Asked what he wished for in the lead-up to his birthday, Emanuele Baldi didn’t hesitate. “I want to be independent,” he said.
For the 44-year-old, marking another trip around the sun is no joyous occasion, rather a reminder that in the middle of his life, he still lives with his mother.
He is what Italians call a mammone, which translates to “mummy’s boy”. The term describes adult Italians who still live with their parents and they're far from uncommon. In fact, 66 percent of Italians under 35 – two in three – were yet to leave the parental nest in 2016, according to EU statistics office Eurostat. Figures also reveal the trend has increased in the last decade. In 2008, 61 percent of adults under 35 still lived at home.
The phenomenon is more prevalent in young men, with 72 percent of them compared to 60 percent of women in the same age group living at home. So what drives the majority of young Italians to stay home with mum and dad in their adult life?
“It’s not really my choice,” Emanuele explained.
“If only I had a good job. I always worked temporary contracts as a geologist, so I would work for six months and then be unemployed for six months.
“You never know what kind of job you’ll have in the future and that’s a problem because you can’t plan your future.”
Emanuele Baldi. Photo: Megan Birot
Italians will on average continue living with their parents until their 30s, according to Eurostat, while the average age of those leaving the parental household in the EU is 26.
High rents, precarious jobs
Italy’s young are hard hit by the country’s stagnating economy. The youth unemployment rate is at an alarming 33 percent, the third highest in the EU after Greece and Spain, and more than 25 percent of young Italians are neither in employment, education or training.
Yet figures show that even having a job doesn't guarantee that young Italians will fly the nest. While 41 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds living at home are students, just under 25 percent are in full-time employment.
Emanuele was 39 the first time he struck out on his own. He lived in a small flat with his ex-girlfriend in Rome for €700 a month. Then, after a failed two-year stint in Germany to look for work, bankrolled by his father, Emanuele moved back home with his 67-year-old mother.
The average rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Rome is close to €950, or €650 if you live outside the city centre. Since unemployment benefits are capped at six months in Italy, even as a single man with no children, Emanuele can’t afford to rent a room in the capital. Italy’s average nominal monthly wage is just over €2,600, according to the OECD. Emanuele said he earns less than a quarter of that as a part-time mathematics and physics tutor – enough for a weekly grocery shop.
What’s more, the country’s labour market is hardly stable, and the rise of contract employment is leaving many young Italians in limbo. Employment law reforms introduced by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in 2014 to liberalize the job market by relaxing protections for permanent employees created more insecurity for those on temporary contracts.
In the last ten years, Emanuele estimates he worked for a total of ten companies or more. The last time he was employed as a geologist was last summer.
“The job market in the capital is competitive, so who you know rather than what you know will get you through the door,” he said. “In ten years, I was only hired once based on my resume. The other times, I was called by friends who already worked for that company … This is how it works in Italy.”
Francesco Scalone, a demographer at the University of Bologna, said the poor state of the economy and welfare system had exacerbated the problem in the last decade.
“There are other socio-economic factors that determine and maintain this phenomenon; a less generous welfare state for the youth than elsewhere, high prices on the estate market, very high unemployment rates and difficult conditions on the job market, a long-run economic crisis,” he said.
'It's a culture thing'
The mammone is not just a side effect of the country’s sluggish economy. The central role of the family in Italian culture, stemming from the Roman Catholic faith, has spawned generations of lazy youths, according to Marco Di Venanzio, a former mammone himself.
“It’s a culture thing and 70 percent of it is because they are lazy and because the mother is too overbearing,” he said.
The 36-year-old believes most young Italian men struggle to find independence and are often mollycoddled by their mothers.
“I have a friend who doesn’t even know how to make a cup of coffee, so the mothers make the sons lazy and they’re not able to figure out their future outside of the maternal cycle,” he said.
READ ALSO: 'We live together, but independently'
Photo: Ubaldo Leo/Flickr
But Scalone also believes historical precedents can’t be ignored.
“There are some anthropological and historical characteristics to consider, as in the past people living in the countryside faced very difficult conditions without any institutional supports, so the individuals tended to live together in their own families providing mutual help,” he said. “This was the case in sharecroppers' households in northern-central Italy. Everyone had to work the land, so the male sons generally spent their lives in their father's house and bringing in their spouses.
“This is to say that after centuries with these habits it is quite socially acceptable that sons are so tied to their parents.”
'No country for young people'
But the phenomenon of the mammone is not specific to men. Chiara Laganà, 35, a freelance journalist in Rome, also still lives with her 71-year-old mother out of necessity.
“I can't afford economically to pay a rent or for the house maintenance … I could try to put aside some money, but I wouldn't probably be able to have money for errands or groceries,” she said. “The main reason is also because I'm not paid monthly nor regularly. One of my jobs pays for as many articles as I write, and they give me only €300 and they are never regular.”
Chiara even shares a bank account with her mother and takes money out when needed.
“Our welfare system doesn't care for the young people, it's not a country for young ones,” she said.
Nor is every mammone a mummy's boy.
“My mum is not happy that I am still living at home, she would like me to be independent as do I,” Emanuele said.
While stereotypes about Italian mothers cooking and cleaning for their children are well-worn, Emanuele insists he takes care of himself in every way – if not financially.
Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP
But his unorthodox living arrangements affect even the most basic aspects of his life, including dating.
“I do try to call her [his mother] if I’m out late so she doesn’t worry,” he said. “It’s hard because I live with my mother … when it’s like that you have to explain everything you do, so I don’t have any privacy when it comes to dating.”
Despite this, Emanuele has the desires of any other man. He wants to work, get married, have children and own a home.
“I’m not happy with where I am in life. I know I’m in the middle of my life and I didn’t reach any normal milestones, like have a family, have a house and a job, so this is a bit sad for me,” he said.
Apart from poking fun at the problem, the Italian government has done little to help adult Italians out of the parental household.
Former finance minister Tomasso Padoa-Schiopa caused controversy when he infamously labelled young Italians bamboccioni (“big babies”) back in 2007.
In 2010, a minister in the Berlusconi government called for laws to encourage youths to leave home by 18. The public administration and innovation minister at the time, Renato Brunetta, said it was needed to “deal with the culture of mummy’s boys and big babies”.
No such laws were ever introduced, and Italy’s shaky welfare system has long been skewed towards pensioners and families rather than young Italians – so the mammone isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Megan Birot is an Australian freelance journalist based in Europe. Follow her on Twitter @meganbirot.