Italy's Lost Generation: Crisis Forces Young Italians to Move Abroad

By Fiona Ehlers in Rome

Part 2: Fleeing Italy with a Laptop

Italy is losing an entire generation, the young elite. In the 1950s and 1960s, unskilled workers with cardboard suitcases traveled from southern Italy over the Alps. Today, graduates with diplomas and laptops are fleeing the country. This elite has grown up with a national debt that has now reached €2 trillion, along with a culture of corruption and nepotism.

Members of the "Generazione Mille Euro" are well educated, but they can't secure a loan from a bank and they can't finance their own apartment. These young people aren't making waves yet; they seek to emigrate rather than put up resistance. But if the 50- to 60-year-olds don't soon make room for them, a generational conflict could arise, with enraged young people in precarious employment situations taking to the streets to protest complacent older Italians who have become entrenched in their jobs.

Working in a call center as a typical job has become one symbol of this generation, while no-frills airlines as a means of escape have become the other. In the country's Goethe Institutes, German language courses have long been dubbed "get-me-out-of-here courses" and are fully booked. In Oxford there's a think tank in which young Italian academics ponder the intricacies of Roman politics. Why doesn't anyone bring them back with job offers and tax incentives?

Glorious Past

Italians have two explanations for their dilemma: gerontocrazia, rule by the elderly, and raccomandazioni, recommendations. Both ensure that jobs are passed on to friends and family. Universities -- an educational institution that was invented here and helped establish Italy's worldwide fame -- have become intellectual wastelands, not least because of the antiquated concorsi, the selection process for senior positions at schools and universities, in which applicants are crammed into gymnasiums and forced to write essays like elementary school students.

The country is also suffering from a cultural decline, says Savaglio, the physicist. There is an almost adolescent form of anarchy, in which motorists don't stop at red lights because no one does, as well as a paralyzing fatalism; it's always been like that and there's not much you can do about it. "We wallow in our glorious past," she says, "but what good are the old Romans if the buses aren't running?" What is missing, she argues, is respect and a sense of civic responsibility -- fellow citizens who feel not only responsible for themselves, but also for the common good, the "res publica".

Instead, Italians are fleeing abroad. For the last three to four years, the exile community has been rapidly growing in Berlin. Thousands of young Italians move to the German capital every year. There's a cultural scene, with artists and filmmakers who help newcomers settle into la deutsche vita. During the Euro 2012 European soccer championship, they gathered at the Kulturbrauerei, a former brewery that has been converted into a center for art and culture. The get-together was organized by Andrea D'Addio, 30, a Rome native who is a blogger and the founder of a soccer team in the expats' favorite Berlin neighborhood, Prenzlauer Berg.

Viewed from Berlin, says D'Addio, Italy seems truly dreary and inflexible. He says there's a sense of relief when you step off the plane at Schönefeld Airport: a feeling that you're finally free and can live without the pressure to be a success, and without your parents, in a place where respect and loyalty count. Yes, says D'Addio, he's burned his bridges with Italy. After three years in Berlin, he says that the distance to Rome has become insurmountable. No, he says, he's not plagued by a guilty conscience for not being there to help overcome the crisis in his home country.

Bright Ideas

Barbara Labate is 35 years old, a dark-haired Sicilian who is one of the few with the courage to return. She is standing in front of a white brick building in the town of Catania. Mount Etna towers against a cloudless sky behind her.

Labate came back from New York after the Lehman Brothers investment bank went bankrupt in September 2008. Labate had studied at Columbia University, just like her aunt, a famous archaeologist who said that she never wanted to return to broken-down Europe.

The niece, however, wanted to give it a try. She came with religious icons that her mother placed in her suitcase before every trip -- Saint Barbara and Madonnas -- to protect her daughter.

