Arrivederci, Italia: Why Young Italians Are Leaving

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Photograph by David Hogsholt / Reportage / Getty Images for TIME

Silvia Sartori, 31
Occupation: Project manager
Location: Shanghai
Reason for leaving: After spending four years in China, Sartori returned to Treviso and invested an entire year in search of work. Finding few opportunities for a young professional woman in Italy, she returned to China, where she now runs a $3 million green construction project funded by the European Commission

It's not the type of advice you would usually expect from the head of an elite university. In an open letter to his son published last November, Pier Luigi Celli, director general of Rome's LUISS University, wrote, "This country, your country, is no longer a place where it's possible to stay with pride ... That's why, with my heart suffering more than ever, my advice is that you, having finished your studies, take the road abroad. Choose to go where they still value loyalty, respect and the recognition of merit and results."

The letter, published in Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, sparked a session of national hand-wringing. Celli, many agreed, had articulated a growing sense in his son's generation that the best hopes for success lie abroad. Commentators point to an accelerating flight of young Italians and worry that the country is losing its most valuable resource. And with reforms made all but impossible by Italy's deep-rooted interests and topsy-turvy politics — a schism in the ruling coalition seemed this summer to threaten Silvio Berlusconi's government once again — many are starting to wonder if the trend can be reversed. "We have a flow outward and almost no flow inward," says Sergio Nava, host of the radio show Young Talent and author of the book and blog The Flight of Talent, which covers the exodus.

The motives of those leaving haven't changed much since the last wave of economic migrants struck out to make their fortunes a century ago. But this time, instead of peasant farmers and manual laborers packing themselves onto steamships bound for New York City, Italy is losing its best and brightest to a decade of economic stagnation, a frozen labor market and an entrenched system of patronage and nepotism. For many of the country's most talented and educated, the land of opportunity is anywhere but home.

Take Luca Vigliero, a 31-year-old architect. After graduating from the University of Genoa in 2006 and failing to find satisfying work at home, he moved abroad, working first for a year at Rem Koolhaas' Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam and then accepting a job in Dubai in 2007. In Italy, his résumé had drawn no interest. At Dubai's X Architects, he was quickly promoted. He now supervises a team of seven people. "I'm working on projects for museums, villas, cultural centers, master plans," he says. "I have a career." Escape from Italy has also allowed Vigliero to fast-track his life plans. He and his wife had a son in September; had they remained in Italy, he says they would not have been able to afford children this soon. "All my friends in Italy are not married, they have really basic work, they live with their [parents]," he says. "Here, there's a future. Every year, something happens: new plans, new projects. In Italy, there's no wind. Everything is stopped."

Italy doesn't keep track of how many of its young professionals are seeking their fortunes abroad, but there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that the number is rising. The number of Italians ages 25 to 39 with college degrees registering with the national government as living abroad every year has risen steadily, from 2,540 in 1999 to about 4,000 in 2008. The research-institute Censis estimates that 11,700 college graduates found work abroad in 2006 — that's one out of every 25 Italians who graduated that year. According to a poll by Bachelor, a Milanese recruitment agency, 33.6% of new graduates feel they need to leave the country to take advantage of their education. A year later, 61.5% feel that they should have done so.

It's not hard to see why. Italy's economic woes have fallen hard on the shoulders of the country's youth. According to figures published in May by the National Institute of Statistics, 30% of Italians ages 30 to 34 still live with their parents, three times as many as in 1983. One in 5 young people ages 15 to 29 has basically dropped out: not studying, not training, not working. "We're condemning an entire generation into a black hole," says Celli.

Jobs for the (Old) Boys
Italians without college education often get by working in the black economy, doing all sorts of jobs, but university graduates — or more generally, those with higher aspirations — have a tougher time finding work that fits their qualifications. The unemployment rate among Italian college graduates ages 25 to 29 is 14%, more than double the rate in the rest of Europe and much higher than that of their less-educated peers.

Italians have a word for the problem: gerontocracy, or rule by the elderly. Too much of the economy is geared toward looking after older Italians. While the country spends relatively little on housing, unemployment and child care — expenditures the young depend upon to launch their careers — it has maintained some of the highest pensions in Europe, in part by ramping up borrowing. This imbalance extends into the private sector, where national guilds and an entrenched culture of seniority have put the better jobs out of reach for the country's young.

Italy has always suffered under a hierarchical system, with the young deferring to authority until it's their time to take the reins. "You are not considered experienced based on your CV, on your ability or according to your skills, but just based on your age," says Federico Soldani, 37, an epidemiologist who left Pisa in 2000 and now works in Washington, D.C., for the Food and Drug Administration. "When you are under 40, you are considered young."

The system worked — to a certain extent — as long as the economy was growing. Patience paid off as jobs opened to whoever was next in line. But with the extended slump, the labor market has seized up. "The queue is not moving forward anymore," says Soldani. Entry to some professions — like the lucrative position of public notary — is so limited that the job has become all but hereditary. In a country where success is built on relationships and seniority, only the friends and children of the elite have a chance to cut the line.

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