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The Myth of Italian Exceptionalism

Italian, Alberto Progida, theorises how Italy could slow the mass exodus of its youth. Alberto is a second year engineering student at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Lazy Italian Street

I am a young Italian living in Edinburgh, Scotland. I left my town of Padova when I was sixteen and haven’t looked back since; this was not an easy decision to take. Conversations with members of the large community of Italians living in the city revealed that nearly everyone wishes that they could fulfil their economic and educational aspirations in Italy and that they would have preferred to stay. However, after growing accustomed to the dynamism of Edinburgh, we are shocked and disappointed when we fly back to our hometowns for the holidays and everything looks and feels exactly the same as we had left it: no new restaurants, no new bridges or developments, no new shops, TV series or radio shows. Then we remember that is precisely why we left in the first place.

Young Italians from across the Peninsula will not hesitate to report that their prospects are far from idyllic. Foreign desks like Reuters and the Guardian have referred to the country as a gerontocracy - a state or society governed by and in the interests of people significantly older than most of the adult population. Government expenditure on the ageing baby-boomer population exceeds spending on the rest of the population seven to one, while new parents joke that the reason for their new-born's tears is the €200,000 of public debt they become the lucky beholders of at birth. The picture is as dire in the workplace as it is in hospital nurseries. Youth unemployment has risen to a shocking 29.5% and those working face low paying positions, few career development opportunities and ancient commercial practices that position Italy lower than Kosovo and Rwanda in “Doing Business 2020”. A swift change in attitudes, however, could enable Italy to rise through the ranks.[1]

Most EU member states use the term ‘Brain Exchange’, because the numbers of nationals leaving the country roughly equals the number of foreigners coming to study at their universities. Italy is one of the few who can legitimately talk about the ‘brain drain’. The number of young Italian graduates leaving the country is double the number of foreign students studying at Italian universities [1]. To give some perspective, 30,000 skilled young people left the country in 2018 alone. Italy is doubly under-performing: firstly, poorly retaining its talent and secondly, failing to attract foreign students.

Leaving Italy has become so commonplace that the Italian national institute for statistics (ISTAT) is no longer solely concerned by the creativity and talent spilling out of the borders but also by the drain’s wider effect on demographic distribution, with a particular eye focused on the ratio of incoming taxpaying youths to senior citizens. The real threat of fiscal collapse, accentuated by the trend’s acceleration over the past decade, has allowed the issue to percolate from disgruntled students to mainstream media, now entering into Italian public discourse.

Some take a view of Italian exceptionalism forged by the memory of the mid-twentieth century economic boom, suggesting that young people emigrate because they could not possibly survive the ostensibly rigorous Italian higher education. This view is easily debunked, however, by pointing to global university rankings which position only three Italian institutions in the top 200 globally, showing that the supposed rigour is hardly conducive to academic results. This is perhaps another symptom of the unproductive gerontocracy whereby the older people’s antiquated perceptions of educational value perpetuates an anachronistic higher education system that is fit for the Renaissance era but not the modern world.

Why would a country in such dire need of fresh energies turn immigrants away with such disdain?

The irony is that many of those who take the exceptionalist position, putting the “Italian system” above all others and trivialising the issue, are those who also fervently adopt anti-immigration views. Since 2015, hundreds of thousands of refugees have reached Italian shores escaping conflicts, oppression, and injustice. Many Italians have cried out for unsteady boats to be turned around and sent back to the coasts of Northern Africa, leading to the populist Lega Nord’s [2] success in the 2018 general election. The government quickly got to work, fending off the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, by blockading the marine routes and lobbying European partners to chip in and deal with the inconvenience. Why would a country in such dire need of fresh energies turn immigrants away with such disdain? The majority of incoming migrants do not hold degrees but they take on unskilled jobs, being mostly healthy and of a working age. A study conducted in Portugal [3] shows that, if rapidly processed by authorities upon arrival and adequately trained and integrated into workplaces, immigrants could help to fund the very pensions of the older generation who elected this xenophobic government. Importantly, they have children at higher rates and those children have the chance to become skilled workers after pursuing a degree at one of the many public universities.

