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The Fading Future Of Italy’s Young

19 minute read

Growing up, Italian teenagers learn the tale of Giotto and the fly. As a young apprentice in 13th century Florence, the aspiring painter sketched a fly on the nose of a portrait his master-teacher Cimabue was finishing. So lifelike was the insect that when the elder painter returned to the studio, he repeatedly tried to swat it off the canvas. Realizing he’d been fooled by the bravura talent of his pupil, Cimabue told him: “You have surpassed your teacher.” Thus encouraged by his master, Giotto went on to revolutionize Western painting, and posterity regards him as the man who launched the Italian Renaissance.

Fast-forward to Italy 2006, and the image of the precocious apprentice has been replaced by a humbler figure: the underemployed 30-something despondent about the present, let alone the future. Today’s Italy is defined by stories like that of Vincenza Lasala. At 32, four years after graduating with honors in mechanical engineering, she is living with her parents in the same house where she grew up. She has sent more than 200 résumés to large corporations and small companies around the country, but all she has managed to secure are a handful of part-time stints, unpaid internships and training programs. From her home in the sleepy southern town of Avellino, near Naples, a frustrated Lasala speaks for much of Italy’s younger generation: “Without a job, my parents are basically still in charge of my life. After all my studying, I don’t see the fruits of my effort. Right now, I can’t even envision my future.”

Italy has long been the proverbial Old Country, a destination for culture-hungry travelers and a source of nostalgia for its millions of emigrants around the world. To its 58 million citizens, it is that rare land that still honors tradition and respects the wisdom of its elders. The average Italian life span is among the longest in the world, akin to the Swedes and Japanese, living proof that something remains fundamentally sweet about the place. You can taste it in the local customs and family recipes handed down through generations, or see it when a teen tucks away his cell phone to take grandma for a stroll, or relish it in the survival of the village café amid a world of Starbucks. But all the doting on the past is also stifling the present, and may portend a bitter future.

Italy is now on course to become quite literally the oldest of countries. Beset by economic and social stagnation that makes it among the most ossified slices of Old Europe, it is stuck with a stubbornly low birth-rate that means Italians are not even replacing themselves. In a more fundamental way, the nation has not figured out how to make use of the energy and ingenuity of its young. Faced with bleak job prospects and a lack of young leaders to look to, Italians in their 20s and 30s risk falling into a nationwide generational rut. Many are afflicted with a pervading sense of hopelessness and malaise that contrasts with the youth-driven vigor boosting states like Sweden or Slovenia.

A principal source of their despair is the scant prospect for change from the top. As the country heads to the polls on April 9-10 for the first national elections in five years, the old party machines cling to power, and the voters are left with a lukewarm popularity contest between old-timers: two-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, 69, vs. former European Commission President (and former Prime Minister) Romano Prodi, 66. This means that, regardless of who wins, the country’s youth will remain locked out of the power structures — not just of government but most of the institutions that define a nation’s way of life.

Though absent from the candidates’ slogans, Italy’s need to rejuvenate itself ought to be the nation’s No. 1 priority. Better educated and more connected with the outside world, young Italians are ready to step into full-fledged adulthood and reshape their country’s future. But far too few have had the chance. The young, of course, have to push for power, and some admit they don’t push hard enough. Still, even the most determined shoves are rarely able to nudge open the doors to Italy’s exclusive and aging ruling club. During the six-week election campaign, Time traveled the length of the peninsula talking to those under 40, to explore the troubled landscape of their lives, and search for the seeds of tomorrow’s Renaissance.

At the core of the dilemma lies Italy’s aging but long-lived population. For the past generation, the birthrate has remained at or near the bottom of world rankings, stuck last year at 1.3 children per woman (compared to 2.7 in the mid-1960s). That has fundamentally tilted the economy: in the past 10 years, the ratio of retired to working Italians has jumped from 23% to 28% — the second highest in the world — clipping productivity and jeopardizing the solvency of the pension system. Without an unexpected surge in births, that ratio is expected to double by 2040.

Italy is hardly the only industrialized nation to face a demographic time bomb. But elsewhere in Western Europe, the declining birthrate tends to be caused by eager young people striking out on their own who are too focused on satisfying immediate ambitions to take on the burden of rearing children. In Italy, says Francesco Billari, 35, a demographer at Milan’s Bocconi University, the empty cradles are the fruit of exactly the opposite phenomenon: an adolescence prolonged well into the 30s.

