Buone vacanze emails have started coming thick and fast from Italian friends and contacts, the lucky ones with jobs. The August shutdown begins for much of the country this Friday and these emails have always struck me as a bit of a two-fingered “we’re all off now for a month of tanning and spritzes, you won’t get anything from us ‘til 1 September.”
But while they’re filled with exclamation marks, smiley faces and sunny snaps, there’s a rather dark cloud looming just out of sight. How easy is it to shut down your business and head to the beach with a clear conscience when youth unemployment in your country is around 36 per cent?
Everyone needs a holiday. But maybe an entire country’s industry grinding to a halt for a month at the same time is a bit perverse. Fiat recently announced that the August shutdown at its Pomigliano D’arco plant near Naples would be extended to six weeks and not as a bonus for good results. European car sales dropped by 6.3 per cent in the first half of the year and in Italy by almost 20 per cent. Of course it doesn’t make sense to keep the factory workers and lines running at full capacity when demand is on the wane. But shutting down the country for a month when the economy is still contracting illustrates a few deeper struggles Italy is facing. These are principally how to balance custom and change – problems that arise from keeping power in the hands of an ageing, expectant population as opposed to giving chances to its increasingly angry, disenfranchised youth.
Youth unemployment is more than three times that of Italy’s overall unemployment rate and Mario Monti’s labour reforms have to date seemed more in favour of protecting the elderly than providing opportunities for the young. Persuading an older workforce that has spent its life breaking for a month in high summer might be an insurmountable change to implement. But offering incentives to keep businesses and factories open, operating training camps or intensive apprentice schemes for the nations unemployed youth, might not be too far-fetched.
Speaking recently to a young out-of-work engineer, he said he’s one of a generation who feels there is no opportunity to work on home turf. He said there’s a prevailing attitude that they aren’t to be trusted – that their older would-be employers feel they are children, even though this man was well into his thirties.
Consequently Italy’s young are looking elsewhere for work and there’s a danger when demand eventually picks up again at home, in Europe and beyond – the next generation of workers won’t be there to crank the lines back up to full capacity.
As machines are switched off, shutters pulled down and office doors locked for the next month, the gap between the older “haves” and the younger “have nots” seems all the greater. And to those of us looking at the tough old boot from the rest of austerity Europe, the Happy Holiday emails smart a little more than normal.