Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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The Italian Exodus

PALO ALTO – Antonio is an Italian friend who works in information technology. In his thirties, he already had a job that, in Italy, normally would go only to a person of at least forty-five. Tired of trying to prove to his clients that he deserved his position, he grew a beard and dyed it gray. In the United States, by contrast, the late Steve Jobs co-founded Apple when he was just 21.

That anecdote is worth bearing in mind as Italy and Europe look beyond former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s rococo leadership that ended with his recent resignation. Indeed, Italy’s number-one problem is not, and never was, Berlusconi; it is the country’s entrenched gerontocracy, nepotism, and anti-meritocratic behavior. And Italians are at once the perpetrators and victims of this stalemate.

I did not leave my country in 2000 because of Berlusconi (who was out of office at the time). And none of the 90,000 people who leave Italy every year – almost a million in the last decade, according to the NGO Migrantes, from a country of 60 million – make that decision for political reasons.

We leave because Italy is a stagnant country, especially for its youth. According to OECD data, 90% of Italians under 24 live at home with their parents, while 28% of young people are unemployed – well above the average of 17% in other developed countries.

The reasons for high youth unemployment are well known. According to a study by the Italian Chambers of Commerce, half of working Italians got their jobs thanks to family or social connections. Certainly, introductions are important everywhere in finding a job, but in the US or the UK, for example, networking circles are comparatively open, and merit is still the main reason for recruiting or working with someone.

Not in Italy. When I was 21, I could not find partners or investors for the multilingual news outlet that I had created, CafeBabel.com, primarily because no one in Rome could “recommend” a Neapolitan like me.

So, in 2001, I left for France. Although I was a foreigner in Paris, I found the doors there wide open. The entrepreneurial ecosystem is even more welcoming in California’s Silicon Valley, where I co-founded earlier this year Tactilize, a company developing publishing tools for smartphones and tablets.

My life as an entrepreneur would have been a nightmare had I stayed in Italy. The World Bank ranks my country 87th in the world for ease of doing business, far behind the US (fourth), France (29th) and even Botswana (54th). This reflects a Kafka-esque bureaucracy, a high level of organized crime and corruption, and Italy’s generally conservative business culture.

Consider Daniele Alberti, who founded his first company at 26. Every potential Italian investor passed him by: “Why should you and not the others succeed?” they told him. Four years later, when his company succeeded, the same investors wanted in. “Italians are risk-averse,” says Alberti, now the CEO of a San Francisco-based startup called Vinswer. “The issue is that there is no innovation without risk.”

These are not problems that Italian politics – even freed of Berlusconi’s influence – can magically fix. They have roots that extend to Italy’s founding in the nineteenth-century Risorgimento, which unified the Italian peninsula. The newly established Italian government levied ever-increasing taxes, sent troops to occupied areas that didn’t speak a word of Italian, and obliged young people to spend five years in the army of a country that they didn’t know. All of this engendered strong suspicion of the Italian state and tax evasion, as well as organized crime.

With the Italian establishment commemorating 150 years of unity this year, ordinary Italians know that there is little to celebrate. Unification is no longer an issue, but the problems that it caused continue to burden the country. That is an important reason why, according to the latest surveys, an estimated 70% of Italians who live abroad do not plan to return, and why half the country’s youth harbor dreams of leaving.

Berlusconi did nothing during his three terms as prime minister to change the country’s dire conditions, especially for young people. But he did not create those problems. For the same reason, a technocratic government led by the economist Mario Monti will be unable to turn Italy around without the right reforms and policies. Don’t blame Berlusconi; blame the Italians – and their ancestors.

Read more from our "Italian Ice" Focal Point.

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