Nowadays, the average Italian man is 33 when his first child is born, making Italian men the oldest first-time fathers in Europe. There are plenty of reasons: drawn-out university studies, inadequate child care and, frankly, not enough young adults willing to grow up. “Italians take a long time to assume responsibilities,” Billari explains. “Everything,” from moving out of the parental home to marrying and having kids, “starts late.”

A peculiarly Italian part of the problem is the stay-at-home son, or mammone. More than 80% of men aged 18-30 still live with their parents, enjoying the coddling of doting mamas who take care of all the boring details of daily life, leaving the son free to spend his time and his income on pleasing himself. Who’d want to give that up before he had to? Nowadays, the typical young Italian mammone has even become a figure of ridicule.

But a new study by a pair of under-40 Italians who teach economics — Marco Manacorda at London School of Economics and Enrico Moretti at the University of California, Berkeley — points out the parents are as much to blame. After a 1992 reform of social security that raised the national retirement age to 64, parents continued to earn enough to keep their adult kids at home. The researchers found that a 10% increase in parental income resulted in approximately a 10% rise in the proportion of children living with their parents. Antonio Maceri, 27, for example, graduated last year with an architecture degree from Polytechnic University of Turin, and lives contentedly with his folks in the small town of Valdugia. “I’m happy here,” he said. Even when he lived on his own during college, Maceri says he was eager to spend weekends with mom and dad to see friends and get his laundry done. Now that he is working, free rent and dinner on the table enable him to focus on his career. Only once he has an architecture studio of his own, Maceri says, will he consider moving out. And settling down with a family of his own? “I don’t even think about it. That’s a ways down the road.”

The veneration of family and the desire of young people to live close to their parents runs deep in Italian culture. It’s why you find far fewer retirement homes there than in other Western countries. Caring for elderly parents is still considered a social duty; grandparents return the favor by watching over children after school; and on Sunday, gathering all the generations together for a leisurely family lunch remains a regular nationwide ritual. But there is also a dark side for up-and-comers in a society that one young Rome activist calls “neo-feudalistic.” Mario Andinolfi, 34, who hosts a radio talk show and bangs out a popular blog on the problems of his generation, warns that Italy’s tightly knit social structure is simply not designed for an ever-more-competitive world. “The mentality in this country is too familial,” he says. “We keep Grandpa at home, but that means whoever takes care of him can’t find a real job. You are always expected to be the good son of the family, where risk is not allowed. Nor is hoping for something better than your father.”

But Andinolfi sees one potential catalyst for revolutionary change new to his contemporaries: the Internet, which he calls “this generation’s 1968.” He says that more and more young people are tapping into blogs like his to share information that can change attitudes and define new strategies. Even though he concedes the Web has not yet been transformed from a talking shop into a political instrument, he’s optimistic it will be. “We haven’t figured out how to turn the discussion into action,” he says. “But when we do, we will be able to mobilize like you can’t imagine.”

For now, though, Italy’s leadership lies in the hands of politicians steeped in the old ways. And they are plainly determined not to let go. In the walkup to the April election, Berlusconi and his center-right coalition rammed a new electoral law through Parliament that takes a big step back from reforms in the 1990s that gave voters more say in choosing their individual representatives. Now party leaders again decide the list of candidates behind closed doors. Among the center-left opposition, there was much back patting for a so-called “primary” last October that anointed Prodi as the candidate. But he was in effect preordained for the top slot by the absence of any realistic rivals — much less young ones.

What voters fear is that whichever coalition wins, it will, as always in Italy’s fractured political system, have to spend much of its energy on keeping the alliance from disintegrating. That’s not exactly a recipe for bold renewal in a country facing an urgent need to revitalize the economy, reform the pension system, and add flexibility to the labor market without tossing away basic job security for the coming generation of workers. Meanwhile, both coalitions talk up their solution to the demographic emergency: competing onetime cash bonuses for families with newborns, instead of the subsidized child care that would do far more to encourage working mothers to have more babies.

Mariangela Potenza, 24, who left her home in the southern town of Bernalda in Basilicata, on the heel of the peninsular boot, to pursue a degree in high-tech art restoration at the University of Florence, is uninspired by any of the entrenched political élite. “It’s the same faces saying the same things,” she says. “There’s nothing that transmits innovation or novelty to the voters, nothing that stimulates me as a young person.” Viviana Beccalossi, 34, Vice President of the northern region of Lombardy, agrees. “I respect my white-haired colleagues, but you have to find a mechanism for mixing in the new generation,” she says. “It’s fine if there’s a minimum age for the Senate (40), but there should be a maximum age too.” It’s not just the age of the two candidates for Prime Minister that under-40s find dismaying: now both coalitions are talking about nominating the popular President of the Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, as the first Italian head of state to serve a second seven-year term. And he’s 85.

