Walter Lorenz, Bolzano (Italy)
Children and young people continue to rank highly in Italian society, at least as far as their cultural and symbolic value is concerned. Italy represents a “Southern European pattern of family formation” which combines falling birth rates “lowest-low fertility” (Kohler et al., 2002) with a relatively strong adherence to traditional marriage patterns, albeit with ever longer postponed entry into adulthood and marriage which has been characterized as “latest-late transition to adulthood” (Billari, 2004) or “postponement syndrome” (Livi Bacci, 2001). Italy experienced a steady decline in fertility in recent decades and reached one of the lowest rates in Western Europe in 1995 with 1,19 children per woman, although this rate recovered slightly to 1,34 in 2006. The average female age at first marriage is 29.5 and the percentage of women aged 25-29 who have not yet entered their first union is among the highest in Europe (59% according to the 2001 census). De facto, family relations and family support play an important role in Italian society, for better or for worse, and state social policies have never really attempted to redistribute resourcesin favour of weaker families. Italy has, together with Malta, the highest rate of youth dependency on families: in 2003 64% of males under 35 still lived with their parents (in Germany the rate was 21%, http://www.eurofound.ie/publications/EF04105.htm).
Recently, the reduction of certain levels of benefits, particularly to young unemployed people, has increased their material dependence on the family as a resource so that social inequalities on the whole become more pronounced in the transition from one generation to the next. This also explains the low rate of cohabitation in Italy which is not so much caused by adherence to traditional values among youth, but rather by economic uncertainty such as high youth unemployment in certain areas and difficulties in obtaining housing and general social support from public sources (Domínguez et al 2007). Leaving the family brings no immediate advantages for young people; rather, the protection of the family allows them to seek less well paid, less permanent and less career oriented jobs, a phenomenon of adjustment to the “flexibilisation” of labour which has affected Italy to some extent as a result of globalization. However, the family dependency limits the geographical range within which young people respond to employment opportunities. Young people display a marked “inertia” in taking initiatives and particularly in terms of a more critical engagement with the changes in the economy. This is expressed in a relatively high level of satisfaction with their employment situation, even if this means postponing marriage and having children more and more. Questions of career planning and making provisions for pensions feature only marginally in their concerns (Buzzi 2007). Unemployment among 17-25 year olds is steadily falling from 35% in 1996 to 20,6% in 2006, although the situation in the South of Italy is hard to capture in statistics. Young people attribute their success in finding employment usually not to competence and professional preparation but to personal relations which are crucial in finding employment, a phenomenon which lessens the spread of an “achiever culture”.
Relations within families also show a marked and somewhat contradictory tension. On the one hand one can observe a transformation of role stereotypes: women enter the labour market in greater numbers while at the same time fathers seek more involvement with their children. This leads to a higher degree of freedom and a less rigid approach to the allocation of domestic duties, but it also increases the burden of having to negotiate roles and functions on different occasions for which many couples are poorly prepared. There is a strong desire to avoid intergenerational conflict and children have normally a lot of freedom. On the other hand gender stereotypes are still pronounced particularly in the differential treatment of daughters and sons. The latter are free to seek their centres of activity outside the family, even where they live with the family of origin, while girls are still drawn into domestic duties to a much higher degree (Leccardi 2007).
Justice through education
The Italian school system continues to be highly selective and therefore enforces class differences rather than reducing them. The pre-university level is dominated by the Lyceum, a kind of Grammar School (Gymnasium) with classical-humanistic orientation which counts as the surest pathway not only to university entry but to careers in higher employment positions, not on account of the use of the knowledge it conveys in employment but rather on account of the social contacts the system provides. Those young people who do not pass the entry exam into the Lyceum have a choice between a variety of vocationally oriented schools which count however as “second best”. These schools have a marked drop-out rate of 20,8% in 2006, Argentin 2007) and their employment orientation tends to be at the expense of a person-orientation so that many young people feel alienated from the vocational “stream” in which they find themselves and gain little aid in vocational orientation (Censis 2007).
Justice through integration
In the political culture of Italy integration is very much related to social capital; this causes social and material differences to become more pronounced but at the same time stimulates civil society to produce compensatory structures for the lack of an effective, consensus-oriented public sphere. Belonging to networks is therefore a vital ingredient for social protection in every regard, allegiances get formed within those networks on local but also on family oriented principles. The growth of Mafia-type structures and their appeal to young people relates directly to this phenomenon as new recruits experience belonging and support within those criminal counter-societies that parade as communities. The number of youth with immigrant background has doubled since 2003; they are accepted into the school system even where the legal residence status of their parents is uncertain, although when it comes to obtaining formal qualifications those without residence permit are excluded. Family relations are a crucial element of their integration which is frequently perceived by the autochthonous society as a lack of integration or a refusal to mix and integrate even though in many way it copies the cultural particularities of the indigenous culture. Young people’s opinions of immigrants very much resemble those of the older generation in their strong xenophobic orientation, an attitude which is more pronounced among the working classes than among the middle class in Italy. The current government has embarked on a series of highly discriminatory measures not only against immigrants but against Roma and Sinti citizens and their children even though they have mostly been resident in Italy for a long time, ordering for instance the fingerprinting of all Roma children.
Justice through participation
Participation patterns of Italian youth correspond to the factors identified above. For instance, although formal participation in clubs and associations has increased somewhat in the 1980s, only 44% of youth are registered members of clubs, one of the lowest rates in Europe where the average is 50%, and this mainly in associations of sports and the church and not in those concerned with public and political issues. Working class youth are even less formally organized, even in sports, and participation drops further for unemployed and non-student youth, paradoxically those youngsters who would have more time available. By contrast, friendship networks play a prominent role, considered by 73,4% of young people as highly important, and 48% of 15-25 year olds are highly satisfied with their friendships. 83% see their friends at least 2-3 times per week and contacts tend to be closer among males than among females. Friendship patterns are very much a result of schooling and are hence also strongly related to social class, evidencing once again the role of social capital in Italian society (La Valle 2007).
Italian youth also display strong regional loyalties; a more national orientation which was noticeable a decade ago is again in decline and the use of local dialects is becoming more pronounced again among young people. In conclusion, the picture of the social position and integration of young people in Italian society corresponds closely to the class patterns characteristic of this society overall. Patterns of schooling and economic trends reinforce inequality and politics do little by way of compensating for disadvantages. The impact of the advancing casualisation of labour is cushioned by the strong influence of family and friendship networks which are vital for the fabric of Italian society.
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Domínguez, M., Castro Martín, T. and Mencarini, L., European Latecomers: Cohabitation in Italy and Spain, Paper prepared for the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, New York, March 2007-03-11
Kohler H.P., F.C. Billari and J.A. Ortega (2002). The emergence of lowest-low fertility in Europe during the 1990s. Population and Development Review 28(4): 641-681.
La Valle, D. (2007), Il gruppo di amici e le associazioni, in C. Buzzi, A. Cavalli and A. de Lillo (eds.), Rapporto Giovani – sesta indagine dell’Istituto IARD sulla condizione giovanile in Italia, Bologna: Il Mulino
Leccardi, C. (2007), Stereotipi di genere, in C. Buzzi, A. Cavalli and A. de Lillo (eds.), Rapporto Giovani – sesta indagine dell’Istituto IARD sulla condizione giovanile in Italia, Bologna: Il Mulino
Livi Bacci, M. (2001). Too few children and too much family. Dedalus 130, 3: 139-155.
Walter Lorenz works as professor for social sciences at the Free University of Bolzano, Italy.
Picture: www.pixelio.de (Photographer: Rainer Sturm)