Italians, emigrants then and now
Italian emigrants today are mainly young people and women who are highly qualified, but they are unable to land appropriate jobs in their destination countries.
- Friday, 29 June 2018
Since the beginning of the decade there has been a notable increase in the number of Italians emigrating. The total number of departures has grown year on year and the flow has been prevalently towards a limited number of countries in the European Union, including Great Britain even following the Brexit referendum that has determined the country’s withdrawal from the EU. An important fact worth considering is that the flow out of the country is not only made up of Italians but also of foreign citizens residing in the Bel Paese. In fact, of the 157 thousand people that left Italy and removed their names from the national register in 2016, 114 thousand were Italian citizens and the rest were foreigners resident in Italy.
The outward flow of migrants in recent years has been joined by an inward flow, which for the most part is made up of foreign nationals. All of which makes Italy a genuine migration crossroads. This aspect becomes increasingly evident if we consider that in 2016 the number of foreigners living in Italy was equal to 5,027,000 while there were 4,974,000 Italians living outside Italy (according to data from AIRE, the Public Registry of Italians Resident Abroad). It is a coincidence that the figures are so close in number but it is not by chance that they are of a similar order of magnitude.
Naturally, not all of the foreigners resident in Italy have just arrived in the country, neither are all the Italian citizens abroad newly emigrated: some of them are of course but they are far outnumbered by those who emigrated in previous decades or who were born abroad. So these similar numbers are the result of processes and phenomena that have occurred at different times but which come together to paint a picture of the country as a migratory crossroads.
Italian migration does not only concern migrations abroad, however. In addition to those who leave the country there are also internal migratory movements within the peninsula which have taken place at varied intensities in diverse periods but have become as intense now as they were fifty or sixty years ago during the age of the great intra-European migrations of the post-war period.
Italian emigration in the last century and a half has experienced three main seasons (we are currently experiencing the third). The first is sometimes known as the Italian Diaspora, when, between the mid 1800s and continuing until the mid 1920s, many people left Italy and other countries of southern Europe to head for foreign continents. The second is the great intra-European migration driven by industrial growth during the period of Fordism. The third is the current season that, for its characteristics and dimensions, would appear to represent a new cycle in the history of Italian migration.
This new emigration is the subject of my book that has just been published by Il Mulino, Quelli che se ne vanno: la nuova emigrazione italiana [Those who leave: the new Italian emigration], which attempts to shed new light on some important themes, contradictions and, above all, differences with the emigration of the years of great economic development from the end of the 1940s to the mid seventies referred to by French scholars as the “thirty glorious years”.
Let’s begin with the scope of the new phenomenon and the underlying trends. Italy’s new emigration really took off in the years immediately after the beginning of the economic crisis and continued during the recession and, importantly, also during the years of recovery, demonstrating that it is not only an economic phenomenon. According to data from ISTAT (the Italian National Institute of Statistics) based on residency cancellations at the country’s registry offices, the phenomenon is of a size unseen since 1971. If we then consider that the Italian data based on registry office data is notably lower (by a half or two thirds) than the corresponding figures from surveys carried out by the main destination countries in Europe, the size is even more striking.
In addition to the substantial upturn in emigration, a new feature is the complex composition of the flow, which differs from that of the era of the great migration that followed in the wake of industrial development, a migration of a substantially proletarian character. This is perhaps the main feature of difference between emigration today and the great migrations of half a century ago when emigrants departed prevalently in search of manual work and within a context characterised by high levels of job security and union protection.
The component of female migrants also differs from past migrations not only due to the higher numbers now but also for the fact that women are far less likely to be accompanying family members, instead they are likely to be individuals embarking on their own independent migration experiences, interacting directly with the employment market and with the same hopes, difficulties and prospects as their male counterparts.
The demographic composition is also different, illustrating a prevalence of youngsters, though many new emigrants are beginning to grow old in the social and existential condition of youth.
Finally, educational qualifications – around 30% of the new emigrants are graduates – represent another important feature that differentiates the current crop of emigrants from the Italians migrating in the past. The reason for this cannot be explained solely by improvements in the educational level of the national population because now, on average, emigrants are better qualified than most of the general population. Furthermore, the fact that emigrants are highly qualified does not correspond to their position in the employment market in their destination countries: young graduates can often be found working in precarious and unskilled jobs. In Germany the highest number of employees with Italian citizenship are employed in the restaurant and catering sector, in which there is a clear disparity between their qualifications and the actual demands of the job.
More generally, the prevalence of unskilled jobs reflects the general transformations in the job market in Europe. The spread of precarious work for young people and in general newly hired employees is not solely an Italian issue; it exists in all of the main countries in Europe, including those with strong economies like Germany where the high number of job seekers corresponds to a very low quality of jobs and the situation has worsened in recent years. In Germany, just as in Britain and Switzerland, a large proportion of immigrants originate from other countries in the EU, Italy included. They frequently end up concentrated in the lower end of the job market that is poorly regulated and offers limited protection: two cases in point are the so-called “mini-jobs” in Germany and the “zero-hours” contracts in Britain.
In recent years there has been much talk of the “brain drain” and the mobility of the Erasmus generation, driven mainly by the desire to gain experience in other countries. This aspect of the new Italian emigration is undoubtedly important but equally important, and also in expansion, is the flight of those who perform manual jobs or unskilled work. As well as the brain drain there is also a “brawn drain”, especially from the south, and this is a phenomenon that is not being properly acknowledged.