[en] The Politics of Generations in Present-Day Italy


Earlier this year, in July, the executives of the Nestlé plant in San Sisto (Perugia) made an appalling proposal: workers may give up 25% of their salary and working hours to obtain, in return, a guaranteed workplace for their children, at just 75% of the ordinary wage. While the suggestion was met with horror by the unions and their delegates, several workers reported that they did at least consider the offer. While the episode was soon forgotten, it offers a glimpse of how sore the relationships between different generations have become.

Italy is hardly the only place where this type of ageism occurs: blaming the selfishness of the baby boomers is now commonplace in the current debate of many Western countries. Yet, some issues appear to recur regularly in the Italian public discourse. First, the generations born in the 1950s and 1960s are commonly blamed for the skyrocketing Italian public debt, now estimated at 123% of the GDP. This incredible figure is often presented as a consequence of the public spending in sectors such as education, welfare, pensions, and healthcare. This analysis conveniently omits as a cause the nepotism and the corruption fostered by 40 years of almost uninterrupted Christian-Democrat political hegemony. Secondly, the generational clash is often used as a justification for more flexibility in labor regulations, depicting the protections from which the previous generation benefited (such as protection from indiscriminate firing, maternity leave, and sick leave) as intolerable privileges. This has led to the complete lack of labor protections experienced by the youngest generations, whose rights were crippled by the subsequent deregulations of the “Treu” Bill in 1997 (Law 196/1997) and of the “Biagi” Bill in 2003 (Law n. 30/2003). Finally, arguments based simply on generation often conceal other factors such as race, class, and gender in the political analysis, not only in the rhetoric of mainstream media, but also in the public discourse of leftist forces and thinkers.

The TQ movement

In April 2011, a group of intellectuals and cultural workers launched a new movement, named “Generazione TQ” (TQ Generation). The acronym stands for the age of its members, self-presenting as intellectuals in their 30s and 40s (in Italian,“trenta-quarantenni”). The movement was kickstarted by 5 writers and scholars (Alessandro Grazioli, Nicola Lagioia, Giorgio Vasta, Giuseppe Antonelli and Mario Desiati), who on April 18, 2011 published an appeal in “Il sole 24 ore” (the newspaper of the Italian Associations of Business Owners), inviting the intellectuals of their generation to take a stance in the political debate. The movement structured itself through a series of public assemblies and presented a public platform in September 2011. With many of its members coming from the ranks of education, the arts, and the publishing industry, TQ self-identifies as a movement of “knowledge workers”. TQ’s analytical focus does not seem to be the relationship of capital and labour, or the production of surplus-value under the new conditions of immaterial, technological mediated tertiary, but rather a description of the working conditions in sectors normally identified with the humanities.
In this movement, finally, “generation” overlaps with “class” – in this case the composite group of precarious workers employed in the entertainment industry, the arts, and the publishing sector (in other words, the cultural industry).

Besides promoting public debates and other initiatives through a structure of local committees, TQ’s main political outcome has been the publication of themed manifestos. Five manifestos have been published so far, respectively on Italian politics, the publishing industry, the use of public spaces, the archaeological and artistic heritage, and the school and university. More appeals are forthcoming upon other crucial issues, such as the gender divide in the Italian society, or the working conditions in the film and video-making industry (another professional sector where unprotected, unsafe and even unpaid work is the norm rather than the exception). Some of these appeals are available in French, Spanish, and English translations on the website of TQ. While there have been ties between and overlaps with important direct actions, such as the occupations of Teatro Valle and Macao, TQ appears to be mainly a theoretical movement, aimed at mapping the current sociopolitical reality and identifying good practices, rather than promoting direct action and fomenting conflict.

Other generational movements

While TQ has been the main generational movement of the past few years, its analysis is not unique in its genre. Several movements have emphasized the connection between youth and the dangerous knot of underemployment-precarization-impoverishment that appears to be ubiquitous in Italian society. Different subjects fall into this category, from the largest aggregations of the student movements (leading to the waves of protest against Education Minister Gelmini in 2008, 2010, and 2011) to aggregations such as the “Rete 29 Aprile” (an Italian network of contract staff, researchers, non-unionized PhD students, post-docs, and other junior faculty), and even including very specific projects and associations based on professional affiliations (such as Re.Re.Pre, a network of precarious workers of the publishing industry). These movements act in a variety of fashions, including attempts at documenting the working conditions in their sectors, and direct actions such as rallies, walk-outs, strikes, and occupations. Although they are not explicitly generational movements, all these political subjects insists on topics that are primarily affecting the youngest segments of the Italian population, now comprised of two generations of a precarious workforce.

Generational politics, however, is not a monopoly of the left, but often recurs as an instrumental device in right-wing ideologies. If “precariousness” is the distinctive category of left-wing generational politics, “meritocracy” and “talent” seem to be the key-words for a wider set of discourses, politically siding in a spectrum that goes from moderatism (including its centre-left occurrences) to down-right conservatism. In this rhetorical construct, the youth of Italy is emphatically presented as demanding more “competition” focused on “merit”, as opposed to the universal and often undeserved protection formerly bestowed on the unambitious and underachieving generation of the baby-boomers.

A good example of this attitude could be seen at work in the open letter that, in February 2012, a group of 19 young students addressed to Prime Minister Mario Monti and Minister of Labour Elsa Fornero during a Parliamentary discussion on reform of the job protection clause. After claiming their lack of “ideological orientation” (“we are not enrolled in the 19th century pattern of political labels”), the authors demanded that the newly nominated government have the courage to make changes in order to promote “merit” – in short, as many hinted, they demanded that labour protections be destroyed. Here is a translated passage of the plea:

«We hope for a cultural revolution: our fathers have been nursed by labour protections thanks to a wimpish generation, while we are forced to give up the many guarantees that the previous generations bestowed upon themselves. It is now time to set new priorities and to start equally sharing sacrifices: the selfishness of protected workers and the greediness of a privileged few are the diseases that are threatening our present. Our best bet is flexibility, and an equal distribution of guarantees and protections: these are, in synthesis, our demands».

