A Country for Old Men:

Italian Students’ Rising Emigration to the Netherlands

By Nina Cerasuolo International | June 23, 2023

Cover Illustration: Italian flag. Emma Fabbri / Unsplash

International reporter Nina Cerasuolo compiles data and gathers insights on the emigration of Italians, particularly young people preferring to study abroad.

In 2013, 7.4% of Italy’s residents were immigrants without citizenship. Almost ten years later, the number has increased to 8.7%. During this decade, Italy has shifted its self-narrative, and possibly external perception, from a country of emigration to–it is often said–a country of immigration. However, this claim dangerously overlooks another story of migration: Italy’s steadily increasing loss of young, often highly educated citizens who choose to move abroad in a silent, ever-growing exodus.

As of today, 9.8% of Italian citizens do not reside in the country. Between 2012 and 2021, Italy’s birth rate (the average number of children per adult woman) decreased from 1.42 to 1.24, and 337,000 citizens aged 25 to 34 (circa 5-5.5% of the total population in the age range) left Italy. This mass emigration included elevated percentages of emigrants among those who only hold a middle school diploma as well as those who hold a degree. The latter comprised 120,000 in the 2012-2021 time-frame only. Out of almost 60 million Italians, this might seem like negligible data. However, less than 20% of Italians aged 25 to 64 hold a degree, ranking the country at the very bottom of European charts on education achievement. Emigration did not stop at regional borders:  all Italian regions had negative population growth of people aged 20-39 between 2011 and 2019. All southern and most north-eastern regions showed negative growth for people under 20, too.

While Amsterdam-based universities do not give any disaggregated data on the country of origin of their European students, the newspaper IlSole24Ore reports Italians to be the second largest non-Dutch EU student population after Germans. As Italian high school and Bachelor graduates increasingly choose to leave their homeland, the Netherlands has become their destination of choice: from 2015 to 2022, with–among many factors–Brexit hardening access to British universities, the presence of Italian students in the Netherlands increased by 360%.

When presented with data on the brain drain, Italian students’ reaction is bittersweet and, generally, unsurprised. “I mean, it makes sense. I was privileged, I’d do it again. I miss my family of course, but I want to… I want to do the job I’m studying for. I know no one who does the job they studied for back home”, said a 20-year-old student now finishing her second year of a social sciences Bachelor at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). When asked whether there is anything, except for her family, that she truly misses, she laughs: “I miss the sun. Culturally, you know. Of course people here can’t take a break; why would you? Everyone seems stressed here, it’s a very hectic work culture – but what can you do?”. Work culture is also often mentioned in a video in which youtuber Marcello Ascani interviews Italians living in Amsterdam. Many, while happy with their experience overall, report struggling to adapt to Dutch culture and finding rent prices unattainable with an average Italian income. However, everyone in the video also talks about the feasibility of quickly finding a relevant job in Amsterdam, which would unlikely hold true in their home country, with the Italian youth unemployment rate at 22.9% in 2023 (versus circa 8% in The Netherlands).

Sara, 21, about to graduate from UvA, also talks about the opportunity to study in the Netherlands as a “privileged choice”, but she is still struggling with knowing that her family is 1000km and about 150-200€ (the average cost of a return ticket) away: “I miss them, four days (ed. the duration of her last visit) are just not enough. Every time you’re back, you have all this stuff you need to do: doctor’s appointments, a whole family you haven’t seen in months. It’s never easy to re-adapt when I come back, even if I absolutely chose to be here. I wanted to go out of that province, I’d have done it even if Italy was a wealthier country, I guess”. Many like Sara mention leaving “home” not only due to financial reasons, but also out of a will to flee a culture that feels “backwards” and “closed-minded”.

Rebecca (alias), 21, who is a few days away from obtaining her degree at an academy in Amsterdam, is adamant about this: “Sure, I miss the food, a culture in which you sit together with your family at the dinner table and you share. But I could never go back; I’d never want to. To be queer in Italy is to feel unsafe. Homophobia is here too, of course, but there it’s institutional, it’s cultural, it’s too deep rooted and normalized to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Homophobic violence is not even a hate crime, it’s that normal”. Rebecca is referring to the failure of DDL Zan, a decree proposed to turn sexist, homotransphobic and abilist motives into aggravating circumstances in case of violence or hate speech, as it already is for crimes with racial or religious motives. The DDL was rejected by the Italian Senate in 2021, on the grounds that such a law would inhibit freedom of speech.

The necessity to leave Italy and to escape identity-based discrimination is also underlined by Michela Grasso, UvA student and founder of the Instagram page @spaghettipolitics, through which she shares information and opinions on Italian and foreign politics with her 235,000 followers. In 2021, Grasso published the book Il futuro non può aspettare (The future cannot await), in which she drew a picture of the “kaleidoscopic world of expats”, drawing from her own experience and the experiences of other young Italian emigrants.

Interviewed by The Amsterdammer, Michela explained how the Italian public debate just “tends to mix everything up, saying everyone who leaves does that because of money”, while other factors matter in the choice of emigrating, too. Among these is identity: the desire to live a life more free of discrimination. “If I am a woman, that will matter; if I am black, that will matter”. She also reports wanting to escape the constrictions given by disability as a reason to emigrate because “(in Italy) disability condemns you to being an invisible citizen,” which is not necessarily the case abroad. “I don’t truly like calling it a ‘brain drain’, but to solve this ‘brain drain’, you’d have to understand it,” Michela explains. She says that this is, however, impossible, as the Italian media landscape is dominated by “older men who never lived abroad, never had a precarious job.” Overall, Grasso also agrees with other Amsterdam-based Italian students: escaping provinciality is a “natural tendency,” especially when with enclosed geographical spaces comes a closed-minded mentality. “Young people have the right to get out, to leave, to understand,” while Italian society, too focused on “productivity and efficiency,” fails to appreciate the importance of exiting one’s social and cultural bubble.

Italian students in Amsterdam are an interesting, yet trivial portion of the emigrate Italian youth. Like their peers in other cities and countries, many left looking for stability and social progress, and few are likely to be persuaded to move back home by financial incentives such as the Italian State’s anti-exodus fiscal fund. As Italian politics focus on an intense – often negative – debate around immigration, emigration is often left on the side in the public arena.

As Italian scholars and professionals succeed abroad, Italy ranks among the worst-performing European countries in terms of education, birth rate and employment. As the European Union established, after the COVID19 pandemic, the NextGenerationEU fund landed in Italian news media and political discourse only in terms of its “Recovery” component, losing all symbolic attention towards the future. Young people’s mass emigration is, overall, symptomatic of a need to re-establish Italy’s priorities and could, if left unattended, prove detrimental to  the country’s socio-economic future. 

“Young people have the right to get out, to leave, to understand,” while Italian society, too focused on “productivity and efficiency,” fails to appreciate the importance of exiting one’s social and cultural bubble.

Nina Cerasuolo is a university student in Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer. 

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