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Italy's Aging Bambini

From Milan to Sicily, more young adults are continuing to live with their parents. Mom and Dad get companionship, while the kids get a new-style dolce vita.

September 14, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROME — Mauro Toro wanted the freedom to follow his dreams. So he moved in with his mother.

That meant he could sell his home and use the money to buy a 46-foot yacht. Now Toro, 35, spends much of his time sailing the Mediterranean, taking paying passengers on his own boat or working as a skipper on other vessels.

And aside from a few inconveniences, he really enjoys living with Mom.

"I like it that I don't wash my clothes," he explained. "I like it that if I don't have dinner out, I can have dinner when I come home, without cooking. I like it that my bed is always made."

Toro is a mammone, or "mama's boy," and more or less proud of it. He is part of a huge number of Italian singles in their 20s and 30s who live with their parents and see advantages in the setup for both generations, while finding nothing at all embarrassing about it.

Many Italians of all ages look favorably on such arrangements. Young men and women often find it difficult to earn enough to run their own household, while parents like to have their children at home even after they are grown.

Italy's highest appeals court created an uproar this year, however, by taking things one step further. Ruling in favor of an adult son who sued his estranged father for support, the court declared that the parent had not just a social but also a legal duty.

Still, it isn't the law that nurtures this form of family togetherness.

Challenged by the youth revolt of the 1960s and '70s, the Italian family adapted rather than stand rigidly by its traditions. The under-30s of 1968, the watershed year of rebellion, and their children have together constructed a new pattern that preserves the family's central role in Italian life by offering stay-at-homes unprecedented freedom, plus enormous economic and personal benefits.

In other Western European countries such as Germany, France and Britain, it is far more common for young adults to move out and live on their own. The new Italian pattern became standard over the last decade or so partly because it helps ease other problems: Rents are up, university graduates have greater difficulty finding good jobs, and young adults spend more years in school.

As a result, 59% of Italians ages 20 to 35 live with their parents, according to government statistics, up from 46% a decade ago. The trend coincides with a plummeting Italian birthrate, now less than 1.2 children per woman, which itself is partly a result of later marriages.

This all forms an interlocking pattern--what some might call a vicious circle. It's hard to get a good job and strike out on your own. Life with your parents can be very pleasant, with no restrictions, so there's less incentive to leave. And if you're not married, the thinking goes, you might as well stay in the nest.

"It's very comfortable to continue to live with Mom and Dad, because they are taking care of everything and you ... are free," said Rossella Palomba, a demographer with the Institute for Population Research and Social Policies in Rome.

"You can go out in the evening whenever you want," she said. "You can meet your girlfriend or boyfriend at home. Of course the parents know of this moment of intimacy, and they are not against it. So you are completely free.... You are really a kind of king in the house."

In the old days, young Italian women often lived at home until they were married, generally needing permission to go out at night. Many saw marriage as their only way to escape parental control. A man living at home often had to accept his father's advice--or orders--at a family business or farm. Although families were close, there was rarely any doubt that the older generation was firmly in charge.

So one might wonder what, exactly, the parents get out of the new arrangement.

Domenico De Masi, a sociologist at the University of Rome, said he sees the relationship between generations as a fairly straightforward trade. Using the amount a child would otherwise typically pay monthly for rent and food, he said: "The parents 'give' $1,200 to their children, and the children give company to their parents. It's an exchange of sentiment for money. It's prostitution."

Avoidance of solitude is the key issue, he said. And given the lingering influence of old attitudes, for many middle-aged Italians that means not simply having a spouse around but ensuring that the younger generation stays in the picture.

"The fear of being alone arises for an Italian couple while they're still young, while for an American couple the fear of solitude comes when they're old," he said. "A young American couple doesn't make an investment in sentiment. They make their investment in the Dow Jones and Nasdaq."

In the United States, many people expect that they might spend their final years in a senior citizens home, and they need to save up the money to do this. But in Italy, that is seen as shameful.

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