Labate made mobile downloads out of the devotional objects. She knew she had made it when she was interviewed by CNN in front of St. Peter's Basilica four years ago on Christmas Eve. It turns out that the Vatican thought Labate's pictures were "tasteless." She couldn't have wished for better advertising. From then on, she stuck with her idea of bringing Italian traditions into the modern age.

Today, Labate has a new business idea, offices in Milan and Catania, 10 employees and a quarter of a million customers. Her big breakthrough was a method for combating the crisis, and the idea came to her while she was eating in an obscenely expensive delicatessen in New York's SoHo neighborhood. US companies offered her a great deal of money for her business idea, but the young entrepreneur decided that Italy needed her more urgently.

Her invention is called "Risparmiosuper," the super discount market. It's a portal that compares grocery prices and compiles shopping lists for customers, allowing them to save a lot of money. Italy's leading business newspaper has just voted it the best innovation of the year, and she's already exploring the next highly promising market -- Greece.

Labate says that Italians lack seriousness and speed, and that they have an allergic reaction to everything new. She groans over the endless bureaucratic formalities, the record tax rate of up to 55 percent and 60-year-old CEOs who don't know what Facebook is. She longs for Silicon Valley, where she sometimes flies because she "accomplishes more in one month there than in Italy in half a year." Why did she nevertheless return? "Because Italy's crisis is an opportunity," she says, and because it's more satisfying to see lemons growing on your own soil, no matter how barren it may be. "Anyone who remains abroad only clears the stage for those from whom he once fled."

'Finish Your Studies and Go!'

Even Pier Luigi Celli, the director general of Rome's LUISS University -- one of the best in the country -- has joined the fray. In late 2009, he wrote an open letter to his son. La Repubblica newspaper published it, and this prompted a nationwide debate. The head of an elite school, of all people, advised his son to head abroad. "Your ambition, diligence and sense of justice," wrote the father, no longer count in this quarrelsome, mediocre country. "Take a look around, Italy doesn't deserve you. Finish your studies and go!"

Today, two and a half years later, Celli sits at his desk in Rome and sounds disappointed. He says that his son has remained in Italy. Mattia, he admits, is just as stubborn as his sister, who became a nun and now lives in a convent. Celli junior is now 26 years old, has completed his engineering studies, and wants to work in the aerospace industry. But he's still stuck on the ground as one of Italy's perpetual interns with no job security.

When the father looks around him at today's Italy, though, he feels something akin to hope, he says. This includes the enthusiasm of his students as they talk about their startup plans, and a government made up of technocrats who are showing a surprising eagerness to introduce reforms, including a higher retirement age, a liberalized labor market and a loosening of the laws that protect employees from being fired. That's more than what Monti's predecessors accomplished in all their years in office. It's also a different tone than the one adopted by Berlusconi who, when asked by a student how she was supposed to establish a family without a job, gave the following advice: "You can just marry one of my sons!"

Even if the situation on the labor market is disastrous, says Celli, he wouldn't phrase the letter to his son in the same way if he were to write it today. He says it will take years before the reforms are implemented, but "the danger that Italy will soon become a developing country" has been averted.

For the time being, Mattia is dreaming of a future in Rome, Barbara is saving money for her customers in Catania, Alessandra is working as a designer in London, and Sandra is conducting research in Bavaria. And filmmakers Gustav and Luca continue to collect stories of a lost generation.

They've postponed their plans to move to Berlin, though. They are chroniclers of a country in transition, they say, and they have to remain there. That sounds like a new beginning -- and good material for their next film.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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1. looks like it's something new
edef 08/06/2012
this story is the new trending great depression tale, also and especially in Italian papers, but it's not really a phenomenon that appeared during this economic crisis. there's always been a significant brain drain from Italy, and many of the pushing factors that are mentioned in the article has been there all the time. it seems to me that journalists are creating a new character in the big Italian comedy - the talented youngster torn between foreign lands of opportunities and home nostalgia. yeah, it's romantic, but watch out: in Italy, to make comedy/tragedy out of issues has always been the most subtle way not to deal with them.
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