Young Italians 2018 - Split between openness and fear for the future

By Federico Quadrelli

Research by the Open Society European Policy Institute and d|part reveals that concern about their economic security is the main reason why young Italians have turned towards populist rhetoric

alexis brown 82988 unsplash finalUnemployment in Italy has risen dramatically since the 2008 economic crisis, especially among young people. The percentage of NEET (Not Engaged in Education, Employment or Training) has reached 26 percent. The feeling of frustration, alienation and mistrust is overwhelming.

Sociologist Franco Ferrarotti and philosopher Umberto Galimberti write about 15-25-year-olds as a lost generation who feel like social outcasts, abandoned by the country’s institutions and its politics. Far-right movements and parties, like Lega, the Fratelli d'Italia (FdI) and M5S, have capitalised on these fears and stoked anger by using xenophobic language to win their votes.

What does this mean for the open society’s future in Italy? Was it the anti-immigrant rhetoric that led young Italians to vote for right-wing parties in the March 4, 2018 elections? Has racism combined with the economic situation and high levels of unemployment and fear for the future pushed young Italians to the political extreme right?

Pessimism, fear and racism

Italy’s millennials face great economic and political uncertainty. The research institute Demos&Pi says Italians aged between 25 and 36 feel very much on their own and have little faith in the future. Younger Italians aged 15-24 are more likely to think positively, although when asked how they see their future in Italy, 70 percent answer they will need to leave to have a successful career.

On migration, Demos&Pi has shown that 20 percent of respondents aged 15 to 24 and 31 percent aged 25 to 36 see migrants as a threat, and of course that’s particularly particularly true of those who voted for Lega or M5S. The national research institute Demopolis found that the Lega and M5S anti-immigrant and anti-European rhetoric was particularly persuasive for the under 40s.

In 2010, La Repubblica reported on a study by the Italian Parliament that revealed a quarter of respondents aged 18 to 29 as xenophobic, and particularly intolerant of Sinti, Roma and Albanians. The study concluded that the relatively low figure of 10 percent of young Italians could be defined as racist, with many more pessimistic and hostile to foreigners in general. Research by Osservatorio Giovani in 2016 confirmed this finding.

More recently, international research by Ipsos for the project More in Common found that a large proportion of Italians belong to the “uncertain centre”. Researcher Antonella Napolitano explains that these are people who don’t espouse closed society values in the same way as nationalists, but are sceptical of cosmopolitan openness. They show a “diffused dissatisfaction with the status quo, a deep mistrust of elites, and a significant number believe that globalisation has made them worse off”.  “Hostile nationalists”, on the other hand, make up no more than 7 percent of those surveyed.

 Behind the easy labels

The data collected for the Voices on Values survey suggest there are no significant differences among age groups in how they feel about open society values (Figure 1), like freedom of expression, minority rights and freedom of religion. These are considered more important for a good society than closed society attributes like “same sex couples don’t kiss in public” or “as few immigrants as possible should come to the country”.

Open society values are rated more highly by all age groups, with only a small difference between the 18-24s and the over 65s, with similar small differences for closed society views. Age thus has little impact on Italian respondents’ allegiances.

Figure 1. Importance of open and closed society attributes by age group

Figure 1


The trade-off experiments therefore provides a deeper understanding of how important open society values are in Italy. Respondents were asked to choose between open society statements and others that would restrict these freedoms.

In figure 2 the statement asks if equal treatment of newcomers is more, equally or less important than their own economic wellbeing. The second statement in figure 3 opposes the equal treatment of newcomers with the protection of social cohesion.

All the age groups were very willing to choose one value over the other, with minor differences between the 18-24s and the others. Because economic wellbeing is often considered more important than the equal treatment of migrants, this should be seen in the context of the economic crisis and the resulting insecurities. It suggests that insecurity still plays a significant role in the minds of young Italians, and strongly influences how they see view society and what they believe is important for a good society.

In figure 3, the youngest group of Italians appears to favour social cohesion over the equal treatment of newcomers, confirming that economic concerns are why young Italians choose their own wellbeing over the equal treatment of newcomers, rather than for reasons of racism or xenophobia.

Figure 2. Equal treatment or economic wellbeing? 

Figure 2


Figure 3: Equal treatment or social cohesion?

Figure 3


It's economic uncertainty and fear, not simply racism

The data above shows that young Italians share the same worldview as their parents and grandparents. They consider social cohesion and economic wellbeing to be more important than the equal treatment of people recently settled in in Italy.

Although seriously affected by the economic crisis and increasingly exposed to anti-immigrant public discourse, young Italians still care more than older age groups about the equal treatment of newcomers. This is in spite of a sense of insecurity that has become so deeply rooted that many young people find it hard imagine a positive future, not least because far-right and populist parties capitalise on these fears.

What does this mean for the open society in Italy? The substantial numbers of young Italians who have voted for far-right parties not only reflects racism, but is also closely linked to feelings of injustice and inequality and a sense of being abandoned by the political elites. All this adds up to a growing feeling of alienation.

