Italy's Lost Generation Crisis Forces Young Italians to Move Abroad
On a hot summer's stay in Rome, on the hills overlooking the city, Europe's top politicians are meeting once again. They stand in a Medici villa, under a wall fresco of Polyphemus, a one-eyed giant from Greek mythology, and declare how they intend to save Europe: with "growth" and "discipline," and by doing their "homework." There is little sign of any real vision.
The future they describe sounds gloomy; it's full of promises and reassurances. But one number is painfully concrete, and for a second it reverberates throughout the reception hall: "36 percent" -- Italy's current youth unemployment, a record high. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti utters the number, adding that he finds it "unacceptable."
After the meeting draws to a close, the four leaders -- Monti, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy -- assemble for a family photo in the labyrinth garden of boxwood hedges. The average age of the four Europeans posing in front of Roman statues is 60.25 years. Young Europeans don't trust such photos or such politicians. After all, it's their future that's at stake.
A Symbol for Europe
That same evening, a large crowd gathers down in the city at the old slaughterhouse in the Testaccio district, where there's a neighborhood center with organic food markets and businesses for ethically correct lifestyles. "L'altra economia," they call it -- the parallel economy.
Two filmmakers, Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi, set up their projection screen. They are here to show their film "Italy: Love It or Leave It," which hasn't been shown much in Italy yet. It deals with a highly personal issue, one which is also political: whether, as a young Italian, one should leave the country or not. It's about Italy's future.
The film has been a surprise success internationally. For months, it's been screened at film festivals around the world, is always sold out, and always the audience's favorite. During the follow-up discussions, Hofer, 36, and Ragazzi, 41, become complaint boxes for expat Italians who are suffering bouts of nostalgia.
The film was shot two years ago, when then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was still governing the country. They didn't plan it this way, but now, in the midst of the current financial and economic crisis, it appears they asked the right questions in the right place. "Italy has become a symbol," says Hofer: "Here the future of a generation determines what's in store for all of Europe."
Helicopters are circling in the evening sky as Merkel, Hollande and Rajoy fly back to their countries. In the film, the journey through Italy begins. A monk, a poet, a gay politician, striking workers and protesting women search for reasons to remain. We see Berlusconi during an election campaign, cleavage-obsessed television shows and plenty of gloom. One wonders whether it is still OK to like Italy.
'I Have No Choice'
Then a young woman from the audience stands in the light of the credits. It's no longer a question of leaving or staying, she says. She has given Italy so many chances, she says, but "Italy didn't want me." Her voice seems to crack as she recounts that she's going to move to London in early August. "For ever," she says. "I have no choice."
The next day, this woman, Alessandra Bertolini, is riding her sky-blue bicycle through the streets of Rome. She says that she will miss the sound of water splashing in the Roman fountains, the smell of food in the narrow streets and the rattling of the motorini scooters. She already suffers from pangs of nostalgia -- a very Italian quality.
Bertolini is 36 years old and still lives with her parents. She fits the cliché of the Italian boomerang kid -- no matter how hard she tries, she always returns to the family abode.
She studied architecture, graduated with top grades, was a young entrepreneur, and managed construction projects. Most recently, she was employed by an engineering firm. She hasn't been paid for the past six months and her employer is on the verge of going bankrupt. She applied to over 200 Italian companies, but didn't receive a single reply.
But suddenly, last week, things happened very quickly. She got three job offers, from Dubai and London, with twice her current salary. "They liked what so many people like about us Italians," says Bertolini, without sounding at all boastful. "We're flexible and resilient, and we've proven that we master 'l'arte di arrangiarsi'" -- the art of somehow getting by. She gets on her bike again and says that she sees it as a personal tragedy that she has to go at a time "when my country needs me most."
The latest figures are indeed unsettling. Young people in Italy are not seen as a resource, but as a burden. The unemployment rate among young people under the age of 25 hovered for a long time around 20 percent. Now, it's shot up to 36 percent. This is the figure that Prime Minister Monti finds so alarming. In the south, in a number of cities in Sicily and Calabria, it's over 50 percent -- as high as in Spain and Greece.
This has to do with Italy's extremely unfair labor market, which protects 50- to 60-year-olds with permanent, nearly irrevocable contracts. By contrast, young people are paid peanuts, strung along with fixed-term contracts, and are the first to be fired in times of crisis. Indeed, it's no wonder that two out of three Italians under the age of 35 are mammoni, mama's boys who still live with their parents. With starting monthly salaries under €1,000 ($1,250) and shockingly high rents, they simply have no choice.
Young people remain benchwarmers -- perpetual interns who are seen as not capable of doing much of anything. "There's no hunger for the future," writes the liberal newspaper La Stampa. The generation of their parents should take a step back -- that would be "the only real gift" to the nation's youth, writes the newspaper. Or, in the words of national soccer squad coach Cesare Prandelli: "Italy is an old country with old ideas. Perhaps we're simply not yet ready to win."
Italians love their country, but they're also eternally dissatisfied with it; there's a lot of grumbling and not much get-up-and-go. The future is everywhere, they say -- just not back home. Indeed, a phenomenon can be observed in Italy that is normally more typical of developing countries: the exodus of the elite, la fuga di cervelli or brain drain. Up to 60,000 young Italians leave the country every year, and it's estimated that half of Italy's 100 leading academics and scientists are working abroad.
Moving to a Different Universe
Sandra Savaglio was one of the first to go. She fled "to other universes" -- first to the US, then to a Max Planck research institute in Bavaria. These days, she only comes to Italy for the scenery, during vacations, or to attend international conferences, such as now in July.
Savaglio, a graceful, blonde southern Italian, is standing in front of a deserted abbey in Tuscany in the pitch-black night. She briefly turns her head away from looking at the stars and says that she owes her career to the obstacles that were placed in her path. In Italy she would never have come this far, she contends.
Savaglio is a super brain, an astrophysicist who ranks among the best in the world. She left because she ran into the difficulties that tens of thousands of young Italians so often experience here. The only difference is that she had the courage to tell an American journalist about it. She once proudly gazed from the cover of Time magazine with the headline: "How Europe Lost Its Science Stars." That was in 2004, when she was 36. Italians react sensitively to criticism from abroad. Today, Savaglio is famous in Italy -- for publicly criticizing her own country.
When she worked at the Monte Porzio Observatory near Rome, she was the girl from Calabria, who was promising but unimportant. She left because a superior said: "You want to publish your results? Fine, but only under my name."
To make matters worse, Savaglio had been granted a permanent position, but this was challenged in court by a father who felt that his daughter deserved the job. Four years later, the court ruled in favor of Savaglio, but she had long since taken a position at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Three years ago, she and her colleagues made a discovery that was a worldwide sensation. At the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, she provided proof that galaxies in the early universe were significantly more highly developed than previously assumed.
Savaglio has long since put Italy behind her, but she's concerned about the young generation. "Energy is there," she says, "but it's not amassed. Italy lacks the flow, the exchange of ideas and people. Everyone leaves, no one moves there."
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?
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.
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.