Miércoles 12 de Abril de 2006, Ip nº 148

The fading future of Italy's young
Por Jeff Israely

Reverence for the past is stifling the present. it's time for the old guard to give the under-40 generation a chance.

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Fast-forward to Italy 2006, and the image of the precocious apprentice has been replaced by a humbler figure: the underemployed 30-something despondent about the present, let alone the future.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.

(...)

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."

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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.

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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."

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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."

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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.

To read the complete article click here.


  10/04/2006. Time Magazine.


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