Split between openness and fear for the future

By Federico Quadrelli.

Research by the Open Society European Policy Institute and d|part reveals that concern about their economic security is the main reason why young Italians have turned towards populist rhetoric.

Unemployment in Italy has risen dramatically since the 2008 economic crisis, especially among young people. The percentage of NEET (Not Engaged in Education, Employment or Training) has reached 26 percent. The feeling of frustration, alienation and mistrust is overwhelming.

Sociologist Franco Ferrarotti and philosopher Umberto Galimberti write about 15-25-year-olds as a lost generation who feel like social outcasts, abandoned by the country’s institutions and its politics. Far-right movements and parties, like Lega, the Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) and M5S, have capitalised on these fears and stoked anger by using xenophobic language to win their votes.

What does this mean for the open society’s future in Italy? Was it the anti-immigrant rhetoric that led young Italians to vote for right-wing parties in the March 4, 2018 elections? Has racism combined with the economic situation and high levels of unemployment and fear for the future pushed young Italians to the political extreme right?

Pessimism, fear and racism

Italy’s millennials face great economic and political uncertainty. The research institute Demos&Pi says Italians aged between 25 and 36 feel very much on their own and have little faith in the future. Younger Italians aged 15-24 are more likely to think positively, although when asked how they see their future in Italy, 70 percent answer they will need to leave to have a successful career.

On migration, Demos&Pi has shown that 20 percent of respondents aged 15 to 24 and 31 percent aged 25 to 36 see migrants as a threat, and of course that’s particularly particularly true of those who voted for Lega or M5S. The national research institute Demopolis found that the Lega and M5S anti-immigrant and anti-European rhetoric was particularly persuasive for the under 40s.

In 2010, La Repubblica reported on a study by the Italian Parliament that revealed a quarter of respondents aged 18 to 29 as xenophobic, and particularly intolerant of Sinti, Roma and Albanians. The study concluded that the relatively low figure of 10 percent of young Italians could be defined as racist, with many more pessimistic and hostile to foreigners in general. Research by Osservatorio Giovani in 2016 confirmed this finding.

More recently, international research by Ipsos for the project More in Common found that a large proportion of Italians belong to the “uncertain centre”. Researcher Antonella Napolitano explains that these are people who don’t espouse closed society values in the same way as nationalists, but are sceptical of cosmopolitan openness. They show a “diffused dissatisfaction with the status quo, a deep mistrust of elites, and a significant number believe that globalisation has made them worse off”. “Hostile nationalists”, on the other hand, make up no more than 7 percent of those surveyed.

Behind the easy labels

The data collected for the Voices on Values survey suggest there are no significant differences among age groups in how they feel about open society values (Figure 1), like freedom of expression, minority rights and freedom of religion. These are considered more important for a good society than closed society attributes like “same sex couples don’t kiss in public” or “as few immigrants as possible should come to the country”.

Open society values are rated more highly by all age groups, with only a small difference between the 18-24s and the over 65s, with similar small differences for closed society views. Age thus has little impact on Italian respondents’ allegiances.

Figure 1. Importance of open and closed society attributes by age group

The trade-off experiments therefore provides a deeper understanding of how important open society values are in Italy. Respondents were asked to choose between open society statements and others that would restrict these freedoms.

In figure 2 the statement asks if equal treatment of newcomers is more, equally or less important than their own economic wellbeing. The second statement in figure 3 opposes the equal treatment of newcomers with the protection of social cohesion.

All the age groups were very willing to choose one value over the other, with minor differences between the 18-24s and the others. Because economic wellbeing is often considered more important than the equal treatment of migrants, this should be seen in the context of the economic crisis and the resulting insecurities. It suggests that insecurity still plays a significant role in the minds of young Italians, and strongly influences how they see view society and what they believe is important for a good society.

In figure 3, the youngest group of Italians appears to favour social cohesion over the equal treatment of newcomers, confirming that economic concerns are why young Italians choose their own wellbeing over the equal treatment of newcomers, rather than for reasons of racism or xenophobia.

Figure 2. Equal treatment or economic wellbeing?

Figure 3: Equal treatment or social cohesion?

It’s economic uncertainty and fear, not simply racism

The data above shows that young Italians share the same worldview as their parents and grandparents. They consider social cohesion and economic wellbeing to be more important than the equal treatment of people recently settled in in Italy.

Although seriously affected by the economic crisis and increasingly exposed to anti-immigrant public discourse, young Italians still care more than older age groups about the equal treatment of newcomers. This is in spite of a sense of insecurity that has become so deeply rooted that many young people find it hard imagine a positive future, not least because far-right and populist parties capitalise on these fears.

What does this mean for the open society in Italy? The substantial numbers of young Italians who have voted for far-right parties not only reflects racism, but is also closely linked to feelings of injustice and inequality and a sense of being abandoned by the political elites. All this adds up to a growing feeling of alienation.

Although they offer grounds for concern about the future of the open society in Italy, these results also suggest that most young people are not racist or xenophobic per se, but have found in right-wing politics an outlet for their fears, anger and frustration. They hold past governments and political elites responsible for their worries, and therefore embrace the aggressive, anti-establishment rhetoric of right-wing and populist parties, like M5S and Lega. The challenge for the future of the open society is to improve the economic prospects of young people so as to gradually restore their trust in the political system.

Federico Quadrelli is a Research Fellow at CILD.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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