Berlusconi is gone but Italy’s true problems are there to stay
Antonio is an Italian friend who works in information technology. Tired of trying to prove his clients he deserved his position, he grew a beard and dyed it gray. Why? In his thirties, he already had a job that normally goes only a person of at least forty-five.
Not in the United States for sure, where the late Steve Jobs co-founded Apple when he was just 21 years old.
When my American friends celebrate the fall of Silvio Berlusconi just as he was Italy’s main problem, I wish I could explain them that Italy’s number one problem is not Silvio Berlusconi. Italy’s biggest problems are the gerontocracy, nepotism and anti-meritocratic behaviors of its citizens, who are at once the perpetrators and victims of this stalemate.
I didn’t leave my country in 2000 because of Mr. Berlusconi, who wasn’t even in office at the time. And none of the 90,000 people who leave Italy every year– almost a million in the last decade from a country of 60 million, according to the NGO Migrantes — do so because of mere political reasons.
So why do they leave? Italy is a stagnant country, especially for its youth. According to the latest figures, 90 percent of people under 24 live at home with their parents, while 28 percent of young people are unemployed, well above the average of 17 percent in other developed countries measured by the OECD.
The reasons for this stalemate are well known. According to a study by the Italian Chambers of Commerce, half of working Italians got their job thanks to family or social connections. Certainly, introductions are important everywhere in finding a job, but in the U.S., networking circles are pretty open, and merit is still the number one reason for recruiting or partnering with someone.
Not in Italy. When I was 21, I couldn’t find partners or investors for the multilingual news outlet I had created, CafeBabel.com, primarily because nobody in Rome could “recommend” a Neapolitan like me. Then I decided to leave for France. Although in Paris I was a foreigner, I found the doors wide open there. The entrepreneurial ecosystem is even more welcoming here in Silicon Valley, where I cofounded Tactilize, a company developing publishing tools for mobiles and tablets.
My life as an entrepreneur would have been a nightmare had I stayed in Italy. The World Bank ranked my country 80th in the ease of doing business, far behind the US (5th), France (26th) and Botswana (52nd). This is due to a Kafka-esque bureaucracy, organized crime and corruption, and the generally conservative Italian business culture.
When the 26-year-old Daniele Alberti founded his first company, every potential investor passed him by. “Why should you and not the others succeed?” they told him. Four years later, when his company became successful, those same investors asked Daniele to come on board. “Italians are risk-averse,” tells me Alberti, who now is CEO of a San Francisco-based startup called Vinswer. “The issue is that there is no innovation without risk.”
These problems are not ones that politics can magically fix. Their roots go back to the nation’s founding, when Italy was unified by wars in 1861 and 1870, waged by the Northern region of Piedmont. The newly established Italian government did nothing to improve its popularity, levying an ever-increasing amount of taxes, sending troops to the occupied areas who didn’t speak a word of Italian, and obligating young people to spend five years in the army of a country they didn’t know. All these factors engendered strong anti-government feelings and tax evasion, along with the rise of organized crime.
With the Italian establishment commemorating 150 years of unity this year, ordinary Italians know there is little to celebrate. But while unification is no longer an issue, old problems are still there.
The result? 70 percent of Italians who live abroad don’t plan on coming back, and half the youth who still live in the country harbor dreams of leaving it.
While Mr. Berlusconi has done nothing to change the present situation, it is by no means one that he has created. Neither it is one that could be solved by the ephemeral, technocratic government that should be led by Mario Monti. Don’t blame Berlusconi, blame the Italians themselves. And their history.
Adriano Farano is a digital entrepreneur, and co-founder of Tactilize. He now lives in Silicon Valley
Thanks to Project Syndicate, this article was published in seven languages all over the world: