Italy is not a good place to be young and, not surprisingly, there aren’t that many young Italians coming along. ISTAT reported in January that youth unemployment now stands at an astonishing 30.1 percent, a record high for the country. Rather than striking out on their own, young Italians are increasingly living with their parents well into their thirties and forties, and many now are contemplating a lifetime without long-term employment. The opening to this Times piece is particularly evocative:
Assunta Linza, a bright-eyed 33-year-old with a college degree in psychology, has been unemployed since June, after losing a temporary job as a call-center operator. Her father, who is 60 and has a fifth-grade education, took early retirement with full benefits at age 42 from a job as a workman at the Italian state railway company.
“Everyone said that kids should study to get ahead, but I graduated with highest honors, and the only thing my degree is good for is to hang on the wall,” Ms. Linza said dryly.
As the Times points out, Italy is racked by perverse labor laws that pamper the old while condemning the young to a lifetime of poverty and insecurity. Italian laws mandating that workers not be fired without just cause, combined with a legal system that heavily favors workers, have created a system in which companies are wary of making new hires. Even the labor reforms proposed by the new technocratic government may not be enough to remedy the situation, and in any case unions are fighting tooth and nail to remove any bite these reforms may have. They will probably succeed at least partially. Italy is almost certain to reform much more slowly and irregularly than it should.
The stakes in Italy are higher than many Italians seem to grasp. This isn’t just about Italy’s prosperity or its ability to stay in the euro. It is about survival. Italy’s birthrate is far below the natural rate of replacement; that is not unrelated to an economic system that makes it impossible for large numbers of young people to start households of their own.
Unless Italy becomes a country where twenty somethings can routinely leave home and build promising careers so that they have both the economic means to marry and the security to embrace the responsibilities of parenthood, Italians will become a demographic curiosity in their own country — and sooner rather than later.
In the 17th century, when Pope Urban VIII (one of the Barberini popes) melted ancient bronze pieces from the Pantheon to build the baldacchino in St. Peters, one satirist said, “What the barbarians did not do the Barberini did.” Today we must say that labor laws and sclerotic economic management are doing what plagues, barbarians and wars failed to accomplish: putting the future of the Italian people at risk.