22 March 2017

Italians may live long but they don’t all prosper

By Cristina Odone

Italy’s economy continues to under-perform, but its citizens can find comfort in knowing they are the healthiest people in the world.

The latest BloombergGlobal Health Index ranks Italy as number one of 163 countries: an Italian born today can expect to reach 80 – and lead a life with fewer mental health problems, lower cholesterol and blood pressure than the British (and Canadians and Americans).

The Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil, vegetables and fruit, is usually touted as the secret to Italians’ longevity and better health prospects. But could it be that their rude health and long life expectancy are the lucky by-product of its dismal economy?

Gerontocracy, stifling regulations and huge unemployment have hindered Italy’s prosperity for decades now. The country hailed for its economic miracle and famed for its creative and industrious entrepreneurs (at the helm, usually, of family-run businesses such as Gucci, Prada, and Ferrero) today comes second only to Greece (among EU countries) for the size of its national debt.

Consider the gerontocracy. Italy’s politicians (average age: 59) are Europe’s oldest; Italy’s bankers (average age: 67) are as long in the tooth as their bishops (also 67). As for managers of publicly quoted companies, they are on average 53 years old.

The rest of the world may worship youth, but Italy cherishes its golden oldies. Whenever I’m back in my homeland, I turn on the radio to find the pop stars of my teens (back in the mists of time) topping the charts and the same newscasters hogging the airwaves.

Meanwhile, Italy’s unemployed youngsters, who constitute 40 per cent of under-24-year-olds, gnash their teeth at the unfairness of national life, where fossils control the levers of power while flouting their sinecures. A quarter of under-30-year-olds classify as NEETS, young people who are not in education, work or training. Contrast this with the UK, where only one in 10 under the age of 30 is in the same position.

This lack of generational turnover has hurt Italy’s reputation for innovation; the country now ranks among “moderate innovators” on a European Commission scoreboard. It also accounts for the brain drain that has risen by 6.2 per cent in the last two years, hollowing out professions such as medicine and architecture.

So severe is the problem that one Roman bank came up with an unintentionally hilarious solution: make jobs hereditary, allowing employees to take a pay-off or leave their job to a son or daughter – or indeed any relative “up to the third degree” (which would allow the post to be left even to great-nieces and nephews).

Labour laws continue to blight young people’s prospects. The former prime minister, Matteo Renzi (41), did introduce reforms which made the dismissal of employees easier – but only with significant pay offs. Having invested so little in promoting a meritocracy, Italy’s poor record in social mobility (way behind Germany’s, Austria’s, France and Denmark and only slightly better than Britain’s) comes as no surprise.

This sclerosis risks turning Italy into the sick man of Europe. In the meantime, though, Italy’s oldies prosper to a ripe old age, savouring the job security that eludes their peers abroad. In terms of stress and its medical consequences, it is far easier to work in the public sector in Bologna than in, say, Birmingham or Boston.

The same must be true of pensions, at least for Italians who started working before the 2008 crash. Those who joined the public sector back in the 1970s or 1980s could take their pension after only 25 years’ work, and be entitled to a minimum government pension of $716. Today, employees (including government employees) are expected to work until they are 66.

Some Italians may be living long and healthy lives, with pensioners clinging to memories of the “economic miracle” that made for a dolce vita, but those under 30 are stuck paying the bill for their elders’ indulgence.

Cristina Odone is Director of the Centre for Character and Values at the Legatum Institute