From Jobless to Genius — Italy's New Renaissance?

From Jobless to Genius — Italy's New Renaissance?

A senior fashion designer working with her son in her studio, in Italy.

SourceKathrin Ziegler/getty
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Why you should care

Being unemployed can become an opportunity for reinvention.

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Raffaele De Rosa, 36, earned master’s degrees in seismic engineering and renewable energy at Naples’ Federico II University and speaks fluent English as well as Italian. Then he spent 10 years looking for engineering jobs. Guess how he makes a living these days?

Potatoes. More specifically, De Rosa and a university buddy (who’d planned to become a lawyer) opened a chain of fast-food restaurants near Naples called Mister Potato. Instead of hanging out professional shingles, these two men became successful spud slingers — a lucrative business alternative to the futures they’d envisioned on campus. “Dude, the stuff I studied at college was great, interesting and all, but then I realized it was useless and would have gotten me nowhere,” De Rosa tells OZY. “So I changed direction: I invested in my passion for gourmet food.”

De Rosa and his partner are part of a trend sweeping across Europe — well-educated but unemployed or underemployed millennials who have dumped Plan A and gone on to Plan B with a creative flair that’s beating the lousy employment odds on the still-sluggish continent. Italy’s economy is one of the European Union’s most anemic, with a triple-dip recession since the mid-2000s that has hit millennials particularly hard. Youth unemployment hovers around 36 percent, compared to the overall Italian average of 12 percent, according to the Italian National Institute for Statistics. So, exit the scholar, enter the entrepreneur.

[Reinventing careers is] not just a matter of survival but also of being creative … always on the move, able to diversify and change.

Carlo Gioiello, Italian hotelier

Once considered part of a “lost generation,” these reinvented Italian engineers, economists, financial advisers and biologists are reshaping the skylines of their cities by building environmentally friendly and high-tech buildings, reviving slums and opening canteens, restaurants and boutiques (one is in a former bank vault). Millennials who are rolling up their sleeves and repurposing themselves have been dubbed the “new lions” by the Italian press. By the end of 2015, according to the European Commission, roughly 900,000 young Italians had entered the labor market, most for the first time, slimming the ranks of those lazy mama’s boys and NEETs — Not in Education, Employment or Training.

These transformations are affecting Italy’s education sector, too. Technical training schools are on the rise, while enrollment at classical liberal arts high schools has dropped 50 percent since 2007, according to Italy’s Ministry of Education. Not all educators applaud this trend. “[Parents] think learning Latin and Greek is useless and that their kids will never find a job,” says Roberto Costantini, director of Luiss University’s Creative Summer School in Rome, which aims to sharpen students’ language proficiency. “But it’s wrong. Humanist studies teach how to reason and can thus open successful career paths in all sectors.”

One former Italian NEET who may not agree is Carlo Gioiello, 37, who trained for a career in orthodontics and dental implants at a technical institute in Naples. After graduation came 15 years trying to land a job in his field before he discovered he could generate more enthusiasm — and revenue — by restyling palazzi in Naples’ historic center. “It’s not just a matter of survival but also of being creative,” Gioiello says, “and we Neapolitans rock at this — always on the move, able to diversify and change.” Last year he opened Foria House, a bed-and-breakfast decorated with furniture designed and made by him, and now he runs another hotel with two partners: one is a former lawyer; the other, a former engineer.

Optimism among this demographic also is on the rise elsewhere in Europe, where millennials comprise roughly one-quarter of the population. The EU recently adopted a Youth Guarantee scheme to help unemployed millennials find work within four months of going on the dole. Northern countries have done their homework better than their southern peers, exploiting to best advantage their share of EU funding for the program. Finland leads the Youth Guarantee results, with 83.5 percent of young job seekers receiving a full-time employment offer within three months of registering as unemployed.

In the past two years, even debt-battered Spain saw a modest drop in youth unemployment, from 52.3 percent to 44.4 percent. Spanish millennials have shown themselves to be especially proactive in finding good job alternatives, according to EU reports. The most unusual example of taking lemons and making lemonade: a group of underemployed university researchers in Valencia who launched a business guiding tourists through crumbling buildings to highlight how politicians have ruined cities and emptied taxpayers’ pockets.

Even in tottering Greece, young professionals fired from ailing banks and bankrupt companies have given themselves a makeover, focusing in particular on tourism. Alexos Stroupolis, 28, the former manager of an insurance company, founded a tour company that takes advantage of what Greece offers in abundance: temples, art, beaches and islands. Swapping his business suit for a straw hat, sunglasses and Bermuda shorts, Stroupolis leads customized trips to lesser-known islands such as Lemnos and Kalymnos, close to the Turkish coast. “At least I get to explore places I never saw when I was stuck at my desk,” Stroupolis says. “I try to look at the positive side of my career switch.”

As for De Rosa, his passion for food has inspired him to invest his life savings, about 40,000 euros, into two new bistros. On weekends he tours food fairs across the boot, eating in taverns to taste new dishes. Above all, he’s independent. “I’m my own employer,” he says. “I’ve got no boss, and that’s priceless. I work for myself, and that’s a great incentive to do more.”

Italians have a proverb: Help yourself and God will help you. Maybe there should be a new coda for the NEETs in Europe and elsewhere: Loaf around in silence and remain jobless forever.

This editorial article was originally created by OZY Media and published on OZY.com prior to, and independently of its inclusion in this JP Morgan Chase & Co. sponsored series. OZY Media claims the full rights and responsibilities of this article.

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