Although they offer grounds for concern about the future of the open society in Italy, these results also suggest that most young people are not racist or xenophobic per se, but have found in right-wing politics an outlet for their fears, anger and frustration. They hold past governments and political elites responsible for their worries, and therefore embrace the aggressive, anti-establishment rhetoric of right-wing and populist parties, like M5S and Lega. The challenge for the future of the open society is to improve the economic prospects of young people so as to gradually restore their trust in the political system.

The author of this article, Federico Quadrelli, is a Research Fellow at CILD.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own.


Italy’s coalition government – revealing a tricky balance in supporters’ values

By Federico Quadrelli

flickr SN1 PisaWith the new Italian government, consisting of a coalition between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the far-right Lega Nord (hereinafter League) party, the results of the Italian general election of March 4 look at first sight like a resounding defeat for the open society values of democracy and tolerance. But this isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

The M5S and the League, jointly taking half the votes, are both anti-immigrant and anti-European, but that hides greater complexities.

It is still too early to tell where this two-party coalition representing different ends of the political spectrum will position itself on human rights, freedom of speech, transparency and minority protection.

So far, the available data suggests that the views of those who voted for M5S and the League are complex to the point of being contradictory.

The new reality is that many voters in Italy may defend both open and closed society values. For example, it’s possible to defend religious freedom while believing at the same time that Catholic values must be protected.

This more complex approach to social issues may offer a key to understanding Italians’ electoral choices, and thus opening a dialogue with them.

No longer a class or generational divide

Italy’s political culture has changed radically since the previous general election in 2013. The social-democrats’ once popular Democratic Party (PD) lost votes in both northern and southern Italy, including the traditional « red regions » of Tuscany and Emilia Romagna. With only 18.8 percent of votes, this was the Left’s worst electoral score since the end of the Second World War, and a clear rejection of PD Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s reforms.

Research by IPSOS consultancy has shown that M5S voters spanned different generations and social classes, making it very clear that M5S doesn’t owe its success to less educated and lower income voters. Like the League, it is supported across generations and backgrounds. Because the age, education or income levels of voters can no longer explain electoral results in Italy, it is clear that they require closer and more sophisticated analysis.

Time for a more subtle analysis of voters’ views

Electoral campaigns in the run-up to the March 2018 elections centred on contentious issues like immigration, religious freedom and minority rights. But many people failed to vote in a manner that was consistent with these issues. While openly hostile to some freedoms, they proved open to others. The League and M5S both advocate a crackdown on immigration, but although they won broad support across Italian society for this, that doesn’t necessarily imply a whole-hearted rejection of open society values.

Voices on Values is a joint project of the Open Society European Policy Institute and d|part. It monitors changing public perception of social issues in France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland and Hungary. Its surveys show that the same voters often share both progressive and less progressive values.

Respondents were asked to rate the importance of issues like freedom of expression and quotas on immigrants. Based on the answer options two scores were computed and standardised, one for the rating of open (open society score) and one for closed society attributes (closed society score). Thereby a score of 0 means respondents said “not at all essential” to all seven items, a score of 1 means they said “absolutely essential” to all seven items.

Support for open and closed society values among voters

Looking at how important supporters of different parties evaluate open and closed society attributes, i.e. at their open and closed society scores, provides some interesting food for thought:

Voter Graph 1

Supporters of the League and centre-right Forza Italia predictably favoured closed society values, while the leftist Democratic and Progressive Movement (MDP) and the centrist Alternativa Popolare (AP) proved closer to open society principles. The truly interesting finding has been that people who voted for M5S, the League and Forza Italia often held views that evoke both open and closed society attitudes. How can this seeming contradiction be explained? And what does it tell us about voters of the League and MS5 in particular?

Social attitudes, in Italy and elsewhere, are far more complex than has traditionally been assumed, and so cannot be neatly categorised. Our data indicates that voters of MS5 and the League are more likely to evaluate closed society attributes as essential, while at the same time evaluating open society attributes as important. This means that a person might advocate the protection of minorities, while at the same time he or she may believe that it is more important to protect Italians’ economic well-being than that of migrants’. Policy-makers would do well to become increasingly aware of this more subtle balancing of voter views.

The author of this article, Federico Quadrelli, is a Research Fellow at CILD


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Federico Quadrelli.


Related Articles



The anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far-right movements in Italy and its consequences

By Federico Quadrelli

Elections Berlusconi credentialsOver the past four years, Italy has seen a significant increase in hate speech and hate crimes against migrants and asylum seekers. This development is connected to the rise of far-right movements and parties, which aim to restore national sovereignty through exclusion, the limitation of the freedom of movement, and a strong anti-European approach. The narrative they espouse exacerbates the negative perceptions of migrants among “ordinary people” (Berger and Luckmann, 1966) and is reshaping our idea of society around the old “inside/outside” dichotomy. In this article, I explain why the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far right poses such a grave threat to Italy’s open society.

