Francesca Esposito, 29 and exquisitely educated, helped win millions of euros in false disability and other lawsuits for her employer, a major Italian state agency. But one day last fall she quit, fed up with how surreal and ultimately sad it is to be young in Italy today.
It galled her that even with her competence and fluency in five languages, it was nearly impossible to land a paying job. Working as an unpaid trainee lawyer was bad enough, she thought, but doing it at Italy’s social security administration seemed too much. She not only worked for free on behalf of the nation’s elderly, who have generally crowded out the young for jobs, but her efforts there did not even apply to her own pension.
The outrage of the young has erupted, sometimes violently, on the streets of Greece and Italy in recent weeks, as students and more radical anarchists protest not only specific austerity measures in flattened economies but a rising reality in Southern Europe: People like Ms. Esposito feel increasingly shut out of their own futures. Experts warn of volatility in state finances and the broader society as the most highly educated generation in the history of the Mediterranean hits one of its worst job markets. (...)
The daughter of a fireman and a high school teacher, Ms. Esposito was the first in her family to graduate from college and the first to study foreign languages. She has an Italian law degree and a master’s from Germany and was an intern at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. It has not helped.
Even before the economic crisis hit, Southern Europe was not an easy place to forge a career. Low growth and a corrosive lack of meritocracy have long posed challenges to finding a job in Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal. Today, with the added sting of austerity, more people are left fighting over fewer opportunities. It is a zero-sum game that inevitably pits younger workers struggling to enter the labor market against older ones already occupying precious slots. (...)
The problem goes far beyond youth unemployment, which is at 40 percent in Spain and 28 percent in Italy. It is also about underemployment. Today, young people in Southern Europe are effectively exploited by the very mechanisms created a decade ago to help make the labor market more flexible, like temporary contracts.
Because payroll taxes and firing costs are still so high, businesses across Southern Europe are loath to hire new workers on a full-time basis, so young people increasingly are offered unpaid or low-paying internships, traineeships or temporary contracts that do not offer the same benefits or protections. (...)In Italy, Ms. Esposito is finishing her lawyer traineeship at a private firm in Lecce. It pays little but sits better on her conscience than her unpaid work for the government.
“I’m a repentant college graduate,” she said. “If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t go to college and would just start working.”