The cost of living crisis follows the pandemic as another blow to young people and their living standards. In Italy, younger generations have been suffering from the effects of precarious work and falling economic prosperity for at least a decade. The result is widespread disillusionment, withdrawal from politics, and a vacuum that only the Right has so far been able to fill.

“I have a degree in sports science. While I was studying, I started working in a gym as part of a student internship. After graduation, they offered me a job as maternity cover and I stayed on. I’m paid in cash, off the books. To make it legal I would have to go self-employed and pay more in tax than I actually make.” Francesca [name changed] is a 26-year-old who divides her time between three odd jobs to build up work experience and achieve a minimum of independence from her parents. “I also work at a gymnastics club, but I’m only paid expenses,” continues Francesca. “And once or twice a month, on big nights, I bartend at a club.” Juggling three jobs is not easy physically or mentally: “I work three jobs to earn 500 euros a month, and I’m exhausted.”

In 2020, 11.2 per cent of workers in Italy between 20 and 29 years old lived below the relative poverty line, i.e. they earned less than 10,519 euros per year, which works out at less than 876 euros per month. This percentage exceeds the European Union average by around two points. Italian statistics agency ISTAT reports that absolute poverty among young people aged between 18 and 34 was 11 per cent in 2021. This means that almost 1.1 million young people cannot afford the minimum expenses needed to lead an acceptable life. To aggravate the situation, the pandemic caused thousands of young people to lose their jobs, further increasing precarity and unemployment.

Priced Out: The Cost of Living in A Disrupted World
This article is from the paper edition
Priced Out: The Cost of Living in A Disrupted World
Order your copy

The working conditions experienced by young people in Italy today can be summed up in four words: underpaid, occasional, exploitative, and insecure. A 2021 survey by the Italian National Youth Council based on a sample of 960 young people aged 18-35 revealed that, five years after completing their studies, one third of interviewees were unemployed for over 40 per cent of their time. A large majority indicated that they received an annual salary of less than 10,000 euros per year, with 23.9 per cent earning less than 5000 euros.

Twenty-two of the European Union’s 27 members have a legally established minimum wage. Italy is one of the five countries without one, along with Denmark, Austria, Finland, and Sweden. In these countries, wages are regulated by collective bargaining. In September 2022, a directive on EU minimum wages was approved by the European Parliament. This aims to increase the minimum wage threshold and strengthen collective bargaining, which does not always cover all sectors in countries without a minimum wage. In Italy, collective bargaining is not mandatory. Some firms and contracts are not covered at all, undermining the rights and protections of workers.

In late 2014, Matteo Renzi’s centre-left government introduced the Jobs Act, which aimed to kickstart hiring and help Italy recover from the Eurozone crisis by making work more flexible. In theory, the reform also set limits on the number of times a worker can be hired on fixed-term or “on call” contracts, forms of hiring that fail to guarantee stable employment and income. “These limits have not prevented the unlimited spread of these contracts,” explains Nicola Marongiu, labour market and negotiations coordinator for Italy’s biggest trade union CGIL. According to Marongiu, 90 per cent of new hires each month are on fixed-term contracts, while young people are often hired on terms that “cannot be defined as work”, such as fake internships. “Since 2014, ‘extra-curricular’ internships are often used for essential work that cannot be constituted as training.” The result, Marongiu explains, is that young people become trapped in a pattern of interrupted, stop-go employment that means that their income “is not enough to live on”. Throughout this time, young people are failing to build up pension contributions, setting them up for difficulties later in life.

“The fundamental problem is that there are no public welfare policies for young people,” adds Silvia Ciucciovino, a professor of labour law and advisor to the National Council of Economy and Labour. Social protection is targeted at older people and “the welfare state does not address the social needs of young people and families.” An entire demographic is thus ignored by social security, deprived of the possibility of making plans at a cost to personal dignity and drive alike.

The working conditions experienced by young people in Italy today can be summed up in four words: underpaid, occasional, exploitative and insecure.

From insecure work to the denial of housing autonomy

Precarity and poverty impact young people’s ability to live autonomously. In the European Union, the average age at which people leave the parental home is 26.5 years old. In Italy, it is 29.9. This high average correlates with some of the EU’s lowest rates of workforce participation among young people. The presence of an adequate and reliable income is a major factor in the decision over whether to leave home. Carlo Giordano, board member of Immobiliare.it, cites a recent analysis that found that the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom flat, which rose 8 per cent between 2021 and 2022, is 877 euros per month. This figure does not include bills. Energy and environment regulator ARERA has calculated that average annual bills for natural gas and electricity come to 1730 and 1120 euros respectively. Both have risen sharply compared to 2021 – by 46 per cent for gas and 81 per cent for electricity. An Italian household thus needs over 13,000 euros a year to live in a rented apartment. This represents an increase of 15 per cent on 2021. When seen together with low pay and short-term contracts, the problem is obvious.

“I still live with my parents for now. My contracts are too insecure, and I’m not paid enough to cover rent or any unexpected costs,” says Andrea [name changed], 32. “All my salary and maybe more would go on rent, so I wouldn’t be able to afford anything unplanned like dentist’s or doctor’s appointments, or getting the car fixed.” Andrea’s situation is shared by many young people in Italy. In addition to the lack of social security, Italy also has scarce social housing compared to many European countries. Although Italy is among the countries with the highest number of houses per inhabitant, only 3.8 per cent is dedicated to social housing. In Austria and the Netherlands, the proportion is 24 and 29 per cent respectively. As residents tend to stay in social housing for life, it is virtually impossible to access in Italy. All available indicators point to deepening housing deprivation, with young people facing a particularly difficult situation.

