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Reversed ‘brain drain?’: The Italians moving back to Italy amid the pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted many Italians who have built careers in the US to move back home. But, facing considerable difficulties in returning, do they really represent a reversal of the long-term trend for Italy's graduates to move abroad?

People walk in central Milan.
After being separated from loved ones during the pandemic, many people are now planning a move. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

For Caterina Tiozzo, the United States is the land of opportunities, but Italy is the place where she dreams of returning.

An neonatologist at New York-based medical center NYU Langone Health, originally from Venice, Tiozzo has spent the last 16 years in the US building a career. Then came the pandemic. 

“I still remember my boss urging us to write a will,” Tiozzo said. “If something had happened to me, I would have been alone.”  That was when she decided that moving back to Italy would be her next goal. 

“I like the American way of working,” she said. “But I have saved so many American lives. Now, I would love to help my fellow Italian citizens.” 

READ ALSO: Physics Nobel belies Italy’s scientific brain drain

Tiozzo is among a growing number of Italian expatriates that, after going through the Covid-19 pandemic thousands of miles away from their families, are considering moving back to Italy. 

A recent survey by Italian organizations Talents in Motion and Fondazione con il Sud (Foundation with the south) found that 71 percent of participants were thinking about a return even before the Covid-19 crisis. However, for one out of five, the pandemic has reinforced their desire to move back. For 82 percent, the prospect of being reunited with family is a decisive motivating factor.

“Because of the Covid-19 travel restrictions, my fiancé and I haven’t been able to see our families for two years,” said Rosa Sottile, a postdoctoral researcher at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. 

‘In Italy I would be a precarious worker for life’

Sottile, who has spent the last ten years abroad, described the pandemic’s first months as one of the most stressful times in her life. “My 92-year-old grandmother got sick. We were so worried,” she said. “Luckily, she survived.” 

Those months spent in isolation in a foreign country pushed Sottile and her fiancé to reassess their life priorities. “We need to nourish our lifelong friendships,” she said. “The pandemic made us realize, in a much shorter time, the values that are most important to us.” 

The couple is moving to Milan in a few months, where Sottile’s partner has a job lined up. The postdoctoral researcher, who is embarking on her first job search in Italy, said she is looking forward to returning to her home country although her career prospects are a cause for concern. 

“The job side of this move scares me a lot,” she said, “but I hope that my experience abroad will help me.”

For sure, she said, “I will not continue my career in the academic field. While opportunities do exist, I would be a precarious worker for life.” 

READ ALSO: ‘It’s crazy’: What to expect when you work for an Italian company

Greta Cristini is an Italian lawyer who has spent most of her adult life abroad. She was working for a prestigious Big Law firm in New York when the pandemic prompted her to reassess her professional ambitions. “Despite a good salary, my job was no longer challenging me on an intellectual level,” she said. 

Determined to find out what her home country could offer her, she quit her job and, in October 2021, moved to Rome, where she is transitioning to a new career in geopolitical analysis. 

“I’ve experienced the job market only in New York. I am aware that in Italy it will be harder,” she said. 

Emigration ‘in decline for first time in two decades’

With many Italian professionals who live abroad now considering a move back home, there are hopes that this trend could reverse the so-called ‘brain drain’ (the emigration of highly trained people) believed to have cost Italy’s economy dearly over the years.

Official data offer a somewhat ambivalent insight into the trend. In 2020, 43,229 Italians moved their permanent residence back to Italy, according to figures analyzed by researcher Antonio Ricci, vice-president of Italian research center IDOS. 

Because some of those who left the country did not officially move their residence abroad in the first place, this number is likely to underestimate the phenomenon. However, it saw just a slight increase compared to the official number of expatriates — approximately 42,000 — who returned to Italy in 2019. 

READ ALSO:

Moreover, the pandemic did not stop a significant number of Italians from saying farewell to their country. 112,218 left the country in 2020.

“This number is in decline for the first time in two decades, with an eight percent decrease compared with 2019,” said Ricci, who recently wrote a paper on the subject included in the 2021 Statistical Report on Immigration, an annual study on migration trends in Italy curated by IDOS researchers. “But it is still relevant.” 

