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Italian men cling to mamma

Unemployment and a housing crisis force males to live at home in their thirties, writes Andrew Gumbel
At the age of 35, Maurizio Sole seems set for a successful career in architecture. With 10 years' experience under his belt, including a spell studying and working in Barcelona, he is fast climbing up the ladder of a prestigious Roman firm and already has three published books to his name.

Not a person one would imagine as a shy stay-at-home, afraid to make his own way in the world. Yet Maurizio, like a growing number of Italian men of his generation, lives with his mother.

She does all the shopping and cooking, picks his dirty underwear off the floor, pays the household bills and runs all the tedious daily errands. She waits up for him at night and prepares his coffee in the morning. She even makes dinner parties for his friends - all, even at the age of 70, without a murmur of complaint.

It sounds like a well-worn Italian cliche - the over-cossetted son finding it too difficult to break out of the clutches of his over-indulgent mother - and to some extent it is. But the phenomenon is becoming a veritable epidemic in Italy these days, and not just because Italian men are incurable mother's boys. According to a recent survey, 50 per cent of 29-year-old men are still living at home, and the figure is rising every year.

Why should this be? Mr Sole gives what at first appears to be an astonishing explanation. "It's not that I don't want to leave home," he says, "but the option simply does not exist."

He may be doing well in architecture, but he is still being paid a pittance - roughly the same as a temporary secretary and, like temping work, calculated by the hour. Italy may be a wealthy country, but it is also a devastatingly paternalistic one. And that means that anyone under the age of 40, whatever their qualifications, is deemed to be a "kid" at the service and mercy of the older generation which runs just about every show in town.

"In architecture, the only way to make a decent living is to become a partner in a firm, and I'm just too young for that," Mr Sole says. "So what can I do? I could find somewhere way out in the suburbs, but the rent would leave me nothing over for decent clothes or books which I need for my work, not to mention the little pleasures of life. The arrangement with my mother sounds a bit selfish, I know, but it is very useful."

Architects are perhaps the worst-off of any professional group, but what is true for them is true to a large extent for academics, journalists, doctors, and civil servants. And that only covers the lucky group of educated middle-class professionals who actually have work. Youth unemployment is a scourge that affects roughly 30 per cent of the population, and there are pockets of the country where it is as high as 60 per cent.

Add to that a major housing crisis in the big cities, an economic recession that has dragged on for five years and the prospect of further belt-tightening now that Italy is fighting to qualify for European monetary union, and one has a recipe for major social malaise.

In this most family-oriented of cultures, the first bolt-hole that many young people head for is the warmth of the parental home. And that means not only an increasing dependence on life with mother, but also a drastic drop in the number of marriages and, even more strikingly in this land of bambini, one of the lowest birth-rates in Europe.

"Sometimes I think this country is heading for a major breakdown," says the Italian historian Paul Ginsborg, who teaches at the European University in Fiesole, just outside Florence. "I have all these bright, dynamic students and they have absolutely nowhere to go, no future to look forward to at all."

What is true in Florence is even more pertinent in the depressed and underdeveloped centre and south. In Rome, young people used to be able to depend on the state to provide them with a job for life and enough spare time to develop their entrepreneurial interests. Now the state is going through a crisis of giant proportions - the result of years of mismanagement, corruption, and wanton spending that the government is now struggling to bring under control.

In the old days, civil service exams were rigged to provide jobs for faithful supporters of the political parties. At the most recent exam at the Ministry of Finance, by contrast, there were more than two million applicants for 200 posts.

Whether they have work or not, young people in Rome are almost invariably dependent on their parents in some way. If they are lucky and their parents have enough money put aside, they will be able to live rent-free in a secondary family property. More commonly, though, they end up back in the bed they slept in as a child.

"When my parents got married in the early 1960s they had no trouble finding work in the national statistics institute and buying the house we all now live in," says Massimiliano Cristofari, an unemployed 32-year-old whose piecemeal career has taken him through jobs in construction and broadcasting. "I'm now far older than they were when they left home, but I can't even think about getting married, and children are out of the question."

Italy has suffered this kind of social stagnation in the past. In the 1970s, when frustration at the paternalism of the older generation hit its first postwar peak, the reaction was felt through mass industrial unrest and the terrorism of the Red Brigades. In the more venal 1980s, the favoured way around the monolithic structure of traditional society was the spiral of kickbacks and political corruption that nearly bankrupted the entire country.

What solutions can the 1990s offer? The politicians talk about Europe as the salvation, but the path to European integration is proving slow and painful. "There are no jobs in the civil service, no jobs in the police and even the rates for the casual work I do are going down all the time," Mr Cristofari laments. "This place unnerves me, there isn't an ounce of peace left."