The front page of a recent issue of the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano read like an Italian “Help Wanted” listing: “Lavori per Giovani Cercasi” (cf. Aug. 13 2010).
Unfortunately, this eye-catching headline was not a classified ad targeting young professionals for job openings at the Holy See’s many curial and administrative offices – the prized “stable” positions that would have Roman youth queuing in lines much longer those to enter Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica!
Rather, the Vatican newspaper summarized alarming statistics on worldwide youth unemployment released by the United Nations International Labor Office (ILO) in its detailed 87-page Global Employment Trends for Youth. In its special report the ILO confirmed global unemployment rates for young men and women (ages 15-24) are caught in a dangerous tailspin.
In only a two-year span between 2007 and 2009, an estimated 81 million out of 620 million youth have lost jobs –the unfortunate fall out from the massive lay-offs, non-renewed contracts, and start up bankruptcies during the Great Recession. That’s an average 13% unemployment rate for a young generation whose lives are on pause at critical stages of their vocational and financial development.
Some naysayers claim we are witnessing a veritable free fall into what may be a very long and bitter winter for job seekers, further extended by inevitable “double dip” periods of recession. So pessimistic are they, that we hear them quip: the currently frozen jobs market has activated a financial Ice Age. They argue that world’s unemployed youth are stuck in a very long-term socio-economic downturn in which many of them may never fulfill their basic dreams without stable jobs. Hence they can forget about plans for marriage, having children, purchasing homes, and saving for proper retirement.
Well short of claiming that the sky is falling, in the very least we can agree wit the ILO report: rising unemployment among youth will surely “lead to socio-economic instability and political unrest.”
NEETs and Nullafacenti
A 13% youth unemployment rate would be a “dream figure” for some industrialized countries, like Italy where I live and work. Here average unemployment for the same age bracket hovers regularly above 20% and drastically worsens when counting those young adults older than 25 who are not counted in most official unemployment figures.
Those young Italians who procrastinate entry into the workforce by not graduating university on time or who are still stuck in the starting blocks of their career by taking on un-paid company apprenticeships are typically not counted as unemployed. When we include them in the unemployment statistics, some estimates rise to well over 30%.
Finally, there is the most worrying segment of the young jobless population: the so-called NEETs (Not in Employment or Education or Training). In Italy, NEETs have now reached two million and account for over 21% of the country’s unemployed youth. NEETs are often tarred and feathered as the nation’s nullafacenti (“do nothings”), who help Italy maintain the number one EU position for this ever-growing detriment to society. They invest absolutely nothing in themselves to find traditional jobs or create entrepreneurial business opportunities – a financial and social welfare time bomb just waiting to explode.
To prove my point, just watch this TV5 clip (see minutes 12.20-13:50). Last week on Italian national television, reporters covered the shocking story of a 25 year-old NEET male (living at home in a city near Rome) who violently threatened his parents, extorted them, and even locked them out of their own house as he demanded more “allowance” money to satisfy his various material caprices. Eventually local police had to intervene to subdue the nullafacente and “restore” the official property rights of his parents own home.
Adverse vs. Difficult Conditions
All this is going on while the 2010-11 forecast for economic growth in Europe appears dim, as the Old Continent sputters along a very trepid economic recovery.
In Euro-zone countries official reports for the first quarter of 2010 were modest at best and downright dismal in economies of its weakest Mediterranean partners, like Italy, Spain and Greece. Second quarter reports released on August 13 by Euro Stat were not inspiring either, with average Euro-zone GDP growth rates up by a mere 1%.
When studying conditions in impoverished and developing countries, our heartstrings are tugged by the increasing impossibility for young people to succeed while paralyzed by a most vicious circle of economic, political and social turmoil (no fault of their own!). These include massive obstacles such as absolute tyranny, decades of civil war and genocide, widespread corruption, little or now rule of law, no direct foreign investment, no regular lines of credit, devastating droughts and famines, deathly outbreaks of easily treatable diseases, faulty telecommunications, et al.