In other words, while Covid-19 appears to have slowed down Italy’s ‘brain drain’, it is too early to conclude it is reversing the trend.

Between 2008 and 2020, at least 355,000 Italians between ages 25 and 34 left the country, while only 96,000 moved back. The balance between returnees and expatriates has been consistently negative over the years, amounting to an overall drain of 259,000 young people in 12 years – nearly 30 percent of whom have a college degree.

‘Leaving Italy is easier than coming back’

Italy’s stagnant job market is among what experts describe as the “push factors” that are encouraging people to leave.

According to Eurostat, in 2020 the unemployment rate between ages 25 and 29 in Italy was seven points above the European average. For women, finding a job is even harder: according to labour agency JobTech, in the first six months of 2021, 58 percent of those who were looking for jobs were women. 

Recent graduates in Italy are among the worst paid in Europe, according to consulting firm Mercer, and their employment rate is nearly 20 points below the EU average. 

“The reasons that lead expatriates to return collide with the obstacles they encounter in finding professional recognition in Italy,” said Ricci. 

Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

As a result, the country loses talented people and resources. The percentage of Italian expatriates with a college degree in the 25-34 age group skyrocketed from 28 percent in 2012 to 39 percent in 2019. Meanwhile, the number of returnees among young graduates remained roughly stable.

“Leaving Italy is way easier than coming back,” said Tiozzo, the Italian neonatologist based in New York. Over the past 15 years, Tiozzo tried four times to move back to Italy and find a job worthy of her credentials – unsuccessfully.

Her last attempt was six years ago when she was offered an entry-level position, which she eventually turned down.

Tiozzo, who is now looking for new opportunities in Italy, is worried that even this time she will end up staying in the US “In Italy, the system is stagnant. For women, it is even harder,” she said. 

New opportunities for those returning?

On the other hand, the pandemic allowed some expatriates to return to Italy while working remotely for their foreign clients. Linda De Luca, an Italian translator and teacher who lived in New York for eight years, left the US in June 2021. 

“Although I don’t serve anymore as a medical interpreter in hospitals, I still work for many Italian and American clients from Italy. Because of the time difference, my workday is significantly longer,” she explained. 

De Luca’s choice to leave the US was accelerated by the pandemic. “When you see so many people die, you realize that you want to live more fully, closer to your family and friends, and see your nephews grow up,” she said.

READ ALSO: Could the pandemic reverse the ‘brain drain’ in southern Italy?

International companies based in Italy may offer returnees another way home. Sottile, the postdoctoral researcher based in New York, plans to look for career opportunities in international biotech and pharmaceutical companies, which, she believes, are more likely to value her international experience. 

Italy’s 2021 budget law is facilitating such outcomes by extending tax benefits initially allocated only for returnees employed by resident companies to those who work for foreign ones too. 

“This is a Pyrrhic victory,” researcher Antonio Ricci said. “Although these people will spend money in Italy, the country will not benefit from their talents. We are surrendering to the fact we have nothing to offer to those who want to come back.” 

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Despite these dispiriting signs, Ricci ventured a bold hypothesis: that in the medium term, the pandemic might in fact help reverse the brain drain. 

“Over 100 years ago, after an earthquake took the lives of 200,000 people between the southern towns of Messina and Reggio Calabria, many Italian expatriates returned from the US to help rebuild their towns from scratch,” he explained.

According to the expert, the Covid-19 crisis may elicit a similar reaction. 

Ricci also sees Next Generation EU, the European initiative providing financial support to EU member states hit by Covid-19, as a historic opportunity. “If we manage to use those funds effectively, these returning brains could be decisive in reversing the trend.” 

However, it remains to be seen whether the choice of those who have returned or are about to do so will be sustainable in the long run. 

Cristini, the lawyer who moved to Rome, said living in her country’s capital is a new, exciting experience – but it is not a permanent decision yet. 

“I am keeping the option of leaving again open,” she said. “Just in case.” 

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LIVING IN ITALY

Charming or boring – What do Italians think of life in the old town?

