May 13, 2016    5 minute read

Italy: No Country for Old (and Young) Men

   May 13, 2016    5 minute read

Italy: No Country for Old (and Young) Men

With 12% of its GDP lost since 2007, one of the weakest growth rates in the Eurozone during last year (+0.8%, compared to the average rate of +1.5%) and a steadily increasing debt, Italy is still struggling to recover. The recent crises severely tested the country’s economy and the results, as we see, aren’t so promising despite Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s eternal optimism. Apart from the economy, Italian society was hit by an entirely unexpected feeling of inadequacy too: all of a sudden, the young found out that there were no more jobs for them while the old began being considered no more than a dead weight for the State.

Too many comforts

Taking a close look at the condition of Italian youngsters, it could be surprising to discover that a country like Italy, which hosts some of the oldest universities in the world and has such a bright past behind its back, has so few new graduates: only 24% of the young people manage to get a degree, while the European average is 41%. This, alongside with the cut of 25% of the industrial production since 2000, could provide a meaningful explanation for the 44.2% youth unemployment rate, which in the southern regions, such as Sicily and Calabria, reaches even higher levels.


One of the reasons for such a poor condition for the young is their lack of professional preparation when they have to enter the labour market: the link between universities and employers is still too weak to provide satisfying results. But not only school is to blame: the Italian family could be another important (and perhaps unexpected) factor. Just as the usual stereotype is often picturing them, families act like a parallel welfare system for the Italian young adults, encouraging them not to leave home soon and, in some cases, to extend their academic studies lazily and unproductively, sometimes without even getting a degree. The public university system, which allows this behaviour (for instance permitting students to reject low grades and not imposing compulsory attendance in classes), isn’t certainly helping.

Disappointed and seeing only an uncertain future ahead, many young people are unsurprisingly leaving Italy to move to other countries (the UK and Germany are the favourite destinations), looking for better opportunities and challenges: considering that around 27% of those who are leaving Italy are graduates, the eventuality of a brain drain looks nearer and nearer and could be a troublesome issue to face in the near future. In addition to this, the youngsters who chose to stay in their homeland are worryingly beginning to think that their future was stolen by egotistical choices made in the past and the eventuality of a clash between different generations could soon become reality.

Older and heavier

Older people, on the other hand, can’t think they’re much luckier than their grandchildren. The state pensions reform launched by Mario Monti’s government in 2011 raised retirement age and left many old workers who had already signed contracts of early retirement with their employers (the so-called “exiled” people) without a job. Despite this measure based on austerity, which managed to reduce national expenditure by €30bn a year, the public spending on pensions is still high (17% of GDP) and rising, also because of the progressive ageing of the population.

This topic is often one of the most popular in the political debate. While Mr Renzi is going to propose a reform in 2017 to introduce a voluntary retirement anticipation in return for a pension curtailment, the leader of the conservative Northern League (one of the main opposition parties), MEP Matteo Salvini, has often labelled the 2011 reform as “infamous”. Moreover, Mr Tito Boeri, head of the National Social Insurance Agency (INPS), recently claimed that people born in the ‘80s could be going to take retirement at 75 years: another factor of disappointment for the young.

The problem surely isn’t going to be an easy one to solve. On one side Italy has to abide by the European rules and control its deficit and debt; on the other one, it has to guarantee adequate pensions for the citizens born in the 1950s and 1960s – the Italian baby boom period, who will soon reach retirement age. The government (and the ones that will succeed it) will also have to increase Italy’s appeal for its youth, to avoid losing precious resources for the sustainability of economic recovery and the growth of present and future competitiveness.

The measures proposed by Mr Renzi aren’t going to be decisive, but could be useful to improve living conditions for the old, and more action will be needed in the next years if Italy wants to achieve social stability and make its welfare system sustainable for both the present and future generations. Once this complex issue is resolved, the State would be finally able to pump more money into the education system, which is constantly in need: a focused intervention in high schools and universities, particularly, could be crucial to appropriately prepare the youngsters for the entrance in the international labour market. The point is: will the government finally recognise the need to invest more in vital sectors for the development of human capital, after years of guilty paralysis? Every Italian citizen – both young and old – should hope so.

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