Italy counts the cost of its brain drain
The young and talented are leaving the country in search of professional opportunities.
Every summer I spend a delicious stint in Maremma on the coast of Tuscany with a law professor and a magistrate from Florence with whom I have been friends for 30 years. It’s all pine clusters, azure waters, and melon and parma picnics. It is the perfect life, evidence to many Italians that their country is the most beautiful place on earth in which to live.
But new 2018 emigration data reveals that it is also a place people are leaving in droves. Nearly 10 per cent of Italian nationals live overseas, and emigration rates are rising. Even worse, most of the leavers in recent years, are educated professionals in the prime of their working life. Although the Italian economy has recovered since the financial and eurozone crises, that hasn’t added up to optimism for the future. Quite the opposite.
My friends Chiara and Francesco, both in their late 40s, have prestigious public sector posts. Competition for such jobs for life is fierce in a still unstable economic climate. Chiara has scaled the academic hierarchy and would like to reach the top rank, full professor, and change universities. She has taught in a city several hours away from Florence for 15 years. Switching would be bureaucratic and fraught with favouritism towards her local rivals, but she believes it is within her reach. The younger Italians she teaches, however, don’t have even that hope.
“The most talented young students are all fleeing academic careers,” she says. “They know the career path is incredibly long. There is no money for research funding or doctorates. Even if you’re brilliant and get national accreditation to teach in a university, it’s rare that a tenure job will open.”
Waiting used to be part of the Italian middle-class’s caricature of itself. But something has shifted since 2008 and is accelerating. Confidence in any prospect of change is diminishing, reinforced by disillusionment with politics and the government. Italian universities are among the country’s most sclerotic institutions. But the rest of the public sector is also in need of renewal, and the situation is worsening as the populist coalition government undoes recent reforms.
Of the more than 5m Italians currently living abroad, most of them left in the past 10 years. While half of all emigrants are from Italy’s much poorer southern region, the number of northerners leaving the country’s much wealthier industrial provinces has more than doubled, and is growing every year. While Sicily was the top source of emigrants in 2007, last year Lombardy and Veneto, home to Venice, led the list of provinces with the highest number of departures. Yet Lombardy and Milan within it are the province and the city with Italy’s highest salaries.
There are few other places where the contrast is so stark between the enviable quality of life and the expectation of professional and personal prospects. For many Italian emigrants, the decision to leave is less about poverty or unemployment than about the growing conviction that it’s not a place where the well-educated and ambitious can build a successful life. By contrast, a recent survey shows that a third of Spanish leavers said they were moving because they were unemployed, more than were seeking to advance professionally or try new experiences. Nearly half of Italian leavers in the same survey cited better business opportunities or education as their reason for departure.
In 2017, one-third of the Italian citizens who moved abroad had university degrees, up 41.8 per cent since 2013.
Chiara’s two sons are still in primary school, but she is already grappling with conflicting instincts. She and Francesco have gone beyond deploring the dire state of national politics and the ambient decadence — a national sport in Italy that’s always coexisted with a pleasant inertia and even a certain pride in endurance through dysfunction — to wanting a different future for their children.
Chiara wishes she could reproduce the close knit Florentine family in which she grew up. But she believes that she would be condemning her children to small choices and smaller lives if she didn’t start seeding them with the idea that they will need to leave mamma and Italy behind.