Why Italy is hamstrung

   Italy is the Eurozone's third largest economy. It is the second largest industrial producer in the Eurozone. It appears to be a very European, extremely European country and can in so many aspects be considered archetypical of the old continent.

But is that really true?

   When I first took up residence in Rome in 1970, Rome was a sleepy levantine city. The borghesia usually owned a fancy car of the Lancia brand, mostly hand built and expected to last a lifetime. On each November 1st the ladies gathered at Café Doney in via Veneto and showed off their mink coats smelling of naphtalene, even if outside there was still summer. Palermo, thanks to the global relations of the Cosa Nostra appeared much more international and modern than Rome.

   Rome’s levantine style of life showcased Italy. Milan and Lombardy seemed a little more modern on the surface but below the skin the same levantine attitudes prevailed. And today?

   Two generations have since passed: one generation of rapid growth and development plus one generation of stagnation and helplessness.

Why this persistent stagnation?

   There are many ways to explain the quandary. They are all appropriate and useful to explain one or another aspect of the problem. But if you really want to know you have to go the roots, the attitudes that govern life in Italy. If you dig deep enough you will find they are still as levantine and oriental as back in 1970.

   O.K ., there are no more ladies in smelly minks at Doney’s. The Lancias of yore are museum pieces, replaced by BM/cedes still expected to last a lifetime. Statistics reveal attitudes below modern surfaces which still resemble the old oriental ways of life.

   According to ISTAT, the official Office of Statistics, in only 44 percent of Italian families with two or more adults at working age more than one person is economically active. This means the majority of families with several potential working members are relying on one income, only. The reason behind these figures is, of course, the low percentage of women working, especially in southern Italy.

   In the old days before and after WWII, Italy was swamped with children. Families with numerous offspring were the rule, and women were kept busy caring for all of them. But nowadays, Italy has the lowest birth rate in Europe. Yet, being a housewife is still considered an appropriate occupation. All sorts of problems, existing or imaginary faced by a caring mother are being mentioned to explain this situation typical of backward countries such as Greece and Turkey.

   From North to South the percentage of housewives as an occupation is rising. In northern Italy some 54 percent of families with more than one working age adult actually have two or more working members. In central Italy, this share drops to 49 percent and bottoms out at 29 percent in the South,. This means that over two thirds of women in the Mezzogiorno are not participating in the labor market.

But what are they doing?

   How are they spending their days in an economy which offers from household appliances to cheap take-out food an increasing variety of labor saving conveniences for housewife and houseman alike?

   Part of the answer is provided by the few and often single children in Italian families. They tend to remain living in hotel mamma until an advanced age. Rising life expectancies now permit two or three generations to stick together in one home. Some 30 percent of Italian youths are NEETS – neither working nor in education or training. Italy has the highest proportion of 20-34-year-olds in the European Union not in education, employment or training, Eurostat said,  almost twice the EU average of 16.5%

   This shocking figure is partly explained by the still prevailing tradition of girls to spend years trying to catch a husband instead of pursuing a career. Girls apart, boys are not doing much better. Blessed with caring, underworked mothers they can spend carefree years enjoying themselves among their peers or devoting time to their hobbies.

    Almost as bad as the fanulloni – lazybones – are those who learn a profession which is likely to disappear in the near future. In the South, hundreds of thousands of young men continue learning jobs ideally suited for women such as sales clerk, barista, nurse, even bus driver. Other jobs will go to immigrants from Asia and Africa, especially manual and unpleasant labor. Second generation immigrants will soon replace Italians in police, armed forces and the like, as has happened in France, Belgium and U.K.. Automation and roboterization will render still more jobs redundant.

   The core of the problem are the persistent levantine role models on both sides of the labor market, especially in the South. There are employers who prefer boys to girls and pensioners (who proved their worth) over youngsters (who may not appreciate hard work and long hours). There are girls who fancy themselves princesses to be adored and boys who consider themselves a superior being above all women and believe to be a hidden genius to be discovered and showered with money.

    In economic terms, the results of this situation are quite negative. Millions of young people are kept off the labor market or are likely to become unemployed in the near to medium future. This fact adds to the already unfavorable social situation.

    There are more than one million Italian families which have at least one member below 65 years but no one is working or is drawing a pension. In addition to these no-income families there are 44.6 percent of families with only one income; a fact which makes Italy a one-income-only country.

    The widespread assumption that one income only should suffice to maintain a family is part of Italy’s hidden levantine mindset. In fact, one income is increasingly insufficient and pushes more and more families into the category of absolute poverty. By 2017, about 12 percent of all  one-income blue collar worker families had fallen into poverty, compared to only 1.6 percent a decade earlier. Among employees and professions, the povery ratio was 7 percent and 6 percent, respectively. Children of one-income families suffered poverty in 16 percent of cases whereas this figure dropped to 4.3 percent in double income families, as Chiara Saraceno mentioned in an analysis of the ISTAT report.

    As a consequence of limited enthusiasm for full time work among women and youngsters, the share of temporary employment is at 15.4 percent higher in Italy than the OECD average and has grown markedly over the last decade. Moreover, the share of under-employed workers has more than doubled since 2006 and it is now the highest among OECD countries.

    These unsatisfactory aspects of the Italian labor market, especially in the Mezzogiorno, are usually blamed on anonymous market forces which punish the work force and are allegedly responsible for un- or underemployment. However, the real cause could be the persistent levantine mentality as the root cause of Italy’s hard core poverty and economic stagnation. As long as women and youths continue hiding in the home, refusing to face economic realities, Italy will not be able to overcome stagnation. A thorough modernization of the mindset is required.

  The borghesia cannot be expected to lead the way.  It is still deeply rooted in pre-WW II ways of life.  It sharply detaches itself -- the signori -- from the gentaccia, the bad people and the paninari, the (poor) sandwich eaters.  Even middle class borghesi are eager to protect their status which requires them to refrain from doing manual work which is entrusted to a colf  (idiom for foreign domestic servant) who sometimes turns out to be a thief. Poor luck. Top on the list of desirable status symbols is the autoblu, usually a large dark blue or black sedan with a government number plate and a driver permitted to use the fast lanes.  Why should Italy's borghesia change its convenient lifestyle in the fast lane?

Benedikt Brenner


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