Most towns in Italy have a pretty 'centro storico', or old town centre, full of charm and history. But there are plenty of reasons why Italians don't want to live there, says Silvia Marchetti

Charming or boring - What do Italians think of life in the old town?

Italy’s rural villages lure foreigners with their fascinating historic centres and bucolic vibe, but they’re not always as idyllic as they may seem at first glance.

Living in such villages, many of which are depopulated and in isolated places, built around a more or less intact ancient district, has pros and cons. They come with caveats.

The plus points are of course the old architecture and picturesque buildings full of history, surroundings with great countryside or mountain views, fewer crowds, authentic food and traditions, and welcoming neighbors. There is that ‘microcosm’ ambiance that makes you feel at home in a small place.

But one must go beyond the romantic, aesthetic appeal of old districts and look at how practical it is to actually live there.

Last weekend I visited a small village in the province of Rieti called Percile and nearly broke my leg climbing up and down the layers of huge stone steps, which were the actual alleys, wondering how residents could do it every single time they left their homes. It’s like a killer open-air gym.

READ ALSO: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

While some foreigners might view such daily feats as part of their sogno all’italiana (‘Italian dream’), Italians are not as keen on reliving the bygone days.

Historic centres are all structured in the same way: a bunch of houses cropped at the feet of a castle, church or fortress, with narrow, winding cobbled alleys where ankles get easily sprained, and ragged stone steps connecting the various levels. 

The semi-deserted old town centre of Rignano Flaminio. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Cars are banned, finding a parking place nearby is hell especially in summer, and the pavements get slippery when it rains. And in small villages where most locals have long left, or return just for weekends, shops, bars, restaurants and pharmacies tend to be located in newer areas or in nearby towns.

In the past locals fled from these places due to harsh living conditions, searching for a brighter future elsewhere. They left behind empty houses, so today many historic centres are partly abandoned and inhabited by immigrants or adventurous foreigners looking for a quiet retreat. 

Italians tend not to buy houses in old neighborhoods unless they have nostalgia for their roots and want to reconnect with their ancestors, or eye an investment like a B&B. They’d rather buy country houses with a garden, plot of land, and if affordable, a small pool.

READ ALSO: Why Italians aren’t snatching up their country’s one-euro homes

My Italian friends have never even considered buying an old dwelling in the historic centre of a rural village; they find it uncomfortable. And so do I, unless I’m sure to have everything I need at hand and at a short walking distance.

“I’m Sicilian, but I’d never purchase a cheap or one euro home in Sicily’s ancient neighborhoods, no matter how fascinating these are. I would not know where to park the car and just the thought of carrying heavy grocery bags and bottled water up staircases scares me, old homes don’t come with elevators”, says Rosi Gangiulo, a pensioner from Palermo.

Crumbling houses in Percile. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

There are also a few prejudices involved too. Unless it’s a unique, stunning town like Civita di Bagnoreggio in Lazio suspended above a deep chasm, or Renaissance-era jewel Pienza in Tuscany, living in the old part is seen as (and often is) the place for poorer or migrant families, while owning an attic in the newer area where all the pubs and shops are is ‘cool’.

In the medieval historic centre of Rignano Flaminio north of Rome, few locals remain, hens run freely amid grass-covered ruins, and entire families of immigrants live cramped in tiny one-room apartments. 

Former Italian residents have moved to the countryside or to the modern outskirts, certainly less charming but easier to live in.

Some seemingly picture-perfect historical centres are best admired at a distance, rather than experienced from the inside. Last time I visited Torrita Tiberina in the Tiber Valley it struck me how most homes in the medieval district were shut, abandoned or decaying, with nobody around. 

I happened to bump into a young Neapolitan man who asked me whether I knew what time the bus to Rome was. He told me he had been living there for four months, focusing on writing a book.

“The silence is great but it’s just too quiet. I don’t have a car and each time I had to buy something I needed to get out of the historic centre. It also became unbearable having no next-door neighbor to chat with.

To be sure old villages are the right fit, one has to look beyond the charm and really evaluate whether they’re livable as well as beautiful.

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