To many Italian moms, it does not make a difference if the child they are kissing good morning is 3 or 30 years old. But to the government, it does – and officials want young adults booted out of the parental nest.
"We want the bamboccioni to move out," Finance Minister Tommaso Padoa Schioppa recently said, using a term that evokes grown babies still attached to mamma's apron strings.
With fewer job options than their American peers and less generous welfare benefits than their European counterparts, nearly two-thirds of Italians between the ages of 30 and 34 are still sleeping in their childhood bedroom. Besides fostering stereotypes of spoiled youths, that figure has serious consequences for the country's demographic balance. Without a house of their own, the young stay single, delay starting a family, and depress the country's birthrate, already below replacement levels.
"The problem," says Alessandro Rosina, who teaches demography at Catholic University in Milan, "is not just that Italy's birthrate of 1.3 is one of the lowest in Europe, but that is has been stable at that level for too long."
Now Italy's center-left government is proposing a ¤999 ($1,431) yearly tax credit on rents for people ages 20 to 30, hoping that will encourage young adults to start living on their own and start a family. But experts say the measure, though encouraging, is not enough to undo cultural and economic factors keeping young men and women at home.
The 1960s, says Mr. Schioppa, produced a generation of parents who are letting their kids enjoy freedom without giving up the comforts of freshly washed linens and homemade lasagna.
"Young Italians have found a new formula for la dolce vita," writes journalist Beppe Severgnini on his popular blog, "Italians." But, he adds, it is also a matter of "unconfessed egoism of the parents," who encourage the kids to stay at home as way of postponing the solitude of retirement.
Intergenerational solidarity is a factor driving the development, says Professor Rosina. Parents expect help themselves when mama and papa grow older. In fact, even if they do move out, many Italians save a room for when parents may not be as independent.
Italians have not always been bamboccioni. Figures show that in the 1960s, a period of sustained economic growth, the average age to move out of the family home was 26 among men and 23 among women – in line with the European average of 25. Not only were young people willing to emancipate themselves from their often conservative families; they were also able to. A young man could support his family with a factory wage.
Carlotta Maranesi, a young architect from Milan, says now most 30-somethings need to pay the first installment of their home loan with their parents' assistance, even for a studio apartment. "Where in the world could you possibly put a baby?" asks Ms. Maranesi, whose parents bought her a house she could not have afforded with her full-time job salary.
"I am a panda – a very rare species – among my generation, because I found a job at 23, right after graduation," says Paolo Catena, an engineer from Milan. Even so, he says, "I am moving out only because my grandma passed away and a house fell in my lap for free."
The age for leaving home started rising in the 1980s, when Italy struggled with economic stagnation. Now, with a GDP growth at 1.3 percent and unemployment about 12 percent, Italy, says Rosina, couples a rigid labor market with a weak safety net for the young.
Italy spent 0.5 percent of GDP on unemployment subsidies in 2004, compared with 2.8 in Denmark – the European country with the highest number of 20-year-olds living on their own, according to Eurostat, the EU's statistics branch.
Even timid attempts to shake up Italy's labor market typically result in large street protests. Reforming the welfare state is no easier. With almost 1 in 5 Italians above age 65, according to the Italian Statistics Institute, pensions and public health spending account for more than 20 percent of Italy's GDP. This leaves a thin slice for services such as housing and unemployment subsidies. As a result, in a society where families often need two salaries, public day-care centers are in short supply.
"You hear frequent complaints from Italian families that there are not enough spots for their children," says Nicole Winfield, an American journalist and mother in Rome, "If you can't pay hundreds of euros a month for a private center or a nanny, you are in bonds."
Italy is one of the most graying societies in the world. But surveys have found that only a minority of couples do not want children. Though birthrates fall short of the European average of 1.5 children per family, Italians say they want two children, a rate that, over time, would reestablish a replacement ratio between old and young generations.