As work becomes less secure and more poorly paid for many, Jess Scully investigates a paradigm-shifting alternative: the co-op model.

Ever get the feeling that, however many hours you work or projects you pick up, however hard you work, you just can’t get ahead? 

It’s not just you: Australia has had some of the slowest wage growth in the world over the past decade, and there are more of us in the “precariat” with uncertain incomes, no job security and with benefits like sick pay or maternity leave a distant, rose-coloured fantasy, whether we’re delivering food in the gig economy, creative sector freelancers or working as sessional academics. 

In 1960, Australian workers took home roughly 68 percent of total output created, known as workers’ share of wealth: by 2017, it was down to 52 percent. Profits trickle up and inequality grows. Add to that the effects of technology and automation, globalisation and offshoring, shrinking labour rights and growing monopolies that set prices and drive down conditions, and it’s a gloomy picture for all of us who rely on income rather than wealth to live.   

Is this what the future of work will look like: insecure and poorly paid, at the mercy of the market? 

There is an alternative: what if we were the bosses? What if we created for-profit businesses with ethics built-in from day one, designed to give back to everyone who contributes, not just to owners or shareholders? 

There’s a global resurgence in worker-owned businesses, in which the employees run businesses and share profits between themselves, and co-operatives, in which members contribute resources, labour or products to get the benefits of scale. Co-ops are not new ideas, and you might be surprised how common they are – eight out of ten Australians are members of a co-operative or mutual society, from NRMA to member-owned superannuation – but they are having a renaissance as a tool to tackle the 21st Century inequalities in the world of work. 

From a nightclub and arts space in Rosario, Argentina, to a café in Preston, UK, to community renewable energy projects (Energiewende) in towns across Germany, and seniors care in Redfern, Australia, the co-op model is reshaping work all over the world. Having workers or producers directing the priorities of for-profit business can build security and fairness back into work, reduce costs and improve service for customers, transition the grid away from fossil fuels, keep profits in local communities, and reclaim space for creative production.

In the book I'm currently writing, Next Century Heroes, I’m talking to people who are financing, organising and championing these new models for the future of work, and I’m finding that there’s more that we could do as creatives, communicators, educators and policy makers to prepare the path for this change. What skills and qualities do we need to (all) be empathetic managers? How do we (all) learn to collaborate and run organisations in flatter hierarchies? How do we work with our peers to determine areas of responsibility and create systems for reaching consensus? Do we need a Masters of Business Collaboration, undergraduate and TAFE courses in self-organising and conflict resolution, or for the mindsets of ethical, co-operative business to be taught in vocational courses or in high schools? 

Co-ops and worker-owned businesses are not the only solution to the monumental challenges we face, but they’re a valuable model for what work could be. As business becomes more concentrated and monopolistic (think of the market-share hungry Amazon or Alphabet), they are a distributed, decentralised alternative. As the world becomes one globalised supply chain, they are inherently local. As automation accelerates, they are defiantly human and material. As financialisation abstracts and disconnects investment from return, they are focused on reinvesting profits into operations, not skimming them off for shareholders. These factors may seem far from our day to day lives, but they’re the structures that underlie the radical shifts we’re all experiencing in our working lives, and which will shape the working lives of future generations. Our responsibility to them, and to ourselves, is to foster the alternatives and build the skills we need to redesign work, to work for more of us.

Jess Scully

Jess Scully is a curator, cultural strategist and creative industries advocate who is passionate about cities and city-making. From 2009 to 2017 Jess was the founding director of Vivid Ideas, Australia's largest creative industries event, and has curated creative sector events including Junket, TEDxSydney and Curating Participation. Jess was a founding contributor to the Sydney Culture Network, launched in late 2017. 

In 2016 Jess was elected as a Councillor for the City of Sydney, where she is the co-chair of the Nightlife and Creative Sector Advisory Panel and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Panel, chair of the Curatorial Advisory Panel, deputy chair of the Cultural and Community Committee, and member of the Audit Risk and Compliance Committee. 

Jess is an advocate for the knowledge economy, creative and cultural sector, and encouraging participation in politics, creativity and enlivening our public realm. As a public art curator, her projects included Green Square Library and Plaza. She has served as an arts policy advisor to the NSW Minister for the Arts, directed the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards and the Creative Cities East Asia project, and began her career as editor of a number of creative industries publications including Yen, Empty and Hotpress.

Jess Scully’s book, Next Century Heroes, will be published by Pantera Press in 2020. 

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