Too much, too young?

The Prime Minister announced plans this month to extend parental warnings to cover music videos – not something that on its own will turn the tide on everyday sexism and violence, but very welcome all the same.

It also marks another suggestion from the 2009 book, Consumer Kids, by Agnes Nairn and I to make it into the real world.

Companies now spend tens of millions of pounds marketing to children. The advertising plays on young people’s vulnerabilities and sell them back to them – you will fit in, you will be beautiful, you will be happy … If you just buy this.

Is this true?

Well, beyond any initial buzz, obviously not. But there is also something of a hidden cost that comes with this tide of marketing.

The truth is that the more children are exposed to commercialism, the more materialistic they are encouraged to become. Materialism means that your self-esteem starts to rely more from what you own rather than who you are. This holds for a variety of age groups.

If anything has been learned about the nature of happiness, from the days of the Greek philosophers through to the work of positive psychologists and neuro-scientists today, it is that young people need inner strength and understanding to flourish – not materialism. Children need warm bonds of friendship with their peers – not competitive consumption. They need strong relationships with their parents – not the alienation that can be encouraged by marketing. They need to be occupied in projects which work for the common good of a community.

In an increasingly commercial world, the odds can be stacked against achieving this.

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Fine isn’t enough and we’re still not equal – the Co-operative Women’s Challenge

Mary, bright, tall and 14, from North London tells a story about her walk back from school one afternoon.

“A few days ago, a friend and I were walking down the road, chatting away, when a man more than twice our age leaned impertinently out of his car window and wolf whistled at us. Although this is in no way uncommon, the two of us were outraged. We then had a lengthy discussion about the impertinence, the rudeness and the disrespect of so many men. So when I asked my friend the question, ‘Are you a feminist?’ I was sure I knew the answer. But to my utter astonishment, she replied, ‘No, I think women’s situation nowadays is fine’… Ask girls and women what they associate with ‘feminism’ and they will say: hairy legs, hatred of men, dungarees and not a thought to their appearance. Personally, I call myself a feminist but I have hair free legs, I hold a great interest in fashion, I certainly don’t hate men (well, not all…) and I would never be seen dead in a pair of dungarees! So does that mean I can’t be a feminist? Of course not! Why can’t females realize that fine isn’t enough and we are still not equal.”

Mary submitted this for an essay competition for The Times, under the title of ‘Why aren’t all girls feminists?’. The winner would be selected, with school friends, to edit Section 2 (T2) of The Times. To her amazement, and nervous surprise, she won and found herself on a two-day work experience trip as the editor of T2. With 11 friends from her class, this was a school trip to the citadels of fame and power.

“I was very excited” she said, “it seemed so amazing to be having my writing published in a national paper. It was a bit in this really industrial area, and the entrance was a bit fancy, but inside it was just like any big office, with paper everywhere. We decided all the content. the only things that we were made to change was the length of some pieces, and one boy was told by the school to change his piece on gang culture because it made the school look bad or something. [He had to] cut large sections.”

Mary and another girl wrote the page on fashion – something she is passionate about. The experience of seeing her words laid out on the page was wonderful and it led her to express her views on the involvement of young people in the world around them:

“I really do think young people should have more of a voice. But more importantly, I think they should want a voice. I have loads of friends who don’t give a damn about politics, because they think it doesn’t affect them, or feminism, because they don’t think its an issue, but young people, on the whole, don’t really think about these things enough to realize that they are an issue, or that they effect them in many ways. Lots and lots of things concern me, but the three that concern me most would probably be sexism, especially in religion and middle eastern countries, global warming, and poverty and the completely unfair distribution of wealth. I think as an individual, I can make small differences, that do matter, but I don’t think I can make big changes on my own.”

Even if many young people are doubtful about their influence on a big world stage (only one in eight are interested in politics) and only one in three feel influential in the local area, they do want a say. Nine out of ten children believe they can influence the decisions that affect their family and six out of ten think they can influence decisions that affect their school.

The Co-operative Women’s Challenge is an agenda across the co-operative sector to push for gender equality within coops, on elected positions, in senior staff roles, but also to campaign for women’s rights in the wider world. The history of women’s activism in the co-operative sector is long and proud, particularly through the campaigning and mobilisation of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, and we have many inspiring co-operative business leaders, men and women, committed to this campaign.

But there is still more to do. It will be young people, like Mary, that question the world around them that can inspire it to change.

First for fifty years – a new law and a new sense of purpose for co-operatives

We have the first new consolidated Co-operatives Act in the UK for nearly fifty years. With our technical input, support from across the political spectrum and preparatory work by the Law Commission, the Coalition Government has made UK a better place to start and grow co-operatives.

The landmark Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act (2014) which comes into force today brings together long dated overly complex legislation into one unified statute. It also wraps up a programme of legislative reform delivered by the Coalition:

  • cutting quite a bit of red tape,
  • closing down some unhelpful loopholes where coops were overlooked in relation to business benefits and
  • confirming some new gains, such as a three-fold increase in the investment limit in co-operatives.

This shows what can be achieved when broad political support is backed up by firm government action. One new co-operative starts every working day of the week and the turnover of the sector has outpaced the UK economy in recent years.

There’s still more to be done though and we have a clear agenda for what the government can still do to harness the co-operative momentum.

Of course, there is focus and learning too, coming out of what went wrong at The Co-operative Group when it lost sight of what members wanted, with structures that didn’t advance their interests. Co-operatives are businesses that are owned by and run for its members and are at their best when that co-operative difference runs through it like a stick of rock.

In that spirit, co-operatives across the UK came together recently at a congress in Birmingham, to develop an Action Plan for the co-operative sector.

We are moving now, from what has felt like a year of defence to what can now be a decade of action.

Action Plan