Now these are what I call adverse conditions. These are conditions which all but crush any chances youth have to find and create new work, despite their high ambitions, inventive strategies, and sincere vocations in their line of business. Their odds will improve only if radical changes and revolutions occur in their societies.
Yet, we cannot say the same about the chances of youth finding and creating work while living in the world’s largest but struggling industrialized economies, like Italy. Comparatively speaking, this is still a land in which youth can make it in life. Here some of the world’s most creative and unrelenting businessmen achieve success, even despite suffocating regional and national tax structures, turf wars with mafioso thugs, and a near bankrupt social welfare state in times of austerity. Believe it or not, it is still possible for enterprising youth to make it in Italy. It may be very difficult to succeed here, but not impossible as in, say, Cuba or North Korea. Far from it.
Too Much Dolce Vita?
Some stats claim an amazing 70 percent of Italian single men and women (both employed and unemployed) live at home until their mid-to-late 30s. Some critics from hardworking cultures typically say this population group lives the “sweet life”, a.k.a. the dolce vita. Others defend the socio-economic phenomenon, claiming this is the only way youth can save for a future home and a car down payment or to help keep their parents’ household afloat. In either case, they enjoy the benefits of a secure and relatively struggle-free home environment. In Italy no 15-24 year-olds starve or sleep on the street.
However they view themselves, Italian youth usually fail to appreciate that living at home provides a tremendous financial opportunity for them. Unlike others living own their own and barely making ends meet, they can save up small amounts capital over time to try their luck in entrepreneurial ventures on their own or in partnership with others who share their same business concept. This is what I think the Vatican newspaper meant to inspire, when it said youth should live up to their potential as the “forza motrice” (driving force) of the world’s teetering economy.
After all, in addition to being able to save a little venture capital, they have assets and resources that impoverished and developing nations would fight tooth over nail for. They are private owners of smart phones and wireless lap taps, have 24/7 internet access, enjoy affordable higher education (and cheap advanced education), have efficient and very inexpensive transport around the European Union (God Bless Ryan Air!), and can easily request small start up business loans – typically up to €5000 (with their parents as guarantors) to secure a little more investment capital.
And yet so many bitter young Italians sit idle in their beautiful piazzas with nothing better to do.
Ironically these historic squares were not built for modern day-dreamers, but to host and encourage vibrant hubs of entrepreneurial trading during Renaissance times –the very period that gave inspiration to the free market as we know it.
Notwithstanding, Italian youth know not their past nor perceive well their futures. They blame everyone from Berlusconi to the Madonna (not the pop-star!) for having no opportunities.
Parents Should Be Furious
The Vatican news piece of two weeks ago (written on Friday the 13th, another reason to blame the bad stats!) should have been dedicated to a story on inspiring young business leadership in the recession market. They should have interviewed a young Italian entrepreneur, a friend of mine, whose marketing agency was built on less than €1000 start up capital. It now approaches six figures in annual revenue and the business owner is now attempting to purchase his own home, get married and is considering hiring other young collaborators to help take his venture to the next level (yes he is about to create new jobs!).
Italian parents should furious, just like the master in Christ’s Parable of the Talents, whose timid servant had simply buried the meager capital he had received. The risk aversion is the same for Italian upper and middle class youth who do nothing worthwhile, even with a generous €200 paghetto (monthly allowance) that some of them receive. Worse still, they blow it at bars, movie theaters and cell phone shops. Did they know that some successful internet businesses humbly start with that very same amount?
Perhaps it boils down to a question of values – values instilled in youth by an overly cautious post-war generation of parents who insist their offspring find the golden fleece of work (i.e. un posto fisso or permanent union-protected job). Their encouragement has done little but create false hopes in youth.
Sadly, this values system is broken. In Italy, we can no longer use the same macroeconomic and political “excuses” to define the youth’s scapegoats, like we still can in developing and impoverished countries or in 1940s post-World War II Europe. In modern industrialized, but often struggling countries like Italy, the forza motrice must be the the current generation of enterprising youth, whether they like it or not. To do so, they need to finally switch gears and overcome their aversion to risk, discover their special callings in life, invest their talents in worthwhile projects, and once again prove they are one of the most creative and resilient cultures on earth.