La Dolce Vita

There must have been very bad economic times in Italy in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century for so many Italians to leave their extended families and familiar surroundings for the United States. Large numbers of people do not easily abandon the comforts of a common culture and language for modest economic inducements. However, from 1890 to 1900, over 600,000 Italians immigrated to the United States. In the next decade, the influx accelerated as over 2,000,000 Italians flooded the United States from 1900 to 1910. Included in the latter wave was my paternal grandfather, who ventured to the United States at the age of 17. Most contemporary American 17-year olds are anxious about traveling to college. Imagine the economic privation that could induce many thousands of young Italians to flee their own country. Though many Italians returned after earning money in the United States, a majority remained and assimilated.

However, not all of my family came to the United States so long ago. My mother came to here after marrying my father, a US citizen in the 1950s. She came from the same small town as my paternal grandfather.  Her extended family remains my extended family in Italy. The generation of my contemporaries form a very small scale controlled experiment with respect to opportunity in the United States and modern Europe.

At a casual glance there is little difference in the two contemporary generations. We both have access to the same modern conveniences. Americans owner larger cars and houses, but Italians typically have more style sense. The levels of education are roughly similar. Nonetheless, when I visit my family’s home town, Filadelfia, a wave of gratitude that my parents and grandparents allowed me to be an American washes over me. Although many of my relatives are as successful and ambitious as the corresponding generations of Americans, in my family’s home town one senses an economic and social lethargy one does not find in small town America. A small measure of this lethargy is that for the contemporary generation, four Americans and their families have visited the Italian home town, sometimes more than once. By contrast, only one youngster from the Italian side of the family has visited the United States. A general reluctance to venture forth as opposed to a lack of resources explains this difference behavior.

Unemployment is relatively high in Italy, particularly among the young. There are really two common ways to advance: become a professional like a doctor or an attorney or find a government job.  Government rules make it difficult for small businesses to start, grow and hire young people. There is no reason why even remote regions of Italy cannot become centers of high-tech growth with only modest infrastructure investment. Economic rigidity largely remains an impediment to growth.

To understand the problem more clearly, one only needs to visit bordering France. France’s restrictive labor rules disincline business from aggressive hiring. The labor force unemployment rate is about 10% and closer to 20% for those in their twenties. For the poor, particularly Muslim immigrants, the situation is even direr.

In the hopes of alleviating youth unemployment, the French government has eased some of their more restrictive labor laws. Employers can now dismiss, without going through a formal procedure, employees that have worked for less than two years. The previous law had caused employers to hire very carefully and slowly, knowing that they would be responsible for the employee indefinitely.  It was hoped that removing fear of being burdened by unproductive employees would encourage new hires and reduce unemployment.

The reaction of the French youth has been explosively negative, with large street protests and a scheduled work strike. The irony is that many of the young protestors are middle-class and the price in loss jobs that will insure their job security will be paid for by the poor. If the restrictive work rules are allowed to stand, French economic and political power will continue to decline.

Though high by American standards Italy’s unemployment rate of about 8%, is lower than the French rate. Italians are involved in general elections to be held on April 9 and 10, 2006, to determine if the free market reforms of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, easing work rules and decreasing taxes, will continue.

Visiting Italy it is easy to be entranced by the beautiful history, the stylish women, fine wine and meals, — la dolce vita. Beneath the surface there has been a slow decline that will hopefully be reversed. For too many, the burdens of the welfare state and rigid labor policies have relegated some Italians in la brutta vita.

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