The poverty that many young people face has become structural – so much so that it has given rise to changes in the very idea of housing. Nicola Ferrigni, director of the “Generazione Proteo” Observatory, explains how a study of 5000 Italian young people aged 16 to 19, which found that 62 per cent would be prepared to move into a co-living space, a form of residential accommodation with shared communal areas. While half the respondents said that their choice would be based on affordability, Ferrigni sees signs of a “cultural shift that derives from the economic”.

An absent political class

Despite deteriorating working conditions and the rising cost of living, Italy’s political class continues to forget young people and their needs, as it has done for years. “Young people are excluded from politics,” states Ferrigni, adding that “youth was a key word in the Italian election campaign, but it was only ever used in a tokenistic way.” With nothing concrete on offer, under-35s in Italy stayed home on election day. In September 2022, a far-right-led coalition gained a majority in parliament with over 40 per cent of the votes. Forty per cent of people between 25 and 34 abstained.

“I have no faith in politics. Nobody speaks to me. Most politicians have given no weight to the needs of my generation in recent years,” says Francesca. Andrea agrees. With a disappointed gaze, he explains that he loves politics deeply, but that he has lost his confidence in it. “Regardless of their place on the political spectrum, from the extreme right to the extreme left, I do not see politicians with a medium-to- long-term vision for the country. I am 32 years old. I’ve voted in a few rounds of elections, and I haven’t seen any flash of novelty or vision that could reassure me”.

There are many factors behind the Right’s recent success. For political sociologist Luca Raffini, young people are politically lost as a result of the general and sustained precarity of work and life. “Younger generations find themselves deprived of a collective dimension due to their precarious and fragmented experiences and identities,” describes Raffini. “Politics is a collective thing. How do you build a sense of community if half of the employees in a given workplace are on short- term contracts and are afraid that making any demands could see them out the door?”

The Right capitalised on discontent rooted in worsening living conditions by focusing on the “here and now”. With prices rising, the right-wing coalition promised a flat tax to increase incomes and shrink the state. Never mind that the policy is unaffordable considering Italy’s high level of public debt. It also tailored its proposals to target older voters. There are 16 million people over the age of 50 in Italy, compared to 6.8 million voters under the age of 35.

All indicators point to deepening housing deprivation, with young people facing a particularly difficult situation.

The majority received by the right-wing alliance led by Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party cannot be explained without underlining the novelty the bloc represented compared to a series of governments of different colours that had all tried and somehow failed. Its victory reflects the Brothers of Italy’s stubbornness in opposing Mario Draghi’s technical government, as well as its ability to entice voters by adopting paternalistic rhetoric calling for the state to take care of its citizens in the current crisis. Giorgia Meloni won not so much for her concrete proposals as for her skill in conveying a sense of protection: of the traditional family, of the homeland and nation, of borders and security.

The major Italian parties attempted to address young people during their electoral campaigns but failed to formulate concrete, long-term proposals that could credibly provide hope to an entire generation. The Right, the left wing of the Democratic Party, and the alliance of the Greens and the Italian Left all proposed reducing taxes on young hires in some form, while the latter supported free public transport for the under-30s. The attention paid to young people by the Five Star Movement was also superficial, centring on making mortgages more accessible for first-time buyers and the introduction of a “right to stay” to combat emigration among young graduates.

All important points, but a long way short of changing the system that has left Italy in its present state. Instead, the proposals appeared disconnected, amounting to patching up the present without looking to the future.

Stressed out and depressed

This precarity, prolonged economic dependence, and disillusionment is deeply affecting the mental well-being of the under-35s in Italy, changing perceptions of life and of relationships. “Insecurity starts at work but becomes an existential question when you cannot truly become an adult and acquire the trappings of adulthood,” argues Raffini. Not only that – insecurity weakens social relations and affects the ability to link the present to the past and the future. “I like the work I do very much, but I am dissatisfied. I feel that I am constantly in search of a level of independence and security that is impossible for me to achieve at present,” adds Francesca. “On a psychological level, you really feel the effects of precarity,” echoes Andrea, stating with regret that he cannot imagine the future, and his one hope is that all these shared difficulties will push people to “bring out the best of the collective”.

Psychologist and counsellor Ambra Cavina argues that unemployment and precarity undermine personal development: “Work is part of building a personal and social identity.” The world of work facing young people today does not give them a chance to explore their limits and their desires. The spiral of social pressure associated with not having a job leads to mental stresses from “anxious-depression to boredom and apathy and isolation and exclusion”. Cavina believes that it is the political class’s responsibility to provide support and create the pathways that promote the wellbeing and mental health of young people, above all by giving them the chance to forge a life path for themselves.

Under-35s in Italy are living in bubbles of economic and job insecurity that can burst at any moment. Meloni’s right-wing government appears uninterested in employment policies and the needs of young people, whose principal desire is to be able to express their identity and sense of self. Meanwhile, the cost of living is going up, and the gap between job insecurity and the right to housing is growing, leaving young people at the mercy of the future. With proposals lacking, the challenge for Italy’s government and its opposition is to formulate credible and feasible long-term proposals to change a system that is becoming less and less sustainable.

“I am disillusioned but still believe that change is possible,” finishes Andrea with a rueful smile, hoping to remain afloat in a society and in a country that seem to be slowly sinking.

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.