Italy: The Nation That Crushes Its Young

My son Antonio just turned 21 years old, and I’m worried. Not only is his generation of young Italians grappling with the longest economic slump in modern times, but they also have to deal with us, their fathers and mothers.

I’ve taken to calling us the Generazione Pitone, the Python Generation. We refuse to give ground, and instead slither forward and ingest everything in our path. We have stamina. We are selfish. We have a soundtrack (that’s why Bruce Springsteen is still touring). And now that we’re getting old and retiring, we cost plenty.

America’s baby boomers are not alone in the world. Every Western country produced a substantial postwar generation that has no intention of stepping aside.

But Italy is special. Old-age pensions swallow 14 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and 57 percent of all social spending. No other country in Europe spends so much on making its past comfortable.

And the future? Unemployment among people ages 15 to 24 is a record 40.1 percent, while the number of people 55 or over who are still working has ballooned to 3.5 million from 2.8 million in just five years. Italy is no country for young men, apparently.

Italy is still one of the world’s most attractive countries, a land graced by the arts and blessed by the weather; it is sumptuous at table and abounding in elegance. But clearly this is not enough. Many young Italians have begun to flee their iconic, pythonic homeland.

It would be sad if Italy’s emigration went back to the way it was in the 1950s, when people had to leave for Northern Europe, the United States or Australia to feed their families. And yet that seems increasingly likely. About 60,000 move abroad every year, seven out of 10 taking a college degree with them.

Almost 400,000 graduates have left Italy in the past decade, and only 50,000 similarly qualified foreigners have arrived. This is not the healthy, free movement of people that the European Union was set up to encourage. This is a nation on the run.

Young Italians who leave to find a job sometimes do so at great risk. Joele Leotta was a 20-year-old waiter who had relocated from Lecco, in Lombardy, to the British town of Maidstone, southeast of London. He was kicked and punched to death by a gang of Lithuanian immigrants who accused him of stealing their jobs.

Even getting into the job market is challenging. Many simply give up. According to government figures, three million Italians — half of them young — have stopped looking for employment. That’s a third more than the European Union average.

Part of the problem lies in the Italian legal framework. The Biagi law, a well-intended piece of legislation, has made the labor market more flexible. But the system it has created is based on short-term contracts, which undermines the market for stable, long-term jobs.

Internships, supposedly a way for businesses to help young people, have turned out to be a system in which young people help business by providing skilled, poorly paid labor. And then there’s the paperwork: To hire an apprendista, or trainee, an employer must apply to 12 separate offices.

As a result, even those young people with jobs are hurting. The average salary for an Italian born in the 1980s is about €1,000 a month, or about $1,375 — hence the media nickname Generazione Mille Euro. Not the sort of money that will get you a bank loan for your first home.

The previous and current governments — under the prime ministers Mario Monti and Enrico Letta — tried to sort this out. But economic stagnation is making a difficult task harder. Only two economies have grown less than Italy’s between 2001 and 2011. One was Haiti, which continues to suffer from its 2010 earthquake, and the other was Zimbabwe, which continues to suffer from Robert Mugabe.

Silvio Berlusconi, who was Italy’s prime minister for most of that time, had his own views on what young people could do to get ahead. When a 24-year-old woman named Perla Pavoncello asked him in 2008 on national television how she could start a family without a job, Mr. Berlusconi, the country’s illusionist in chief, answered, “You should look to marry a millionaire, like my son, or someone who doesn’t have such problems.” He then added, “With that smile of yours, you could even get away with it.”

But the real problem is the stranglehold of the Python Generation. “La classe dirigente” — the Italian ruling class — is Europe’s oldest: the average bank chief executive is 69 years old; court presidents, 65; and university professors are on average 63.

We have all the good jobs, and we’re not giving them away, even as we get old enough to move into a well-pensioned retirement. The intergenerational contract, the thread that binds society, needs to be re-knotted.

One of the 77-year-old Mr. Berlusconi’s nicknames is “The Caiman,” a creature not known for its delicacy. We pythons are younger and subtler. By applying and maintaining sufficient pressure, pythons eventually cause their prey to succumb from asphyxiation.

Thirty years ago we were finishing our education, settling into jobs and sniffing out the future. Back then, we wanted to achieve a better world. Today, it’s a better car. We can call that progress, but it isn’t. Just ask our children.

Beppe Severgnini is a writer and columnist for Corriere della Sera.

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