In fact, these words resounded a praise of the dismantling of labour that has been a structural complement to the austerity policies of the Monti government. Despite their alleged lack of political beliefs, some of the authors of the letter are formerly notable members of right wing juvenile political groups. Some of them were enrolled at the private University Bocconi in Milan, a nursery for Italian neo-liberal think-tankers. Yet, they were referred to as a group of average 20-year olds, speaking on behalf of the entirety of Italian youth.

Finally, earlier in August 2012, 24 authors signed a manifesto titled “The lost generation.” The title comes from the words of Mario Monti, who had used this label to indicate the generations who are now in their 20s and 30s. The manifesto amounts to a full throated endorsement of Monti’s assertion that the baby boomers have robbed the youngest generations of a future through their excessive rights and protections. “The Lost Generation” proposes 5 values for a fresh new start: Respect, Merit, Commitment, Project, and Trust. Roberto Ciccarelli, journalist and co-founder of the blog “La Furia dei Cervelli”, provided a lucid analysis of the text. He pointed initially to its lack of clarity. In unmasking its underlying assumptions, however, he demonstrated both that the manifesto contains the idea that “positions of responsibility” in society should be transferred from one upper middle class generation to the following one, as well as the authors’ refusal to self-identify as workers.

Facts and myths on inter-generational warfare

With its confusing mixture of factual truths and ideological turns, the rhetoric of inter-generational war is appealing because its roots lie deep in the reality of the country. With an official rate of juvenile unemployment reaching nearly 30%, and recent graduate unemployment at 41%, Italy can hardly be defined as a country that is investing in its future. The financial crisis of 2008 hit hard a country already paralyzed by structural problems and by its elephantine bureaucracy: the access to many professions, from journalism to teaching, is often ruled by corporate mechanisms, national competitions, and by a byzantine set of rules subject to constant changes. A dire choice between unemployment, underemployment, and emigration awaits the thousands of high school graduates who enroll every year in the underfunded and overcrowded Italian universities. Indeed, according to the official Register of the Italians Residing Abroad (AIRE), over 300,000 citizens have left the country in the decade between 2000 and 2010. 90,000 Italians registered as having moved abroad in just the period between January 2011 and January 2012.

Finally, regulations on unpaid internships were non-existent until very recently. Despite this the proposed cancellation of unpaid internships at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs provoked inflamed reaction and immediate pleas for their reinstatement. While the Italian public debate tends to represent these issues as a national problem, they are widespread across Western countries. Working for free in exchange for “marketable skills” is not simply an Italian specialty, as recent debates in the United States and in Great Britain have shown.

What is atypical, is the display of disrespect and open contempt that ruling parties of all colors have shown for youth in Italy. It all started in 2008 when Tommaso Padoa Schioppa, then the center-left Minister of Economy, defined the many young adults who continue to live with their parents past their 30th birthday as “bamboccioni” (big mamas boys) . In 2012, Sub-Secretary Michel Martone addressed the Italian Association of Business Owners saying that “If one did not graduate by the age of 28, we must all say he’s a loser”. The irony that the speaker was the son of a federal judge who was able obtain a rare tenure-track professorship in Law at the age of 29 was not lost on Italians. His comment was met with furious reaction, which led him to apologize and make an exception for those young people who fail to graduate on time due to work obligations: “They are heroes”, Martone promptly rectified. However, a few months later, Minister Elsa Fornero made a similar faux-pas, accusing the youth of Italy of having little courage: “They want a steady job next to their mommy”, she said. Appropriateness aside, her words are particularly appalling in light of the reality of Italian emigration, both internally and towards other countries. Despite the clamor provoked by all these episodes, none of the involved politicians has ever resigned.

No longer the rallying cry of a rebel youth, the “No Future” motto has now come to describe the situation of a whole generation (or, more accurately, two generations) facing an unprecedented occupational drought and a dramatic lack of protections. Yet, by overestimating the importance of generational identities and by forgetting their link to other crucial factors such as class, gender, and race, there is the serious risk of oversimplifying a complex reality, thus failing to see the the real warfare now devastating Italy – the precarization of an entire society.


text [en] Europe’s Lost Generation – The Guardian.
text [en] Crisis forces young Italians to move abroad- Der Spiegel.
text [en] Lack of Jobs in Southern Europe – The New York Times
text [en] Austerity and Italy’s downward mobile generation- Revolting Europe

text [it] Shocking Proposal in Nestlé Plant- Il Fatto Quotidiano
text [it] Shocking Proposal in Nestlé Plant- Repubblica
text [it] CGIL refuses Nestlé proposal – FLAI-CGIL Press Release
text [it] The 20-year old open letter to Mario Monti – Il Corriere della Sera.
text [it] An interview with 20-year old Antonio Aloisi – La repubblica degli Stagisti
text [it] The Lost Generation – a Manifesto
text [it] The Illusions of the Lost Generation – La furia dei cervelli
text [it] Resources and data on the new waves of Italian emigration – La fuga dei talenti

More from other countries

text [en] The closing of American academia – Al Jazeera
text [en] The uneven playing field of unpaid internships – www.pbs.org

Related articles

[en] Macao
[en] Valle Occupato
[en] The education workforce

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