Nevertheless, Italy does have the tools to overcome its population crisis and brain drain if Italians admit that recent attitudes have been wholly unproductive. Opening ourselves up to an inclusive multiculturalism would be beneficial; Merkel’s Germany did just that, offering traineeship programs to refugees and immigrants, leading to net positive effects.

...having the humility to admit that the Italian system can be improved further could unleash the country’s potential for economic growth.

While the influx of immigrants may help to bridge the attraction side of the equation, it is simply inescapable that Italy must invest more into its youth to increase its retention of young talent. The issues that afflict Italian society are more complicated than a simply outdated higher education system and they require more radical action than pumping resources into research or offering university courses in English. Arguably, money is not the crux of this problem. Certainly, investments in education and rapidly-growing sectors like renewables will increase the opportunities that are available, but the hardest shift for the country will have to be one of popular attitudes. Adopting an open attitude to globalisation, welcoming multiculturalism and having the humility to admit that the Italian system can be improved further could unleash the country’s potential for economic growth. Reactionary attitudes have entrapped Italian society in a negative feedback loop of youth disenfranchisement and business stagnation.

Britain is not exactly known for being at the bleeding edge of progressive politics but, as an Italian, I am constantly impressed by the speed and efficiency of its government services. The example that always leaves my peers in Padova awestruck is the incredible functionality offered by the British government website ( A quick visit to the Italian government’s unveils a glorified Wikipedia, listing important dates and figures but offering no functionality whatsoever. The British counterpart offers a myriad of different services, from student loan applications to filing taxes. Transparent and efficient government services naturally inspire trust and facilitate business and, as more young Italians get used to interacting with digital services, the government will have no choice but to embrace digital platforms. The consequences of a slow and inaccessible administration is that Italy’s own Ministry for Economic Development is now providing funding for promising Italian start-ups to move to London for three months, so that they can skip the Italian red tape and get their project off the ground more rapidly [4]. Some of the start-ups that were co-founded by Italians in the UK are Depop and King games (the makers of Candy Crush), the former is worth $100 million, the latter $6 billion. Italy could reap enormous benefits from a concerted attempt to retain its homegrown entrepreneurs but, for this to occur, its eldery population must appreciate the importance of technological development.

If exceptionalism grounded in ignorance is the root, progressive policies based on openness and self-awareness offer the solution.

It is not just the business world which is affected; matters of public health and education in Italy often seem to be slipping decades behind. This week, Scotland became the first country to provide universal access to free period products. Several Italian friends, who I keep in contact with via social media, were quick to praise this progressive victory. Meanwhile, in Italy, the conversation on sexual health is stuck in the past century. While Scotland was passing groundbreaking progressive legislation, the national newspaper Libero’s front page on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women read “Naive Woman Assaulted”. Thanks to social media, young people are perfectly aware of Italian backwardness, and can only dream of obtaining similar victories to those of the UK or some other European societies.

Lacklustre government infrastructure and antiquated ethical standards represent the chasm between major European and Italian cultures. They serve as obvious examples of how Italian society is not set up to favour the incoming generation. Instead, it loyally serves an ageing population, turning a blind eye to the advancements made by other nations and languidly basting itself in its past achievements and rich history. If exceptionalism grounded in ignorance is the root, progressive policies based on openness and self-awareness offer the solution.


[2] Lega Nord is a right-wing populist Italian political party. Often publicly rejecting the label right-wing, though not populist, the party is slightly difficult to label on a right-left spectrum. Nevertheless, in their current condition, they are strongly anti-globalisation from their religious and social conservatism to their support for protectionist tariffs and strong opposition to immigration (except when it is tailored to increase Italy's Christian population and protect its 'Judeo-Christian' culture); their protectionism and economic and cultural nationalist opposition to immigration are combined with support for higher wages and pensions to give them their populist label.


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