The rise of far-right movements and parties in Italy: An overview          

The political landscape in Italy is quite complicated. Italian politics has since decades been characterised by a strong instability of institutions and political parties, especially after the crash of the old political system in the nineties.

The former secessionist group of Lega Nord, today just Lega, represents the oldest party in the Italian parliament (Biorcio, 1994; Tambini, 2001). After its worst ever electoral performance, at the general election in 2013, a change happened in the Lega Nord. Matteo Salvini, the new leader of the party, abandoned the traditional secessionist narrative based on the distinction between a productive and wealthy Italian north and the unproductive, parasitic Italian south, in favour of an anti-European and anti-immigrant discourse. He turned Lega Nord into the strongest nationalistic party in Italy, establishing electoral deals at the local level with far-right movements such as Forza Nuova (FN) and Casapound (CP), which are collecting unexpected wins in some part of Italy.

Salvini began a strong campaign with anti-immigrant and anti-European slogans during the European election of 2014, reaching 6 percent and being elected as Member of the European Parliament. The nationalistic and anti-immigrant propaganda was strengthened for the regional elections of 2015 when the party elected two governors in the North, and the communal elections of 2016 collecting wins in many major cities in the north and in the middle of Italy. He travelled across the country, performed on television, where he was, and still is, an habitué, arguing that migrants are stealing job positions from Italians, that they are committing crimes, especially sexual assaults against women, and that they are unwilling to respect our rules and values trying to overcome our culture and traditions.

The effect of the anti-immigrant rhetoric

Did this anti-immigrant rhetoric produce a change in the way ordinary people understand society and the values that characterise it? Did a specific way of political communication influence people in the way they perceive the “other” and “themselves”? In order to answer to those questions, I wish to present and discuss some peculiar cases and the reactions registered.

The first case is the aggression perpetuated by a neo-fascistic group in Tuscany against a catholic Priest, who hosted a group of immigrants and integrated them in the activities of the local church. In summer, after an eight-hour day job, the priest decided to bring the migrants to a local swimming pool. It became a national case, with Matteo Salvini shouting and labelling him “anti-italian Priest”. The far right movement began a strong campaign against the Priest, accusing him of disrespecting working italian people that have no opportunity to go swimming in a private pool. Matteo Salvini too, twittered against him. A local neo-fascistic group threatened the Priest with an official statement: “we will control how the Priest will do his activities” and “he will respect the catholic doctrine during the ceremonies”. 

The second case is the shooting in Macerata operated by a far right extremist and candidate for the local election with the Lega Nord party. In the shooting, six immigrants were severely injured. The perpetrator ran away dressing an Italian flag and performing the roman greeting. The Italian police discovered in his home documents and objects celebrating the fascist period and a copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”.

According to Left-Avvenimenti, those are just two peculiar cases that showed what the anti-immigrant rhetoric produced. Lunaria, an Italian NGO, released a report explaining that the number of aggressions, hate demonstrations and speeches have dramatically risen: between 2007 and 2016, 5369 cases of violence, aggression, murder and propaganda based on xenophobia. 

This is not per se an indicator of what is happening in the “belly of the society”. However, what is shocking is the way a great number of people reacted to those phenomena of violence and hate.  The idea that some red lines can be crossed, is today, seen as “possible” and justified, sometimes. Some people have therefore resorted to public solidarity demonstrations for those who threatened the priest as well as for the man who injured six immigrants, willing to protect the interests of the Italian people. The idea of many people is that those aggressors protect our rights, identity and values, taking care of Italy and our nation. A concrete example of that general feeling came from the results of the general election. In Macerata, for instance, the Lega reached 21 percent and on the national level collected a remarkable result of 17.6 percent, just 1 percent behind the Democratic Party (PD).


Who counts as insider and who counts as outsider? This, today, appears to be a key theme. Our society is turning towards an old dichotomy. One could argue that we are returning to a time of exclusion, separation, and distinction, based on the definition of who deserves to be included and who should be excluded from our society. The perception of the other as an enemy is not new (cfr. Schmidt, 1932). Politics and civil society should understand the danger represented by the rise of far-right movements and their institutionalisation through every-day-life practices, media, and political discourse. It is a danger for the cohesion of our society. We should investigate more adequately what the effects of hate speech and political propaganda against minorities and immigrants are and what can be done to counter it.  


The author of this article, Federico Quadrelli, is a Research Fellow at CILD


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Federico Quadrelli.



Berger P.L., Luckmann, T., (1966) The social construction of reality: a treaty in the sociology of Knowledge, Anchor Books, New York.

Biorcio, R. (1993) “Nel ventre della Lega” in: Il Manifesto.

Schimdt, C., (1932) Der Begriff des Politischen, Duncker und Humblot, Berlin.

Tambini D., (2001) Nationalism in Italian politics: the stories of the Northern League, 1980-2000, Routledge, London.