Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Italy's Lost Generation

It has been a few days since violence erupted in Rome and across Italy: first in protest of budget cuts, then of Berlusconi's vote of confidence, and then seemingly out of anarchy as politicans rush to blame groups and old political enemies of inciting violence and anarchist groups taking responsibility for the violence and inflaming more through terrorist acts. December was a rough month for Italy, but predictably it will calm down and politics will go back to normal, with politicians more interested in their internal mind-games, completely oblivious of the people they serve, and the people unable to care less. The budget cuts wouldn't work because it doesn't address the real problems that are the cause of Italy's present and future economic woes; Berlusconi is still in office, as unpopular and ineffective as ever; and the anarchists got what they wanted in the form of media attention. High drama, but the country will be back to not dealing with the same problems, as usual.

The one media narrative I found most interesting is that of the youth protesters, members of what is increasingly becoming known as the "Lost Generation". Although no single traumatic event caused this generation's waywardness--much as WWI was to the European youth of the 20s and the Cultural Revolution was to the Chinese in the 70s and 80s--theirs was caused by a long history of economic mismanagement, bearing the brunt of generations of fulfilling promises of wealth and prosperity paid for by the future. Raised on ideals of unlimited potential, education, and endless sources of jobs, what this generation--my generation--realized was that they were the ones paying for the promises that were made and fulfilled to their parents. They expected the same, but found that the act of paying their parents' debts got in the way. The story isn't exactly new news (1, 2) but it was Italy's turn to face the fact of their wandering and aimless youth population.

Coming to Italy, I firstly thought that it must be a cultural thing: young people, all the way up to their 30s, were living with their parents and working menial jobs. There doesn't seem to be any stigma in living with one's parents, as much as it does in the US. (Although all my friends say that they do want to move out of their parents' house, I still don't think they comprehend just how much of a stigma this is in the US. Sure, there is now a growing trend among Americans in their early 20s to go and live with the parents after college, but (1) we still think it's odd and (2) we still think it's a sign of immaturity. Whereas in Italy people want to move out of their parents' house, in the US we take that as having already given up on your prospects out in the real world.) More surprising is that most if not all of them are educated, bachelors from big universities and PhDs even from British universities. For some, all the academic credentials have made them too good to take just any old job. For others, not enough face is worth saving to refuse any job, even if it is just in the sales floor. But the stories are the same: when you get a job in Italy, you hold onto it as long as you can work, and let go when the promise of a sizable pension and retirement is secure. All the jobs--especially the cushy government jobs--have been taken by the previous generations, and none of them are letting go for at least a few more years or a couple of decades. There is no hope of the bottom feeders getting sacked either--that's almost impossible to do in the Italian system.

So what does the young generation do? Not much really. For the most part, they go with the flow, even if the flow will inevitably lead to long-term suffering. The entrepreneurial spirit in Italy is barely alive. I just don't know too many individuals who see the prospect of starting their own business as a viable alternative to a job that offers stability for the next 40 or so odd years. But who can blame them? The process of starting the business is deterrent enough, as choked as it is in the infamous Italian bureaucratic mess. Once you have your business, then you have the mafia or constantly changing laws to deal with. To a large extent, Italian society and governance discourage people from setting out and finding their own destinies. Some go abroad, but the age of massive Italian emigration ended 50 years ago, and many who do leave the country come back after a year or two abroad. Those who believe that they are worth more than their market share largely stay home, waiting for their opportunity. Those who will take any job do, adding to that silent majority within the age group of the overeducated yet underemployed worker.

But in general, they still stay with their parents. Why? Because ultimately, they still believe in the promise of a good life--and the good life is hard to get when you have to pay rent. The irony in this whole situation is that Italy's youth protested not because the government isn't taking the right steps to fix the situation that dooms their future, but because they wanted more of the good thing that was made painfully apparent to be too good to be sustainable. What Italy--and the rest of the West--has not learned from this economic crisis is not the ways in which it can sustain its current programs and mode of spending, but that its bloated expectations from its anemic investiture is a delusion that needs to be shattered. "What was really lost in the crash was a popular delusion--the assumption that something as transient as the notional assets had enduring value," says Edward Jay Epstein in his brief analysis of the Japanese crash of 1991. Although he was talking about the Japanese real estate market (which was pivotal in its own "Great Recession"), the same could be said of government systems after the recession. The question for Italy is would it be open to change, or would it keep this "popular delusion" in exchange for a generation being truly lost?

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