Gently mocked as "bamboccioni" – literally, “big babies” – or "mammone" – mama's boys – for their reluctance to fly the nest, Italian adults are living with their parents in huge numbers.
But it's not simply the warm embrace of the Italian "mamma" that is keeping them at home. The phenomenon has grown in large part due to the current economic crisis in Europe, experts say.
Nearly a third of Italians now live with their parents, according to new research by Coldiretti, a national farmers association, and Censis, a market research firm. Among the 18-to-29-year-old age bracket, the proportion rises to a staggering 61 percent. Of those who do not live at home, 42 percent reside within a 30-minute walk of their parents.
The phenomenon is not new. Like most Mediterranean countries, Italy places a strong emphasis on family solidarity. Mothers still hold a revered role in Italian society, and Italians of all classes and ages maintain strong loyalty to their home regions – a phenomenon known as "campanilismo," defined as "an exaggerated attachment to the customs and traditions of one’s own town."
Young Italians travel much less than their counterparts in Britain, Germany, or Australia; it is rare to encounter Italians among the backpacking crowd doing the rounds of Asia, Africa, and South America, for instance.
But the cultural trend has been accentuated by the current economic crisis – the number of young Italians living at home is up from 48 percent in 1990.
Italians are having to stick together more than ever in the face of rising fuel and food costs, almost negligent economic growth, workplace layoffs, and a harsh package of austerity cuts engineered by the unelected government of Mario Monti, the technocrat prime minister who replaced the discredited Silvio Berlusconi last November.
While average unemployment among Italians is around 10 percent, it leaps to more than 30 percent for those in their 20s. They make up the so-called NEET generation – Neither in Employment, Education, or Training – and struggle to feed and clothe themselves, let alone find a place of their own.
Finding a well-paid position in almost any profession often relies on personal connections, or "raccomandazioni," more than just merit. Of those who do have jobs, many are on precarious, short-term contracts that make it hard to commit to a mortgage or property rental contract.
So while it may be easy to portray stay-at-home Italians as idle or overcosseted by their doting mothers and fathers, that is unfair and over-simplistic, says Roberto D'Alimonte, a political scientist at Luiss University in Rome.
"I think 'bamboccioni' has a very unfortunate, negative connotation and should not be used," he says. "It is true that there is a cultural predisposition for young Italians to stay close to their parents, but the biggest factors are economic. Italians can't afford to leave home. When my son graduated as an engineer, his first job paid him €800 a month – that was not enough even to pay for the rent in Milan."
They are left with little choice but to remain living at home, often to an age that would be regarded as socially embarrassing in northern Europe and North America – a quarter of Italians ages 30 to 44 still live with their mother and father, the survey found.
The harsh economic climate of the past four years has also seen a rise in the number of young people in the United States forced to remain living with their parents, Professor D'Alimonte says. "So now you have bamboccioni in the US," he says. "It's not just Italy anymore."
In Italy, the tight family structure is seen largely as a positive thing – in fact, Coldiretti and Censis called their report "The economic crisis – living together, living better."
"The structure of the Italian family has shown to be fundamental in saving many people from difficulty in the current economic crisis," says Sergio Marini, the president of Coldiretti. "Solidarity between the generations on which the family is founded is proving to be a winning model for living well and staying together, and not a sign of social and cultural backwardness, as many people persist in claiming."
While Coldiretti argued that Italians' reluctance to break out of the family home is a strength, others see it as a weakness. It impairs mobility and economic growth – a young teacher from the Veneto region of northern Italy may be reluctant to take up a job in Sicily in the deep south because of the pull of his or her family.
A couple of years ago, a cabinet minister came up with a drastic solution to the problem; proposing legislation that would make it compulsory for teenagers to leave home once they reached adulthood.
But when challenged on the idea, Renato Brunetta, the minister in charge of streamlining the country's bureaucracy, sheepishly admitted that he, too, had struggled to cut free from the cozy safety net of the family home and that his mother had made his bed for him until he was 30. His proposal was swiftly shelved.