Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Shattered Myth of the Carefree Italians

Surprisingly, Italians were found to be among the unhappiest people in Europe according to a recent survey conducted by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Earth Institute of Columbia University. Despite its great climate, excellent food, and extraordinary natural setting, Italy doesn’t seem to make its natives happy (anymore). Those who ranked at the top of the list were Denmark, in first place, followed by Norway, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Sweden. In Europe, Italy is only ahead of Greece, Malta and Portugal.

Without work there is no future
As someone who lives in Italy, I don't think it requires a rocket scientist to understand what’s behind the current “depression” of Italian citizens. It’s enough to look at the statistics: the happiest European nations are the ones whose governments and economic situations are much more stable and florid than those of the Bel Paese. After years of “going with the flow” and placidly accepting the shortcomings typically associated with their country, Italians are beginning to tire of this “make the best of it” attitude they have been forced to adopt for so long.

Taxation pressure as a % of GNP
The past ten years have created major upheavals in the precarious equilibrium of the Italian lifestyle. Membership in the EU has meant that there are new rules and standards which must be respected, and as a result, much of the art of getting by for which the Italians are so famous has been lost. This is not to say that Italians are intrinsically corrupt, it is merely to point out that when you live in a country where the rules exist, but they are rarely enforced (and those who make them are the first to ignore them) you tend to get lax yourself. It’s true, there is a tremendous problem with tax evasion, but over the years, rather than finding and fining the culprits, the government simply continued raising taxes and adding new ones to try and make up the difference. As a result, those who are honest find themselves paying among the highest taxes in the Western world! Yet, unlike their Scandinavian counterparts who are also heavily taxed, the Italians have very little benefit from their “investment”. 

In northern Europe, social services and public administration function like clockwork, hence the population has many advantages in return for their tax contribution, which in turn produces "happiness". In Italy, this is not the case. Bureaucracy has always been, and continues to be, an outright nightmare. Local governments are broke, and as a consequence they are constantly cutting back on services. Politicians across the board have lost respect among the population, as they have proven themselves unworthy of their office -  many are corrupt and most have been unable to provide any ongoing stability or effective governance for years.

Today, with unemployment at a record high and the worst economic recession in decades it would be very odd to find the majority of Italians defining themselves as “happy” in a survey which includes factors like job security, political stability and corruption. The figures are staggering: presently almost 5 million Italians are living in poverty, more than double since 2008. During the first 6 months of 2013 there were 21,000 businesses that folded; construction and real estate are on their knees; industry and the auto market are plummeting. However, the greatest risk for the country would be if people lose hope that things will improve. Bolstering public optimism by providing concrete solutions to the current situation is where politicians and statesmen must focus their efforts.

So, while there is probably no Italian who will deny that they live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, many will confirm that it is not an easy time to live here. It’s obviously not enough to have wonderful restaurants in your country if you can’t afford to eat in them. The extraordinary scenery and plentiful sunshine are great, but people want to be able to vacation and enjoy the seaside, countryside and art cities. When you begin to take all the fun out of life, anyone would feel unhappy – especially those as jovial as the Italians. 

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