The Accordion Family: Italian Bambini and Newton, Massachusetts
Why should government officials—including those whose own family lives are hardly worthy of admiration—care one way or the other where adult children make their home? The fact is that those private choices have serious public consequences. The longer aging bambini live with their parents, the fewer new families are formed, and the evaporation of a whole generation of Italian children is knocking the social policies of the country for a loop.
Maria Termina and her husband, Alberto, live in the northwestern city of Bra in the Piedmont region of Italy. The people of Bra are traditionalists who struggle to hold the modern world at arm’s length. Proud to be the hometown of Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement, Bra hosts a biennial festival that celebrates artisanal cheeses from around the world.
Alberto, now 67, has lived in Bra almost all his life and worked for the same firm as an engineer for about 40 of those years. Maria is 57. They have three grown children, the youngest of whom, 30-year-old Giovanni, has always lived with his parents and shows no signs of moving out. (All the names in this piece, which is based on interviews, are fictitious to protect privacy.)
Giovanni graduated from the local high school but went no further than that and is content with his steady blue-collar job as an electrician. He works on construction sites and picks up odd jobs on the side. It’s a living, barely. His wages are modest, the building trades go up and down, and—in all honesty—his tastes in motorcycles are a bit extravagant. Though he is a skilled worker, Giovanni knows he could not enjoy himself with his friends as he does if he had to support himself entirely on his own earnings. But because he pays no rent and can eat well at his mother’s table, his living expenses are low, leaving money for recreation.
Of the three children born to Maria and Alberto, only Giorgio—Giovanni’s twin brother—lives on his own. (Laura, divorced, and her 5-year-old daughter recently returned to the nest.) Giorgio completed a degree in economics at a local university and moved to Turin, where he works in marketing and statistics. He is the odd man out, not only in his family but also among many of his family’s neighbors. More than a third of Italian men Giovanni’s age have never left home; the pattern of “delayed departure” has become the norm in Italy. And while it was common in the past for unmarried men and women to remain with their parents until they wed, the age of marriage has been climbing in the last 30 years, so much so that by the time men like Giovanni cut the apron strings, they are very nearly what we once called “middle-aged.” That has made the country an international butt of jokes about the “cult of mammismo,” or mama’s boys.
It is no laughing matter in Italy, particularly in government circles where the economic consequences are adding up. The former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi came out in support of a campaign against mammismo, having been elected on the promise of doing away with “those hidebound aspects of Italian life which ‘inhibit dynamism and growth.’” In January 2010, Renato Brunetta, then a cabinet minister, proposed making it illegal for anyone over 18 to live with his or her parents. He made the suggestion on a radio show where he also admitted that his mother made his bed until he was 30, when he left home.