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Youth and employment

Meeting with Michel Martone
Rome, 01/02/2012, Aspen Junior Fellows Breakfasts and Aperitifs

The latest Aspen Junior Fellow Breakfast meeting on the topic of Youth and Employment in Italy got underway with a number of key questions posed for discussion by those present. First and foremost, doubts were raised as to whether Italy could truly be considered a country geared towards young people. How then – on the eve of the resumption of national talks on employment – should the country go about reforming a system debilitated by generational self-interest? And based on what ideas, at what cost and with what resources? These were the issues at the heart of the debate that ensued on how to place Italy’s youth center-stage, viewed as a core challenge for the future development of the country.

It was felt that the time has come for decisions to be made: the edifice – as it were – which once shielded employment has become structurally unsound as resources for social safety nets are diminishing. Some participants suggested that the structure’s foundations need reinforcing, while others would have its “roof” removed to reduce the weight bearing down on its industry and public financial underpinnings. Either way, what was seen as essential was that the outcome of the negotiations on labor market reform must not be predetermined. Rather, while there may already be various coherent proposals on the table, consultation with social partners will be indispensable. Then, it was stressed, must come a necessary and courageous process of synthesis and decisionmaking.

The participants acknowledged that, since the 1980s, there have been efforts made to reduce undeclared work and unemployment. In recent years, however, a generation of young people has become ensnared in a web of precariousness. Instead of introducing flexibility into all employment relationships, to bring them into line with new production models, the labor force has been polarized between those protected by permanent contracts (the “insiders”), and those – particularly young workers – bereft of such safeguards (the “outsiders”). In order for the economy to return to growth, the emphasis must be on the inclusion of youth and women, a point the participants underlined by citing certain objective facts and figures, namely: the crisis currently being faced is of a systemic rather than cyclical nature; the balance of global wealth (in terms of capital and production) is shifting; Italy has 2 million young NEETs (not in employment, education or training); Italy’s birth rate is worryingly low; and the average graduation age in Italy is higher than in other European countries. Nevertheless, it was conceded that for any reform proposals to begin to accommodate the needs of the various generations, younger people must also reflect on their own limitations, and not just on the sins of the previous generations. It would be useful to become reacquainted with the principles enshrined in article 34 of the Italian Constitution, which establishes the universal right to lower education, and, for those “of ability and merit”, the right to access “higher levels of education”. Emphasis was laid by the participants on the need to reward merit and exploit all available resources and avenues, such as apprenticeships, which already exist and should be stepped up, so as to facilitate the entry of young people into the workforce. Calls were also made for earnings to be linked more closely to productivity levels, and – in light of the precedent recently set by FIAT – for a rethink of enterprise bargaining agreements, an area in which Italy lags behind Germany by a decade.

In conclusion, it was suggested that if a nation is – as Ernest Renan maintained – “a grand solidarity, constituted by the sentiment of sacrifices which one has made and those that one is disposed to make again… to continue the communal life,” then the issue of the inclusion of women cannot be overlooked. Indeed, women – especially those who are younger – are a barely-recognized resource in the Italian labor market. It was observed that many women graduate from universities, but very few succeed in gaining management positions. Often, remuneration levels are not sufficiently attractive given the family care costs associated with taking on such roles. The participants thus stressed the need to overcome cultural barriers, put in place resources – such as pre-school centers – to support women who work, and rethink Italy’s Mediterranean-style welfare system.