A few comparatively youthful politicians have managed to penetrate the system. Enrico Letta was the youngest Cabinet member in Italian history when a center-left coalition made him Minister for Community Policies at 32. But at 39, Letta bemoans how few of his peers have entered the ruling classes: “At 40 you’re still considered a kid.” Letta says the current élite practices what he calls “co-optation” to keep challengers at bay. When talented youngsters emerge, the old leaders “co-opt” them into the fold with the perks of power, but no real influence to upset the status quo. “Co-optation assures that there is no competition,” he says. Letta looks back with envy at the 1968 generation, which had demographics on its side. “Then the country was young, so the political orientation and interests were focused on the young,” he says. “But today, the ’68 generation is still in complete control.”

Guia Soncini, 33, a columnist for the women’s magazine supplement of Corriere della Sera and for Il Foglio, is less forgiving than Letta. She says an unspoken complicity across the generations is the key to understanding Italy. “By definition, power is not something I can give to you,” she says. “The 30-year-olds must seize power — and why don’t they? Because they’re comfortable with how things are. In America, you move out of the house even if you don’t have a full-time job. In Italy, you say you won’t leave until you’re earning thousands a month.” Soncini pauses over her pasta all’amatriciana, recalling compliments on her success from veteran colleagues: “‘Look at you. You’re so young,’ they tell me. Oh please! The people who’ve really made a mark on history were already dead at my age!”

Developing the potential of a Giotto requires masters with the wisdom and magnanimity of Cimabue. Even if Italy’s under-40s were to push harder for responsible roles, Italy’s old guard — in virtually every field, from academia to entertainment — shows few signs of ceding space to them. Some tactics for hoarding power are part of unwritten custom, such as the infamous raccomandazione, a system of recommending candidates that in other cultures could be a good-faith job reference, but in Italy often reflects political patronage and outright nepotism. And other structures that block renewal are fixed by law: closed professional societies for everyone from notaries and architects to journalists and taxi drivers help ensure that co-optation and complicity are the only way to get in. Last year Soncini, one of Italy’s sharpest popular-culture writers, failed her required exam to enter a journalists’ guild. That means a reporter who jets off to interview the likes of Madonna and Jack Nicholson is not officially a journalist in Italy, and has no right to basic union benefits. Soncini waves away campaign promises by the center-left to abolish the closed shops. “They’ll never do it,” she says. “They’re the privileges of the caste, and those who have managed to get inside will do whatever it takes to defend their privileges.”

Restrictive social and professional structures manifest the Italian tendency toward a weak state, says Giuliano Milani, a medieval historian at Rome’s La Sapienza University. Notaries established such societies in 12th century city-states, and attorneys followed suit two centuries later, as a way to guarantee people services that the government could not provide. But what had a logic in the past is an anachronism today. “Everyone has as their point of reference their own boss, not the client,” says Milani. “It is a system based on admission, which prizes obedience over individualism. So you end up being paid for what you are, not for what you do.”

Perhaps surprisingly, nepotism and favoritism run rampant in academia. Universities ought to be open to new faces and new ideas. Yet while the system of assigning teaching jobs is based on apparently open and competitive public exams, in practice, positions are divvied up by ranking professors to favor their own chosen protégés. The result is the very opposite of competition, a system where old university barons wield power over up-and-coming scholars. Italy has the world’s highest percentage of professors over 60 (43%), while the average age of a university postdoctoral researcher is 40. As a result, much of the young talent heads abroad to more receptive societies, like the U.S. and Britain, depriving Italy of the new minds it needs for innovation: a recent Eurispes survey found that more than half of all university graduates would like to work elsewhere. After earning a Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University, Parma native Andrea Coscelli returned to Europe — but not to Italy. Now a London-based antitrust consultant, he wouldn’t mind returning to the Italian lifestyle and weather. But back home, advancement in his field is based on politics, he says, not competence: “We’re missing basic meritocracy and generational turnover.”

These structural failings help explain the current dismal economy. Last month, Italy reported zero growth, below the euro zone’s lackluster average of 1.3%. The country’s persistent public debt above 100% of gdp ranks third among the industrialized nations, and places a heavy burden on future generations. The underdeveloped south — eight regions that encompass 35% of the population — continues to suffer by almost every index. Unemployment is at the root of its troubles: nearly 50% of those under 35 do not have work.

