Imagine being raised in a modest home in the suburbs of Rome. Blessed with an outstanding level of intelligence and motivational drive you set your ambitious sights toward a career in medical research with the full moral and financial support of your family. You successfully gain entry to university and graduate many years later with a Masters degree.
After a substantial period of time testing the job market you are faced with a blunt choice. Remain in Italy and find a precarious entry-level job with poor pay and conditions where your acquired skills are put to waste, or leave the country and at least temporarily bid farewell to your family, friends and loved ones to pursue your dream.
This scenario is not uncommon for Italian youth trying to make the most of their impressive knowledge. The country is well known for having an abundance of highly educated and talented youth. However, with these great minds increasingly finding themselves trapped in a country that has little room to utilize their skills – young people are departing in droves seeking a place where they can achieve their potential.
Last year alone, 50,000 people left the country and Italy has recently faced the challenge of having more Italians leaving then foreign nationals coming in. This has exacerbated the phenomenon of Brain drain which is not new to Italy.
Despite the strides by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi toward making the labour market more flexible for young people, they remain pessimistic about their future. Changing this perception is important if the country wants to keep its best and brightest at home.
The Age Divide
The well-known economic north-south divide is not the only divide in existence in Italy. The disparity between job opportunities for younger people and jobs locked in for older established workers is a serious point of concern.
Lorenzo Callisse, a 22 year-old Italian biomedical student who moved to the UK said he had seen first-hand how the Italian job market favoured older established workers.
“In Italy you can walk into a bar and find older people working who have been there for at least 5 years,” he said.
“I have a couple of friends who are working and generally don’t get paid that much, in the end if you really look for a job you might find a temp (temporary) thing.”
Unemployment figures show that overall employment in Italy sits at 11.7% which contrasts sharply with youth unemployment at 39.1%. The situation is even more desperate in the south were the unemployment rate sky-rockets to 75% in cities such as Naples.
Acknowledging the threat such high levels of youth unemployment pose to Italy, the Renzi government implemented a Jobs Act in 2014. This allowed employers more flexibility in terms of employment contracts concerning working conditions and the right to fire. The government claimed this is necessary to increase economic growth and lower unemployment.
However, some trade unions argue the labour market deregulation is indicative of the wrong priorities.
ADL Cobas trade union spokesperson Sergio Zulian claimed the Jobs Act is unfair and is not making any real progress in solving the employment crisis.
“It’s true employment increased, but not because of freedom of sacking workers but more because the Job Act says those who employ people last year have 3 years of not paying social contributions,” he said.
“You have the employer exploiting you and you have the state who does the laws the companies want.”
While the government is focused on promoting precarious forms of work to stimulate greater youth participation in the job market there is an issue with the older workers locking the young out. With the young Italian population feeling under-valued this raises questions as to the causes of such disillusionment.
The State is Failing
Young people are angry at the government. Opinion polling data shows that almost half of the population has lost confidence in Renzi’s ability to adequately deal with the issues confronting Italy.
The government has been active in their labour market deregulation program, however other issues are at play which are yet to be addressed.
The state has a long history spending public money on projects associated with corrupt Italian forces. This is particularly evident when looking at the case of Sicily which has the largest number of uncompleted public projects in the country.
Mr Zulien singled out a culture of corruption in Italy as an issue which is ignored by the government.
“The history in Italy is the powerful will always get to grant themselves the social control,” he said.
“With the laws everyone knows it is not the rights of the worker which needs to be changed but more the corruption and the mafia.”
Another key area where the state is leaving young people behind is a lack of research and development funding.
For Lorenzo Callise, making the decision to leave Italy was not a difficult choice and he could specify one issue which confirmed in his mind the need to leave.
“There is very little money and quite few investments put into science and research, that is the main reason why I am moving,” he said.
“Generally speaking, Italy is quite backward with ideas.”
Investment in scientific research has declined over many years with cuts totaling €1 billion since 2009. Italy allocates only 1.25% of GDP towards research. It also attracts very few European research grants despite being one of the largest economies in the EU.
This reality plays very strongly on the minds of young people in the field of science. If left unaddressed this could see people vital to Italy’s future not only leave but never come back in the long-term.
“Personally maybe I will go back to Italy in a few years if I manage to be a professor or get a position in research,” Lorenzo said.
While the Renzi government has attempted to make some progress in its 2016 budget creating 1000 new research positions across universities and research institutions, the scientific community are skeptical the positions will be rewarded on the basis on merit.
Creating a New Identity Abroad
For many Italians, the decision to pack up and leave is a choice made out of necessity rather than desire.
ADL Spokesperson Mr Zulien said young people feel trapped in a never-ending cycle of mediocrity which drives them to move to more prosperous countries.
“Young people are looking for money but also a different life and they are stuck in this idea of eternal present,” he said.
“What is happening now will happen tomorrow – the day after tomorrow and forever and ever. I feel many have this kind of disillusionment and this idea that things are not really changing.
“Obviously you can work in a bar, as a waiter or as a baby sitter, but you can’t do this your whole life.”
Leaving behind friends, family and the lifestyle you are accustomed to and forging a new identity elsewhere can be both rewarding but challenging.
However, Lorenzo found the decision was an easy one.
“It wasn’t hard for me to move, I do miss my friends sometimes but it is perfectly fine. I just really looked forward to living abroad by myself and meeting new people so I was just happy and excited,” he said.
The freedom for people to move through Europe with ease has played a massive role in shaping the future of young and older people alike. However, recent nationalistic attitudes among some individual European countries has many Italians concerned for the opportunities which will be open to future generations.
Advocacy for tightening border controls and free movement restrictions are being particularly played out in France and the UK. As the Brexit debate unfolds with immigration as one of the key issues the referendum will feature it will be interesting to see what the future holds for Italian’s wishing to travel to the UK.
Will Italy continue to Leave its Young People behind
With the number of Italians leaving the country for France, Germany, the UK and Switzerland in increasing numbers each year whether the country can find a way to incentivize its talent to stay will be critical to its future standing.
There is no easy answer to the problem of youth unemployment, which spreads more broadly than just Italy. Yet, a solution could lie in two areas – the ability of the country to adapt its culture to changing circumstances and the power to reverse perceptions of Italy as a backward looking country.
“I think people in Italy complain a lot about problems we have and how difficult life is,” said Lorenzo.
“Maybe we should put in more effort and things could go a bit better.”
Italy does not lack talent or intelligence, but if young people continue to feel under-valued the number of people leaving will naturally increase and the long-term consequences will see Italy permanently attached to a culture of backwardness.