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These structural failings help explain the current dismal economy. Last month, Italy reported zero growth, below the euro zone's lackluster average of 1.3%. The country's persistent public debt above 100% of gdp ranks third among the industrialized nations, and places a heavy burden on future generations. The underdeveloped south eight regions that encompass 35% of the population continues to suffer by almost every index. Unemployment is at the root of its troubles: nearly 50% of those under 35 do not have work.
Potenza, the art-restoration student in Florence, says that when she goes home to Basilicata things appear to be getting worse. "Whatever problems exist elsewhere are three times as bad in the south," she says, noting her father was laid off recently from his job in a chemical factory. "The rest of the country tries to forget what's happening there." Rather than tackling the difficult issues underpinning the north-south divide, political leaders, including Berlusconi, point instead to Italians' well-honed ability to find hidden sources of income. Some estimates suggest that more than 20% of the nation's income is earned off the books. While there may be more disposable cash in the country than official indicators say, a gray economy is no formula for global competitiveness. Neither end of the political spectrum, Coscelli concludes, has proposed the sacrifices necessary for a real solution. "There's no recipe to develop a competitive economy," he says, "just recipes to manage the decline."
Any turnaround will have to get a kick start from the many family-run businesses that still form the bedrock of the economy. Economists hope that the next generation leading the great industrial families has more exposure to international business practices, and understands what it will take to compete in the future. But even these family firms will need to bring in fresh faces for long-term success. One that has done so is Gucci, the luxury-goods maker that first revived its fading fortunes in the 1990s by hiring American designer Tom Ford. Now an Italian, Frida Giannini, 33, has taken over as creative chief. The Rome native says Italy must find new ways to do what it has always done best: brilliant design allied to fine workmanship. "You grow up in a place like Rome, every other meter there is a work of art, some kind of treasure. It's not the same to see it in a postcard," she says. "It's in our dna." But that native aesthetic sense needs an extra dose of ingenuity to add value in today's competitive environment. "Quality must be wedded to creativity," Giannini says. "If you want to give luster to whatever you produce, you must focus your resources on the young. You have to always be in search of what's new, what's next."
And Italy, like the rest of Old Europe, must figure out how to harness the economic energy from rising numbers of immigrants. Not only do the foreign-born provide raw manpower to replace the dwindling native population, they are the most active entrepreneurs. In 2005, Italy boasted a 15.4% rise in new businesses launched by immigrants, topping off a 137% jump over the past five years. "Compared to other parts of Europe, immigration is still young here," says Osama al Saghir, 22, president of the Young Muslim Association of Italy. "Italians need to open their eyes and not see us as a threat, but as a resource." Without immigrant workers paying taxes, he rightly notes, "pensions won't get paid."
If the under-40 generation really wants to rejuvenate Italy, it will have to stop waiting for permission from the old guard and push ahead itself. Matteo Renzi shocked everyone, including himself, when he won election as President of the province of Florence at the age of 29. Two years later, though, he says the Berlusconi-Prodi rematch the pair faced off in 1996, when Prodi won is a sad reminder of "how much the whole world outside has changed, while we stand still." Renzi says even young Italians are often lacking in that youthful dissatisfaction with the status quo so vital to initiating change. "They all show up at rallies in jacket and tie and fall in line. Where's the grit, the passion?" he asks. "You can be old at 80, but you can be old at 20 too." Renzi says his contemporaries need to grab power, not wait for it to be passed on to them. "I don't ask to have space because I'm 30, I ask to have space because I've got new ideas," he says. "And I believe I have these ideas because I'm 30."
And here and there, the crossroads of Italy's past and future is visibly emerging. You can see it in the ancient Sicilian city of Syracuse, on a stretch of coastline where Baroque palazzos and Greek ruins stand beside the eternal blue of the Mediterranean as signposts from Italy's history of rebirths. Here too is Sicily's only contemporary art museum, dreamed up in 2001 by a then 28-year-old city native, Salvatore Lacagnina. He wanted to bring the modern vision he'd acquired in Bologna and Milan back to his stolid hometown. And in a wired world, he can keep up with the cutting edge of art in New York City and Paris even from a backwater like Sicily.
In his shows, he has made a point of melding old and new, exhibiting modern work in a Roman amphitheater and displaying archaeological artifacts in his contemporary gallery. All too often, he says, Italy's focus on preserving its vast store of crumbling treasures comes at the expense of creating something new. He says his countrymen should reverse the old cliché about the importance of knowing history in order to make things better today. Rather understand, he says, that "the past can't exist without the present." Back in 13th century Florence, both Giotto and his master-teacher Cimabue would applaud that young man's thinking.