Young People Cast Out Of Italy's Welfare System

In Italy, the youth jobless rate is nudging 40 percent, a record high in post-war history. Demographer Stefano Rosina says the Italian welfare system has always been skewed toward the middle-aged and elderly, leaving Italian youths with no political or trade union representation.

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We are also following a subtler story of economic devastation, even with all the news about unemployment in Europe, this next number is hard to absorb. In Italy, among younger people, the jobless rate us close to 40 percent. The government is focused on the middle-aged and the elderly leaving little room it seems for their kids

Here's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING AND SHOOTING)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Shots rang out outside the prime minister's office the day Italy's new government was sworn in. The gunman, a middle-aged unemployed construction worker, injured two policemen, one seriously.

It was an isolated incident by a middle-aged man, but political analyst James Walston says it symbolizes a growing social malaise.

JAMES WALSTON: The desperation is tangible in the country, lots of young people who have never had a job, there are other young people who the best that they can have is a temporary job, so you have people in the 30s whose parents were forming families, paying mortgages on houses, having children, these people can't do that.

POGGIOLI: The latest official youth unemployment figure is 38.4 percent - close to three million in a population of 60 million. In addition, three and a half million young people have low-paying temporary contracts, another two and a half million are known by the acronym NEETS - not in education, employment or training.

Many analysts blame an educational system that's out of step with the times, offering no counseling or job market training. Business reporter Stefano Feltri points to an entrenched cultural snobbery that attributes higher social status to liberal arts than to science.

STEFANO FELTRI: Physics, math is something very strange, not very respectable. It's better to study literature, or law, or communications or political science.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

POGGIOLI: Thirty-year-old Maria Rita Maltese studied cinematography at Rome University. She's been looking for a job for several years. But she considers herself lucky because she actually worked briefly editing videos. Her best friend, with a master in journalism, has worked only as a salesperson. Maltese says no one in Italy wants to give young people a chance.

MARIA RITA MALTESE: (Through Translator) Employers see a young person as someone to exploit, the younger and less experience the better. They create fewer problems. Since I've actually had some work experience, they see me as troublemaker.

POGGIOLI: Like many her age, Maltese acknowledges she may have chosen the wrong field of study. And she shows an ironic streak.

MALTESE: (Through Translator) My high school philosophy teacher used to tell us, you'll be part of the future ruling class.

(LAUGHTER)

MALTESE: I'd like ask her, what ruling class?

POGGIOLI: Many young Italians are now convinced a university degree is useless - only 20 percent of those enrolled complete their studies. Universities are losing students in the tens of thousands every year.

Demographer Stefano Rosina says the Italian welfare system has always been skewed toward the middle aged and elderly, leaving Italian youths with no political or trade union representation.

STEFANO ROSINA: (Through Translator) Their electoral weight is very light, and government investment in young people is very little, so the only help they get is from family. This leads to a system where young people remain passively dependent on their parents.

POGGIOLI: Italy already has one of the lowest birth rates in the world - deaths outnumber births - and one of the world's highest numbers of pensioners, which means the lion's share of the welfare budget goes to the elderly. The brain drain of young Italians leaving for better opportunities abroad over the last several years is estimated at about two million. The exodus covers all classes and educational levels, from unskilled to Ph.D.s.

The biggest challenge ahead is a demographic implosion - the numbers of elderly are increasing while the number of young decrease. Italy is less and less a country of or for young people.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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