In jobs or in politics, Italy is no country for young people

In a country with no dole, 89 per cent of 18-24 year olds rely on their parents

A former employee of Maflow automobile air conditioning company dismantles an old electronic device at the closed factory at Trezzano sul Naviglio near Milan.

A former employee of Maflow automobile air conditioning company dismantles an old electronic device at the closed factory at Trezzano sul Naviglio near Milan.


Do not be fooled by the elegant, affable and cultured persona of 46-year-old Italian prime minister Enrico Letta. When he steps up to the plate to represent Italy at this week’s youth unemployment conference in Berlin, he seems to represent the bright, new and youthful face of a modern democracy.

In reality, there is little that is either bright or new about modern Italy, a country whose ruling classes are more the expression of an ageing gerontocracy than of a modern democracy. How else does one explain the fact that just two months ago, 87-year-old state president Giorgio Napolitano was elected for a second term of office, a term that means he will be 94 years’ old if and when he serves out the full mandate.

How else does one explain the fact the most powerful politician in the land, the man who almost won the February general election, media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, is currently 76 years’ old and, furthermore, shows no signs of withdrawing from the public stage, judicial woes nothwithstanding.

In a “modern” democracy, the electorate would have politely shown the door to both men a long time ago.

Italy, however, is no country for young people. Recently, Coldiretti, the Italian National Farmers lobby, pointed out that one in four Italian 40-year-olds rely on a subsidy from their parents.

Corrupt ruling class

That figure rises dramatically when the 18-24 age group is assessed, with 89 per cent of them relying on mum and dad. In a country where there is no dole, only short-term compensation for laid-off workers, this is hardly surprising.

Inevitably, the Italian youth unemployment figures are terrifying. In an open letter to the Financial Times this week, prime minister Letta himself concedes that 2.2 million Italians under 30 are currently unemployed. In a country where the official unemployment rate is 12 per cent, the under-30 rate is 42-45 per cent.

How could it be otherwise in a huge economy that has basically been stagnant for the last 20 years, dominated by a non-meritocratic, corrupt, self-interested ruling class in which an active minority consistently does business with organised crime? The Italian outlook is grim — high labour costs; low productivity; a gigantic, crippling state bureaucracy; €2 trillion of national debt.

Still, something needs must be done... even in Italy. To be fair to Letta, he has made youth unemployment his number one priority from the moment he took office in April.

Last week, his government unveiled a €1.5 billion package intended to generate 200,000 new jobs essentially by offering employers a series of tax breaks to hire and train first-time workers.

Avoiding national bankruptcy

The intentions are worthy but history would suggest that these measures, if and when enacted, will help little or not at all. A series of measures introduced by both centre-right and centre-left governments over the past 20 years have managed only to make the position of the first-time employed, and indeed the self-employed, ever more precarious.

Italy’s recent economic decline has witnessed the end of the era of the (usually public service) “permanent and pensionable” job without any meaningful compensatory job creations. In this, clearly Italy is not alone but the shock is much greater in a country which still has difficulties in embracing the concept of a market-driven, service-providing, meritocratic economy.

Over the past 18 months, Italy under the guideance of former European Commissioner Mario Monti was too concerned with avoiding national bankruptcy, largely brought about by Mr Berlusconi’s mishandling of the country, to be able to do much about youth unemployment.

In the current context, it is at least arguable that youth unemployment, Mr Letta notwithstanding, will continue to come a long way down the list of Italian priorities. Nor does it help matters much that Mr Letta’s current PD-PDL coalition depends upon the grace and favour of the Berlusconi PDL.

Expression of anger

All of this, too, comes after last February’s election offered mainstream Italian politics a real, strident wake-up call. After all, there are populist protest movements all over Europe at the moment but how many of them claimed 25 per cent of the vote and 164 parliamentary seats at their last election?

The tidal wave that swept the M5S protest movement of ex-comedian Beppe Grillo into parliament was the expression of anger from those many sectors of a sclerotic Italian society who are simply shut out of everything — power, prestige and, above all, jobs.

For the time being, the M5S vote has been the most dramatic reaction from the young. It is also true that last year some 80,000 ‘young’ Italians emigrated (mainly to European destinations), representing a 30 per cent increase on 2012. Will the natives who stay at home become, as Mr Grillo has repeatedly suggested this summer, increasingly restless this autumn?