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Italian Youth Choose Flight Over Fight

By Hallie Golden

While the youth in places like Quebec and Chile are standing up to injustices in their countries with angry protests, Italian youth have found a different way to speak out. With education funding cuts and youth unemployment hitting 37 percent, an increasing number of students are simply moving to other countries—ones not as bruised by the economic crisis or the dysfunction of Italian politics.

The situation is not likely to be fixed by the outcome of this month’s election, when Italians get the chance to replace Prime Minister Mario Monti and much of the country’s Senate. All of the major candidates—billionaire and accused sex-offender Silvio Berlusconi, economist and former EU commissioner Monti, and Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani—are old, both in their age and ideas. The average age of Monti’s cabinet is in the 60s, and Italy’s president is 87. None of this older generation of politicians has a vision of fundamental change, especially in regard to solving youth unemployment. It’s no wonder that when Italians enter the job or the higher-education market, their best option is to leave the country, often for England, France, the U.S., or Germany. If there is not more dramatic labor and training reform, Italy’s most ambitious young workers will all be abroad, a huge problem for an aging country with the second lowest fertility rate in the world.

Rocco Selvaggi, a 27-year-old native of Rome, used Erasmus, an exchange program for European students that offers funding for European students to study in other European countries, to finish his Master’s degree in Germany. “After my bachelors degree, I saw that it was really, really difficult to get a chance in the work world [in Italy] because there are so many young people in the same situation as me and the salaries are not very good,” he says.

When he worked as a Latin and Ancient Greek high school teacher in Rome, the disparity between his salary and living expenses was huge. For his full-time teaching job, he was paid only 800 euros a month, which meant he had to live with his parents, because he says a one room flat in the city costs on average 1,000 euros a month. “This is the same reason that Italian young people live until 30 years old with their family,” he says. “I don’t have so many friends who are living alone or with their girlfriends.” An entire generation of Italians, or at least ones who stay in Italy, are being dubbed mammonis, Italian slang for mamma’s boys.

Luckily for Selvaggi, an opportunity to stay in Germany arose after his program ended. One of his professors at the University of Hamburg offered him a job as his assistant for 1,000 euros a month. This was amazing,” Selvaggi says, “because no Italian professor would have offered such a thing.” While this salary was not much more than he was given back home in Italy, after he enrolled in the PhD program he was also given a stipend, a luxury many Italian colleges are not able to give because of financial cuts to their schools. “Every time the Italian government needs to spend money, they cut off money from the University for instruction," says Selvaggi. “Sixty percent of the PhD students in Italy are not paid, and a lot of them are still living with their parents.”

Francesca Xompero, from a small northern town of San Pietro Mussolino, graduated in Clinical Psychology from the University of Padua in the summer of 2011. She was then accepted as a paid intern at Universitaetsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf, one of the most prestigious hospitals in Germany. That was a year and a half ago, and she is still living in Germany today. “In Italy, there is no more money for the university, still less for the research—especially in my field,” she says. “It is really sad, because the students tried and still try to do something to change this situation but the government doesn’t care about them.” Xompero explains that it is completely counterproductive for the government to take away money from the university and give it to places like banks and salaries for government workers. Young people, she says, hold the future of Italy in their hands.

“The environment in Italy is changed,” she says. “The people are really tired about this persistent situation and the solutions unfortunately are just two: stay without any chances and without work or go abroad where you are maybe appreciated for the person you are and for your abilities and capacities.”

Claudia Mirrione chose to move to Germany in order to get a PhD in Classical Philology and Ancient Philosophy of Science but says only getting to return home every three months is very difficult. “I am feeling like in a gap, between two dimensions: On the one hand there is my family, my friends in Italy and my life here,” she says. Mirrione confesses that while she would love to move back to her home country, “I am not completely optimistic because the work conditions here are incomparably better than in Italy.”

The question is how should the government make its country’s environment enticing to young people. The obvious solution is to have more jobs available to them that pay a higher salary. Toward the end of June, Italy passed a Labor Reform Law. But while it was supposed to reward companies who hire new employees and make it easier to fire people, it kept in place permanent contracts. After being watered down by influential trade unions, the two-tiered employment structure in Italy remains—those with protected lifetime jobs, who tend to be older, and those on short-term contracts, who tend to be younger.

At this point, the best move for the government is to implement a new contract specific to new employees, which will lead to a more permanent-style contract after they have been there for a certain number of years. This way, good workers will be rewarded with a more long-term contract, and companies can fire bad employees without having to deal with the regulations of a permanent contract.

Another way out of this situation is for Italy to find a way to successfully implement an apprenticeship program, like the one that plays such an important role in Germany's economy, which has led to Germany's low youth jobless rate of only 7 percent in 2012. This program, called the Dual Vocational Training System (TVET), awards certain high school graduates a two or three-year stint of on-the-job training paired with publicly funded vocational school. Graduates are almost always either hired as a full-time employee at the company they’ve already spent two or three years with, or are snatched up quickly by a similar company. Unfortunately, Italy has had many of its companies benefit from the tax-assistance given through the program, but not follow through with the training for their charges.

The successful implementation of this program would place skilled workers who already know the ins-and-outs of working at a company in the hands of employers and give high school graduates a clear path into the job market. Students like Selvaggi wouldn’t be forced to leave Italy just to make a living wage. “In Italy,” he says, “you have good food, good weather, good people, you have the mountains, you have the sea, you have everything—the only thing you don’t have is the jobs.

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Hallie Golden is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Image courtesy of DoctorTac]     

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