At just eight years old, Barbara Serra moved from Italy to Denmark, completing the rest of her education at an international school.
Having traversed the north-south European divide, she later moved to London, where she now works as a presenter and correspondent for news network Al Jazeera.
Serra’s experience prompted her to publish a book: Gli italiani non sono pigri (Italians are not lazy), to both challenge negative assumptions about the Italian work ethic and give fellow Italians a better understanding of the north’s way of working.
“Since the start of the euro crisis one of the most insidious stereotypes – laziness – has been resurfacing. Lots of people are looking from northern Europe at the countries that are worst hit by the crisis, and see that it's the ‘usual suspects’ of this stereotype,” Serra tells The Local.
But she argues that rather than there being 'lazy' Europeans and 'hardworking' ones, there are simply two different work dynamics. With the Italian government pushing for a more Anglo-Saxon approach to boost the economy, such as measures to create greater mobility through temporary work contracts, Serra says Italians will have to catch up with their northern neighbours.
“You have to change both the economic fundamentals whereby there is more labour movement, but at the same time change people’s mentality where they stop thinking that they have a job for life,” she says.
With an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent and an ongoing recession, Italians have realized they need to modernize their approach to the working world.
“You have to shake up Italy itself. It’s a multicultural society now and business is done on an international level.
“[But] there is an element of competition that isn’t talked about in Italian society. It’s pointless talking about changing rules and regulation; they are needed but it’s part of a bigger package,” she says.
Serra has encountered a number of demoralized young Italians who have enjoyed the national tradition of long summers at the beach, while the work culture in northern Europe pushes teenagers to spend their holidays doing part-time work or internships. As a result, Italians find themselves disadvantaged when it comes to competing in the modern workplace.
“You have to create a more competitive system, to teach kids how to create a CV from when they’re young. Nobody knows at 16 what they’re going to do, but they have to start getting out there and getting experience,” she says.
Prime Minister Enrico Letta has been pushing for such changes, in June unveiling a €1.5 billion package to get young Italians into work. The measures include internship schemes, training opportunities and incentives for businesses to hire people under 30.
But with youth unemployment hitting 40.4 percent, many under-25s are packing their bags and heading to northern Europe where the unemployment rates are lower – but competition may well be tougher.
“Meritocracy is fierce. It means coming to London, for example, applying for a job along with 2,000 others and knowing how to compete and be ambitious,” Serra says. Her Scandinavian schooling may have prepared her for such a system, but Italians often get a shock when they arrive and start looking for work.
Earlier this year the UK government announced that 32,800 Italians had been granted a National Insurance number, enabling them to work, a jump of 35 percent on the previous year. As a result Italians are now increasingly competing with each other on the international stage.
But while some may be lagging behind, Serra is seeing many reaching the top of their trade. For her book, she spoke to a host of Italian business leaders, including Vittorio Colao, chief executive of Vodafone, and Diego Piacentini, the senior vice president of Amazon, who have cracked the Anglo-Saxon way of working.
Now Serra sees London “chock full of capable Italians”.
“I’ve noticed a big change in the past 10 years; 30-year-olds now think in a different way and know things need to change.” While some are working for change from within Italy, many, like Serra, are mastering another way of working in order to succeed.
“Italians needed a kick and they got that kick; I think they are on the up,” she says.