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

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For the rest, it means that jobs are scarce, underpaid and stripped of responsibility. When Filippo Scognamiglio, 29, secretary of the Italian MBA Association NOVA, compared net salaries for the same position at the same multinational in the U.S. and Italy, he found that an Italian with an M.B.A. who chose to stay home would earn just 58% of what they would abroad. "It's easier to be successful in the United States if you have the talent and the desire to put in the effort than it is in my country," he says. As a consequence, Scognamiglio, who graduated from Columbia Business School this year, chose to pay off the Italian company that had sponsored his degree in order to accept a job in the U.S. "It's a 70,000-euro ($90,000) vote [for the prospects of a career abroad]," he says.

But it's not just better pay that attracts Italy's young emigrants: it's also the opportunity to escape dull jobs that involve mainly rote tasks and flattened career trajectories. "If you're young in Italy, you're a problem; in other countries, you're seen as a resource," says Simone Bartolini, 29, a creative copywriter in Sydney. He left Rome in 2007, following a change of management at his advertising firm, when his new boss told him, "We will put sticks in your spokes." He was good to his word. "Every idea was turned down," says Bartolini. "Everything was a no. As soon as I made a mistake, I was under the light." In comparison to Australia, where Bartolini has launched a successful career, Italy simply had no use for his drive. "They need executors," says Bartolini. "They don't need thinkers."

Old Problems, Old Solutions
Young Italians know better than to look to the state to solve their problems: the country's politics is if anything even more stagnant. A long succession of ruling coalitions have been too busy wrestling among themselves to take on entrenched interests. The current regime is a case in point. Prime Minister Berlusconi came to power in 2008 after the previous left-wing government tried to institute a raft of reforms that would have passed without comment in just about any other country: deregulating the country's taxicabs, allowing supermarkets to sell nonprescription drugs, permitting private companies into public transport. The reforms foundered on a series of strikes, setting the government on a path to failure a year and a half later.

Now Berlusconi's government is facing a crisis of its own, a power struggle between the Prime Minister and his former ally, Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of Italy's lower house. Fini, who commands a breakaway faction of parliamentarians, has been clashing with Berlusconi over a series of reforms. For now, the two men seem to have put aside their differences — Fini supported the government in a vote of no confidence last month — but tensions between the two are already rising over proposed changes to the criminal-justice system that would free Berlusconi from tax-fraud and corruption trials. In the meantime, Italians are stuck with a government that could collapse at any moment and leaders consumed with positioning themselves for the next election.

Italy's political culture is sclerotic. It has failed to produce young reform-minded leaders like Barack Obama, David Cameron or Nicolas Sarkozy. Berlusconi is 74 years old and serving his third term as Prime Minister, and the country's crop of political players hasn't been updated since the early 1990s, when a series of corruption and Mafia scandals upended the electoral landscape. No wonder young Italians want no part of it.

No Way Home
The Italian exodus wouldn't be so damaging if the departed could be persuaded to return with their foreign experience. And indeed, after years of ignoring the problem, the government has begun to try to do just that. "It's like judo: you transform a risk into a strength," says Guglielmo Vaccaro, a parliamentarian who has promoted a bill that would offer tax breaks to Italians who return after spending at least two years abroad. Vaccaro estimated that the state spends well over $130,000 to provide a young person with a college education, money that can be recouped if its citizens can be persuaded to invest their skills at home.

It's not like the country's young want to stay away: Italians are famously attached to their homeland. Most of the people interviewed for this story said they would love dearly to go home. "Your DNA, your self, everything you breathe, everything you eat is very tied to the city where you're born," says Giovanni Chirichella, 34, a native Milanese who works as a human-resources manager at GE Energy in Houston. "Many Italians across the world, they're basically homesick for the rest of their lives."

But while Italy's young migrants usually set out with the intention of returning with a few years of foreign experience on their résumés, they often find the re-entry more difficult than they imagined. Over the past year, Elena Ianni, 32, a marketing manager at the Royal Bank of Scotland in London, has sent her résumé to the top 100 companies and recruitment agencies in Italy. She spent her Easter break knocking on doors in Milan. Every night, when she gets home from work, she checks the online job listings. In London, where she receives unsolicited calls from headhunters, Ianni has turned down two job offers during the same period. But her country doesn't seem to want her. "I've been told exactly these words," she says. "'You're a young woman, and you won't be taken seriously here.'"

So the country is caught in a vicious circle. The economy will continue to fade as long as it stifles innovation by excluding its young. Meanwhile, every young person driven away is one less voice calling for reform. Silvia Sartori, 31, tried returning to Treviso after working in Asia for four years. After a fruitless year of job-hunting, she went back to China, where she now manages a $3 million European Commission grant for green construction. "It's something in Italy I would never get, unless I was 45 and somebody's daughter or cousin or mistress," she says. "I gave Italy a second chance," she says. "They burned it." Italy may not have many more chances to preserve its most precious resource.

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