Quick Impressions of Italy, 2012 Edition

I spent last week in Italy (Milan and Naples) launching the The Start-Up of You there. It was my second visit to the beautiful country. Some quick impressions / thoughts:

Unemployment / career anxiety in Italy. I was told 1 in 3 young people are unemployed in Italy right now. Young people are feeling like they need to break into the “digital economy,” not work in a legacy manufacturing industry. Meanwhile, a lot of the historic craft businesses are struggling, and the entrepreneurs there are trying to figure out how to survive in a global economy. Apparently, many entrepreneurs in the north have been committing suicide for fear their businesses were going under.

Crisis? What crisis?! There was much talk in Italy about the economic crisis. But the effects of the crisis were not visible to this tourist. By contrast, when I was in Greece, people in Athens would tell me about the economic crisis and then I would look around and see trash piled up on the sidewalk corner because the garbage men were striking. I’d see taxis all parked in a parking lot because the taxi drivers were striking. I’d see government workers all congregated on the main square because the government workers were striking…so yes, there was indeed a crisis. There are serious economic challenges throughout the Europe and in Italy, per the previous point, but if you just look around, Milan seemed positively tranquil. People seemed happy. Society was functioning fine. This is not a scientific way to assess an economic situation, but the “look around” litmus test should not be dismissed as irrelevant, either.

Culture matters. A surprising number of Italians proactively told me that Italian culture hinders entrepreneurial thinking. For example, the mindset that gets fostered when kids live at home with their parents into their early 30’s. Or the overall view on failure. Essentially, the themes of my post Culture Matters to Entrepreneurship. It’s striking how universal these cultural challenges seem to be around the world.

Buffalo mozzarella. Especially in Naples, the bufalo mozzarella blew my mind. Again. So good.

Thanks to our very energetic publisher Egea for hosting my visit!

16 comments on “Quick Impressions of Italy, 2012 Edition
  • Italy is a nation of small businessmen. The problem is that the young people who were educated in architecture, engineering, etc. cannot find jobs. They do not want to work in a small business. Italy is a museum. Nice place to visit, wonderful sites, but not a place to make your life.

  • I lived in Italy for 17 years – married into it and had strong personal reasons for staying. But I gave up 4 years ago, and am relieved that my daughter also left. She loves her country and misses her friends there, but it’s just too damned hard to make a living, and there is no reason to think it will improve anytime soon.

    Not coincidentally, many Italians and Italo-American couples I know have also left. We’re techies, and modern Italy needs our skills, but there was no room for us to do anything meaningful (I was told: “You can always teach English”).

    Further, in the last 20 years things have gotten measurably worse for women than for anyone else in Italy, thanks to the long reign of the unrepentantly sexist media king Berlusconi. Young women believe that they can get ahead only by trading on their looks and giving sexual favors to the old slimeballs who run the country. La dolce vita? Hardly.

    See my site for more on this, eg

  • I live in London, and a waiter at one of our favorite restaurants is Italian. He is about to return home, after the birth of another child, to be closer to family. He was nervous about the economic situation and in the end, he got a job through his father. He said this was extremely common in Italy. That made me wonder if one’s view of the economic crisis depended a lot on who you (or your family) knew, or didn’t.

    What’s been you experience with professionals outside the US utilizing LinkedIn? Seems like it would be an even greater asset where many jobs were acquired only through family (and not everyone wins the lottery).

  • Saying that a “culture” holds back a country implies a trait that is inherent and immutable. But don’t leadership, policies and institutions play a bigger role in economic outcomes? Look at China and Taiwan as examples. Same culture, very different growth paths. Or N Korea, S Korea… to be extreme.

  • Ben,

    random thoughts (I am Italian, left at age 27 to move to NYC and work in startups):

    Career anxiety: a very important factor is that almost allItalian students don’t do internships. Neither in high school nor in college. They graduate at age 22-25 (or later) never having worked in a professional environment or at all. That’s a big reason, coupled with labor law, of why many are unemployable.

    It’s not only entrepreneurship that’s hindered by Italian culture, but professional ambition in general. A person starting his own business at a very young age would have been made fun of by his friends (for they would think your family be needy), his parents would have been chastised and possibly reported, his business would stand absolutely no chance of success. And by ‘very young age’ I mean until graduating college.

    Crisis: you’re right. You’d probably see garbage on the sides of the street if you went outside downtown Naples, but that’s a chronic situation and not a crisis. In general Italians tend to complain a lot in general terms, but to hide their problems from their neighbors (see point above).

    Your book: the title is translated as “Let’s keep in touch” and the tag as “Life as an enterprise”. The publisher is specialized in business books (think Italy’s equivalent of HBS Press). All three facts will unfortunately reduce the reach of a book of which Italian youth is in desperate need.

  • Ben,
    thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I am 29 and live in Milan. I see two kinds of groups among young Italian people:

    1) The ones (80-90%) who have career anxiety, don’t like their job or are unemployed and are sending out resumes here and there with no strategy.

    2) The remaining ones who actually don’t give a damn about the crisis because they are working hard at their startups.

    I don’t want to sound self-promoting but for example of the co-founder of The Hub Milan, an incubator for social ventures, I am going to launch my startup in the next few months and I organize events to boost the startup ecosystem and give them international exposure.

    It’s cool to see this second group is growing rapidly.

    As I said <a href="http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxTrieste-5611-Nicol-Borghi-B/&quot; here , young Italian people should be more like their grandparents, those who “built” Italy after WWII. Stop complaining and start making.

  • Regarding the mindset that gets fostered when kids live at home with their parents into their early 30s– one of the biggest issues is where do you go to have sex.

    Sex on a Vespa is not impossible.

    Some guys hook up at the steam bath. I was afraid to go into the Labyrinth at this place in Naples, because God knows who might grope you in the dark; it could be David Geffen, or, shudder, an investment banker.

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