Voting with their feet: Young Italians are leaving Italy in huge numbers

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Voting with their feet: Young Italians are leaving Italy in huge numbers
A demonstration against labour reforms organized by Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL) union. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

In her bedroom in Naples, Imma Arco folds the last items of clothing into her suitcase and zips it shut. Like so many other young Italians, the 28-year-old is leaving the country, unable to find stable employment.


"There is a lot of corruption in Italy, which makes the situation very difficult," Arco said. "I hope that in England, I'll feel more rewarded".

Despite a flurry of promises to reduce youth unemployment ahead of Sunday's election, many young Italians are voting with their feet and seeking better career prospects abroad.

"Whatever the election outcome, I don't believe anything will change," said Arco, a graduate in pharmacy with a Master's in management.

Italy is struggling to recover from the 2008 economic crisis, with overall output still nearly six percent lower than before the crisis began. Young people, especially, are paying the price.

Italy has EU's highest level of youth unemployment, study shows
File photo: anabgd/Depositphotos

The statistics are grim: unemployment for 25-34 year olds stands at 17 percent. According to the latest figures from the Fondazione Migrantes research centre, in 2016 almost 50,000 Italians aged between 18 and 34 left in search of greener pastures.

Young Italians often feel shut out of the political process in a country where there is little turnover in ageing political elites and the minimum age for Senate candidates is 25.

Some are drawn outside of the traditional main parties to the anti-establishment rhetoric of the Five Star Movement or the anti-immigration League -- but the prevailing mood is one of despondency.

Elusive permanent contract

After completing a five-year degree, Arco managed to find work in Naples, but low pay, and no prospect of a permanent contract, quickly made her realize she would have to go elsewhere. For the next five years the search for career progression took her to central Italy.

"In Italy you can work for a maximum of 30 months, then a company either has to give you a permanent contract or let you go," Arco said. "And obviously, they always let you go because it doesn't suit them to invest in you when so many others are queueing up to take your job."

Balloons released during a protest against labour reforms. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

In January, daily newspaper La Repubblica reported that 5,000 applicants had applied for one nursing job in the northern city of Parma.

"The main obstacles facing young Italians are the lack of available jobs, a mismatch between what students are studying and what the job market requires, and companies' attitudes towards new employees," said Ivano Dionigi, head of AlmaLaurea, an association helping new graduates find work.

The infamous concept of "raccomandazioni" -- using your connections to get you a job -- is also still deeply engrained in the country's labour market. Eighty-five percent of businesses in Italy are family run, according to research by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"Often in Italian companies, a father hands a managerial role down to his son. The son often does not have a degree, he is then reluctant to hire a graduate, and that's where the damage is done," said Dionigi. "Abroad, jobs are more merit based," he said.

'Difficult to plan'

The bleak outlook in Italy is also taking its toll on demographics. In 2016, Italy had the lowest birthrate in the EU, according to Eurostat.

"It's very difficult to plan your personal life if you can't find a steady job," Arco said. "Why would you think about settling down if you know you will have to move?  How can you think about starting a family, if you don't have a permanent contract? I can't even think about getting a gym membership."

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The so-called "brain drain" comes at a huge cost.

"It's like suicide for a nation to invest in all this talent, and then give it away to another country," said AlmaLaurea's Dionigi.

In the run-up to the national ballot, political parties across the spectrum have promised to improve the economic outlook, without giving specifics.

For Dionigi, young people's lack of hope is particularly concerning. "If your young people do not have trust or hope, the country faces a real risk of being brought to its knees."

READ ALSO: The Local's complete guide to the Italian election

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A view over Rome's rooftops. Photo: vkovalcik/

By Lucy Adler


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