Perspective on Generations in Italian Public Life
In light of GMF’s exploration of intergenerational leadership, a more in-depth look at phases of Italy’s recent history is additive. In fact, instead of looking at generations as if they were discrete entities with well-defined beginnings and ends, it may be more fruitful to look at phases in Italian public life, while trying to assess the ways in which they have shaped processes of political and cultural socialization.
Some highly relevant cleavages also play an even more crucial role in Italy than in other European Union countries. Regional and territorial (north versus south, metropolitan versus rural), socio-economic and socio-cultural (quite relevant in a country with limited social mobility, where university-level education has reached limited portions of the population), and finally sub-cultural (among others, Catholic vs. secular) differences have typically reinforced or weakened the impact of different phases of public life and therefore generational change, to a very important extent because of the sheer intensity of domestic differences. For instance, per capita income in Lombardy is 65–70 percent higher than in Calabria or Sicily, and the mathematics and sciences scores of students in the northeast are well above the EU average while those from the southern regions are among the lowest in Europe. Not surprisingly, this translates into highly differentiated socialization processes and political behaviors, to the extent that talking about national trends may make limited sense.
Finally, however relevant periodization may be, one of the most evident features of the current political scene is its very high volatility. The period from 1945 to 1992 was characterized by a fundamental continuity in the party system. However, important and sometimes radical political changes took place within this fundamentally stable framework, with the two leading parties always being the Christian Democrats and the Communist Party. This landscape changed abruptly with the emergence of new, post-ideological parties whose fortunes have been far from stable. Different age cohorts have contributed to the rise and demise of these parties without a pattern emerging in the more recent phases.
1945–1967: From Reconstruction to “Economic Miracle”
After the disasters of the Second World War and its civil war aftermath, Italy was in tatters as well as deeply divided between a strong left under Communist leadership, and a majority headed by the Christian Democrats. Centrist governments led the country to become a founding member of the EU and a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and U.S. consumerism started to make inroads in an otherwise traditional culture where large parts of the population were still engaged in agriculture. Older generations, whose early experiences had been framed from 1900 to 1920 by the liberal era and the victory in the First World War coexisted with those whose identities had been strongly influenced from 1922 to 1945 by fascism and the defeat in the the Second World War. Former peasants in the center, south, and northeast started to move toward the rapidly growing cities of the northwest, experiencing modernity in its different facets. The Italian economy was among the fastest-growing in the world, upward mobility was widespread, and Italy rapidly reemerged from the pariah status of 1945 to become an attractive tourist destination and a creative hub for design, cinema, and fashion. However, with obvious exceptions, Italian society was still predominantly Catholic, sexually repressed, family-centered and patriarchal, with large pockets of illiteracy.
1968–1993: “Years of Lead”, Secularization, and Disengagement.
Social conflict, that had been tempered by economic growth, became widespread from the late 1960s, also as a result of the impact of large-scale domestic migration. Student protests coupled with large-scale strikes crippled the economy, badly hit by the oil crisis of 1973, while leftist forces gained weight. Domestic terrorism, from the radical right and left, became bloodier through the 1970s, the “years of lead.” These were at the same time years of radical modernization. The baby-boomers entered a society where sexual liberation and women’s mobilization were starting to have an impact. Divorce and abortion were legalized respectively in 1970 and 1978, and two referendums upheld them in 1974 and 1981, showing how fast secularization had gained ground in a modernizing society. Gradually, the radical conflicts of the 1970s created a backlash that led to a “retreat into the private,” with increasing signs of disengagement in the 1980s. Terrorist groups were socially isolated and defeated. Younger generations adopted largely U.S.-influenced models of consumption and behavior, paving the way for a “new hedonism,” in tune with the strong impact of commercial television, deregulated in the 1980s. Widespread political corruption started to be prosecuted (the Clean Hands trials), and the ensuing delegitimization of traditional parties, coupled with the crisis on the left in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet experiences, created the social preconditions for Silvio Berlusconi’s prime ministerial victory.
1994–2008: Searching for the Second Republic during Slow Growth
Berlusconi’s victory in 1994 was not only political. It was at the same time the culmination of the “retreat into the private” of the 1980s and the beginning of the demolition of cultural taboos that left an enduring mark on Italian society, particularly on the new generations. A secularized society, where practicing Catholics represent less than one-third of the population; consumerism, where rampant individualism is only partially tempered by the survival of family allegiances; a mistrust of elites—all these traits were reinforced in Berlusconi’s years. These are not uncommon elsewhere in Europe but there they are mostly coupled with solid economic foundations and decently functioning public administration. In Italy, from the 1990s onward, sluggish growth alternating with recessions has been the rule. A weak social fabric coupled with an ailing economy produced widespread disillusionment, demographic decline, and social resentment. The challenges of an inflow of immigrants throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and the perception of a new divergence between northern and southern Italy, after years of apparent convergence, further weakened public trust and social cohesion. Now and then young leaders tried to restart a “season of reforms,” and to stir the mood toward greater social optimism at the national and the local levels, but the long economic crisis starting in 2008 further moved Italy toward a pessimistic mood, where younger generations were no longer drivers of change.
2008–2019: Never-ending Crisis
Italy was badly hit with a double-dip recession stemming from the financial crisis of 2008. While other southern European countries emerged with coherent sets of reforms and experienced decent growth rates, the Italian road to recovery proved to be contradictory, with slow growth and a widespread perception of decline. High youth unemployment reactivated migration flows from southern regions to the north and from the north to other countries. A long-term demographic crisis is resulting in a rapidly aging society. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the Italian population from ages fifteen to twenty-four represented about 15.5 percent of the total; in 2011 its share was below 10 percent, and in 2018 it was only slightly above 9 percent. The population above sixty-five years of age grew from 15.3 percent (1991) to 22.6 percent (2018). Babies born from at least one foreign parent accounted for more than 20 percent of births (twice the share of foreign-born in the total population). This has had an impact on the political and cultural spheres, with security concerns and the fear of “ethnic substitution” more widespread among the older population, playing a relevant role in the political agenda. Young voters are no longer coveted, and their lack of political mobilization (with a high percentage of non-voters) does not help. This generation is the most secular (30 percent atheists and agnostics versus 15 percent practicing Christians), the better educated (around 30 percent university or similar degrees, much less than in other EU countries but well above the Italian average), with more gender parity and greater environmental sensitivity than previous ones. It is more open to the international dimension (high share of the EU student exchange program Erasmus) and to technological innovation (most start-uppers being under thirty). But it is also financially dependent (staying at their parents’ home longer, relying on family financial support), and not yet defining a cultural style much beyond the import of U.S. trends.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.