted, cooperatives can be important contributors to the fight against youth unemployment. Cooperatives bridge the informal and formal, rural and urban and local and global economies.

Marie-Paule Robichaud, Research and Development Officer at Quebec's Cooperative and Mutuals Council (CQCM), highlighted 10 business sectors in which young people are making innovative use of the cooperative model [in Quebec]: tourism, recreational tourism, culture, artistic production, restaurants and bars, new media and journalism, environmental management, and advisory services. Young people are updating a model often associated with past generations, reinventing it to answer 21st century needs and thrive in bustling, competitive markets. They are conscious that the co-operative model allows them to ally personal and collective gain, an attractive proposition for a generation that graduated into the destruction caused by the financial crisis.

This sentiment is embodied by Jessica Provencher, Cooperative Life and Sustainable Development Manager at a micro-brewery in Quebec city. She says: "going to work isn't so much about doing a job as it is about becoming someone." In a co-operative, each worker has "offered themselves a job by creating and contributing to the cooperative," and each also has a stake in its survival and growth, making them particularly engaged and committed to making the cooperative work.

Jessica's testimony was echoed by the nearly 200 young coop employees and elected directors, between the ages of 20 and 35 who were gathered in Quebec to network amongst peers, meet cooperative mentors and gain insight into the depth and scope of the global movement of which they are part. Testimonies varied from young informal sector workers in Nigeria coming together to create cooperatives which would give their work legitimacy to web developers in Chile collaborating with other tech industry workers to provide complete services to customers. Delegates from 20 countries including South Africa, France, Belgium, the United States, Argentina and Canada shared a common experience of having seen cooperatives help people achieve a decent livelihood or create gainful employment for themselves.

The group impressed upon the Summit's delegates that we are a generation willing to commit and invest in businesses in which we find meaning and purpose. Much like our predecessors in the cooperative movement, we are drawn together to find collective, sustainable and thriving solutions when faced with a common need.

In the words of Laure Waridel, co-founder of Equiterre, our generation has a choice. Everything is possible when we come together and get organized. Beginning a business may be a small part of a much larger dream to build a better world, but it is a necessary step and the beginning of a transformation which will see people build stable lives for themselves and their loved ones, and businesses which cater to local communities' needs rather than shareholder greed.