To be young in Italy
Excerpts from Time’s special report on Italy, focused on The Fading Future Of Italy’s Young:
Growing up, Italian teenagers learn the tale of Giotto and the fly. As a young apprentice in 13th century Florence, the aspiring painter sketched a fly on the nose of a portrait his master-teacher Cimabue was finishing. So lifelike was the insect that when the elder painter returned to the studio, he repeatedly tried to swat it off the canvas. Realizing he’d been fooled by the bravura talent of his pupil, Cimabue told him: "You have surpassed your teacher." Thus encouraged by his master, Giotto went on to revolutionize Western painting, and posterity regards him as the man who launched the Italian Renaissance.
Fast-forward to Italy 2006, and the image of the precocious apprentice has been replaced by a humbler figure: the underemployed 30-something despondent about the present, let alone the future.
Developing the potential of a Giotto requires masters with the wisdom and magnanimity of Cimabue. Even if Italy’s under-40s were to push harder for responsible roles, Italy’s old guard — in virtually every field, from academia to entertainment — shows few signs of ceding space to them.
Frida Giannini, 33, has taken over as creative chief [at Gucci, the luxury-goods maker]. The Rome native says Italy must find new ways to do what it has always done best: brilliant design allied to fine workmanship. "You grow up in a place like Rome, every other meter there is a work of art, some kind of treasure. It’s not the same to see it in a postcard," she says. "It’s in our dna." But that native aesthetic sense needs an extra dose of ingenuity to add value in today’s competitive environment. "Quality must be wedded to creativity," Giannini says. "If you want to give luster to whatever you produce, you must focus your resources on the young. You have to always be in search of what’s new, what’s next."
Italy is now on course to become quite literally the oldest of countries. Beset by economic and social stagnation that makes it among the most ossified slices of Old Europe, it is stuck with a stubbornly low birth-rate that means Italians are not even replacing themselves. In a more fundamental way, the nation has not figured out how to make use of the energy and ingenuity of its young. Faced with bleak job prospects and a lack of young leaders to look to, Italians in their 20s and 30s risk falling into a nationwide generational rut. Many are afflicted with a pervading sense of hopelessness and malaise that contrasts with the youth-driven vigor boosting states like Sweden or Slovenia.
Though absent from the candidates’ slogans, Italy’s need to rejuvenate itself ought to be the nation’s No. 1 priority. Better educated and more connected with the outside world, young Italians are ready to step into full-fledged adulthood and reshape their country’s future. But far too few have had the chance.