Potenza, the art-restoration student in Florence, says that when she goes home to Basilicata things appear to be getting worse. “Whatever problems exist elsewhere are three times as bad in the south,” she says, noting her father was laid off recently from his job in a chemical factory. “The rest of the country tries to forget what’s happening there.” Rather than tackling the difficult issues underpinning the north-south divide, political leaders, including Berlusconi, point instead to Italians’ well-honed ability to find hidden sources of income. Some estimates suggest that more than 20% of the nation’s income is earned off the books. While there may be more disposable cash in the country than official indicators say, a gray economy is no formula for global competitiveness. Neither end of the political spectrum, Coscelli concludes, has proposed the sacrifices necessary for a real solution. “There’s no recipe to develop a competitive economy,” he says, “just recipes to manage the decline.”

Any turnaround will have to get a kick start from the many family-run businesses that still form the bedrock of the economy. Economists hope that the next generation leading the great industrial families has more exposure to international business practices, and understands what it will take to compete in the future. But even these family firms will need to bring in fresh faces for long-term success. One that has done so is Gucci, the luxury-goods maker that first revived its fading fortunes in the 1990s by hiring American designer Tom Ford. Now an Italian, Frida Giannini, 33, has taken over as creative chief. The Rome native says Italy must find new ways to do what it has always done best: brilliant design allied to fine workmanship. “You grow up in a place like Rome, every other meter there is a work of art, some kind of treasure. It’s not the same to see it in a postcard,” she says. “It’s in our dna.” But that native aesthetic sense needs an extra dose of ingenuity to add value in today’s competitive environment. “Quality must be wedded to creativity,” Giannini says. “If you want to give luster to whatever you produce, you must focus your resources on the young. You have to always be in search of what’s new, what’s next.”

And Italy, like the rest of Old Europe, must figure out how to harness the economic energy from rising numbers of immigrants. Not only do the foreign-born provide raw manpower to replace the dwindling native population, they are the most active entrepreneurs. In 2005, Italy boasted a 15.4% rise in new businesses launched by immigrants, topping off a 137% jump over the past five years. “Compared to other parts of Europe, immigration is still young here,” says Osama al Saghir, 22, president of the Young Muslim Association of Italy. “Italians need to open their eyes and not see us as a threat, but as a resource.” Without immigrant workers paying taxes, he rightly notes, “pensions won’t get paid.”

If the under-40 generation really wants to rejuvenate Italy, it will have to stop waiting for permission from the old guard and push ahead itself. Matteo Renzi shocked everyone, including himself, when he won election as President of the province of Florence at the age of 29. Two years later, though, he says the Berlusconi-Prodi rematch — the pair faced off in 1996, when Prodi won — is a sad reminder of “how much the whole world outside has changed, while we stand still.” Renzi says even young Italians are often lacking in that youthful dissatisfaction with the status quo so vital to initiating change. “They all show up at rallies in jacket and tie and fall in line. Where’s the grit, the passion?” he asks. “You can be old at 80, but you can be old at 20 too.” Renzi says his contemporaries need to grab power, not wait for it to be passed on to them. “I don’t ask to have space because I’m 30, I ask to have space because I’ve got new ideas,” he says. “And I believe I have these ideas because I’m 30.”

And here and there, the crossroads of Italy’s past and future is visibly emerging. You can see it in the ancient Sicilian city of Syracuse, on a stretch of coastline where Baroque palazzos and Greek ruins stand beside the eternal blue of the Mediterranean as signposts from Italy’s history of rebirths. Here too is Sicily’s only contemporary art museum, dreamed up in 2001 by a then 28-year-old city native, Salvatore Lacagnina. He wanted to bring the modern vision he’d acquired in Bologna and Milan back to his stolid hometown. And in a wired world, he can keep up with the cutting edge of art in New York City and Paris even from a backwater like Sicily.

In his shows, he has made a point of melding old and new, exhibiting modern work in a Roman amphitheater and displaying archaeological artifacts in his contemporary gallery. All too often, he says, Italy’s focus on preserving its vast store of crumbling treasures comes at the expense of creating something new. He says his countrymen should reverse the old cliché about the importance of knowing history in order to make things better today. Rather understand, he says, that “the past can’t exist without the present.” Back in 13th century Florence, both Giotto — and his master-teacher Cimabue — would applaud that young man’s thinking.

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