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“Italy Is Collapsing…And 5 Star Is Our Last Hope”: How Young Italians Fueled A Populist Uprising

Unlike in the US, where President Trump relies on older Americans for his base of support, more than half (53%) of Italians under 35 voted for one of the two anti-establishment parties that triumphed in Italy’s March election. Their enthusiastic support explains the outpouring of anger directed at technocratic Italian President Sergio Mattarella, who called for new elections as he seemingly reached for every conceivable excuse to try and stop the two parties from forming a government, before finally acquiescing.

Young Italians have grown disillusioned with the center-left – which has clung to a status quo that deliberately favors older workers – even as their counterparts in Greece and Spain have moved even further to the left, with 40% of Spaniards under 35 saying in a recent poll that they favor the far-left Podemos and its allies, while in Greece, 41% of people aged 18 to 24 voted for Syriza in the 2015 election that brought the far-left party to power, according to the Wall Street Journal, which recently published a long-winded feature about the political plight of restive Italian youth.

Italy

Giada Gramanzini, a 29-year-old Italian university graduate who has struggled to find permanent work

Young Italians, like young people in much of the Western developed nations that comprise the EU, are convinced that they will lead lives fraught with economic turbulence, and that few in their generation will manage to achieve the same standard of living that their parents enjoyed. The marriage rate in Italy has fallen by a fifth over the past decade, according to Istat. In 2016, the last year for which data are available, Italian men got married on average at age 35 and women at 32 – two years later than in 2008. Meanwhile, the birth rate in a country that’s viewed as the cradle of conserative Catholicism has fallen to an all-time low.

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Of the many statistics that point to an intractable economic malaise, the youth unemployment rate is particularly troubling: Nearly 30% of Italians aged 20 to 34 aren’t working, studying or enrolled in a training program, according to Eurostat. This comes after the employment rate for Italians under 40 fell every year between 2007 and 2014, before flatlining for three years. That’s higher than any other EU member state – including Greece, which is sporting youth unemployment of 29% – the second highest – as well as Spain’s 21%.

“Italy is collapsing and yet nothing has changed in this country for at least 30 years,” said Carlo Gaetani, a self-employed engineer in Puglia. Ten years ago, when he was in his early 20s, he voted for a center-left party that he hoped would push for economic development in southern Italy. When Italy descended into a crippling recession, he felt betrayed by the traditional Italian left-wing parties. He has seen friends struggle to find jobs, and said his own business opportunities are limited to the stagnant private sector, because commissions for the public sector are usually awarded to people with connections he doesn’t have.

Mr. Gaetani, now 33, voted for 5 Star in the 2013 election, a choice he repeated in March with more conviction. “5 Star is our last hope. If they also fail, I think I’ll stop voting,” he said.

Luckily, the older generation is well-equipped to step in and provide a modicum of financial support, thanks to generous pension benefits that have accrued to older workers. Yet this has done little to assuage the anger of young Italians, as the number of Italians under 34 living in dire poverty (aka those who can’t afford even basic goods and services) has more than doubled in the aftermath of the crisis.

The pain in southern Europe reflects a feeling across much of the Western world that the younger generation will struggle to surpass their parents in wealth and security. Half of Italians who responded last year to an online survey on jobs site Monster.com said they thought they will earn less over their careers than their parents.

Young Italians, who bore the brunt of the country’s protracted, triple-dip recession, still bear the scars that will affect their career prospects, homeownership and birthrates for decades to come.

While they share many similar characteristics, the problems in Italy are fundamentally different than in the US. Perhaps the biggest issue for young people is a labor system where people with open-ended employment contracts enjoy unassailable job security and access to benefits. Meanwhile, younger employees are getting stuck with short-term contracts generally lasting from one month to one year that carry few benefits and make it impossible to plan for the future.

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The Italian government introduced these short-term contracts in the 1990s to help young people enter the labor force. Italy recently adopted a revamp of its labor laws, using tax breaks to coax companies into using more open-ended contracts – which allow firms to avoid the great hassle and cost involved in firing employees. But these policies generally haven’t worked, and both the Five Star Movement and the League have capitalized on the anger at existing labor policies by promising to undo the government’s reforms, while Five Star has also advocated giving the poor and unemployed a UBI of 780 euros (roughly $900) a month.

The 5 Star Movement has lured millions of young voters with promises to roll back new labor rules, give the unemployed and poor a so-called universal basic income of €780 ($905) a month, and abolish unpaid apprenticeship contracts. Its leader, Luigi Di Maio, was a 26-year-old university dropout who lived with his parents when he was elected to parliament in 2013. Today, he is a deputy prime minister.

The League attracted a sizable portion of the youth vote by advocating for many of the same anti-establishment policies that Five Star embraced – such as canceling the country’s recent labor reforms – while also calling for deportations of African migrants who have overwhelmed Italy’s borders in recent years.

Italy’s economic problems played into young voters’ sentiments about immigration during the campaign as well, one of the animating drivers of support for the League. “We can’t host all of Africa,” said Gianluca Taburchi, a 23-year old supermarket employee from Perugia who voted for the League. “We already have our own problems. We have lots of unemployment and unsecure jobs.”

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League who became a deputy prime minister and interior minister in the new government, promised to return hundreds of thousands of migrants to their countries of origin. 5 Star, which straddles the line on many issues, spoke of stemming illegal immigration, but stopped short of calling for mass deportations.

Now that they’ve found their way into power, the future of these euroskeptic parties will depend on whether they keep their promises. Instituting labor-market, welfare and immigration reforms is only one part of the problem. Many younger Italians are deeply distrustful of both the European Union and the euro currency – while many older Italians still view both projects as integral to maintaining a sense of European Unity and lasting peace on the continent.

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Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, flanked by Five Star Leader Luigi Di Maio and The League leader Matteo Salvini

Both The League and Five Star’s controversial flirtations with abolishing the euro (League leader Matteo Salvini was reportedly photographed wearing a T-shirt reading “Basta euro” – or “enough with the euro – to the chagrin of many older voters) have been popular with their base. But when directly confronted about their stance on leaving the euro, they’ve been noncommittal. The question now is: Will the Five Star and the League allow voters a chance to speak on the possibility of an “Italexit”, as the analysts on Wall Street have taken to calling an Italian departure from the European Union? Or will they stop short of threatening an orthodoxy that a growing number of Italian young people view as the root cause for their economic suffering?

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