Image: Italy Heat Wave
Italians -- Europe’s oldest population -- are now living 30 to 40 years beyond retirement.
By
NBC News
updated 12/9/2003 12:19:56 PM ET 2003-12-09T17:19:56

Pope John Paul II’s old age and worsening illness is raising questions about his ability to govern the Catholic Church with many wondering if he will be the first pope in over 500 years to retire. But that religious story is overshadowing a debate that is raging within Italy’s secular society. Should Italians, who, after the Japanese, live longer than any people on Earth, work longer, too?

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi says there is no longer a choice. Unless Italians, whose current laws allow many to retire in their forties, catch up to the rest of the working West by the year 2030, the funding for state pensions — guaranteed in one of the last of Europe’s welfare states — will have gone belly-up.

The math is grim: Italians, Europe’s oldest population, are now living 30 to 40 years beyond retirement. But Italians make only 1.3 babies per couple, a record European low. The potential workforce, therefore, is shrinking at the same time that the number of needy pensioners is on the rise.

It amounts to a demographic time bomb which, sociologist Franco Ferrarotti fears, Italians themselves are loath to recognize. ’

‘Italians thrive on crisis because we believe in the power of good luck,” he says. “When you try to make people understand that the State is going bankrupt, they tell you, ‘so what. I’m already bankrupt!”’

Nina Tripodi doesn’t seem too concerned about the future as she takes in a “Third Age Fashion Show” at the Villa Lazzaroni Old Folks Club in Rome. For three hours, a dozen fellow club members — some in their late 80’s — traipse along an improvised “catwalk,” sporting outfits from the 1920’s to the 1990’s, and dancing to the oldies, from “Sweet Georgia Brown” to “Volare” — having the time of their lives.

“Times are changing,’, says Tripodi who, at 66, is just a graying puppy in this club, “and we old-timers are changing with it. I guess you’d say we are looking for the right way of life.”

Tripodi, a widowed teacher who retired 10 years ago, gets a monthly pension of around $800. It’s not much but it allows her to live in relative comfort. However, her 37-year-old son, Fabio, an orthopedic assistant, wonders if there will be a pension waiting for him when he retires.

“In effect, I’m contributing to my mother’s pension, but, with Italy becoming an ‘Old Age’ country, who will pay the pensions of today’s workers?”

‘CARROT AND STICK’ REFORMS

InsertArt(2044664)Describing the pension crisis a national emergency, Berlusconi has proposed a series of “carrot-and-stick” reforms: He wants to raise the legal retirement age to 65 for men and 60 for women (an increase of 5 years), and set the pension requirement at 40 years of work, up from the current 35. On the other hand, as an incentive for Italians to work longer, Berlusconi’s plan would include a salary bonus of 30 percent for anyone who chooses to work beyond retirement age.

With his right-wing coalition holding a strong majority in Parliament, Berlusconi is likely to see his reforms become law later this year. But not without a fight.

At the Pine Tree Bar outside Rome, card-playing pensioners — some of them already retired for decades and with children who are getting pensions as well — are drawing the battle lines.

“When does it stop?” asks Giovanni. “How long do they want us to work, to 70? 80? Or later”? His cards partner weighs in. “Forty years is a long time to work for a farmer or a bricklayer, I don’t like the reforms.”

And most of Italy’s working class don’t either. Trade unions have already called for a national walkout on Oct. 24, followed by further strike action.

This mix of denial, mistrust and anger spills over like excess mud in the massage rooms at the Tivoli Thermal Spa, about 20 miles from Rome. Teodora Giamattea retired at 62 after 35 years on the farm. She’s now 72 and her mud treatments are paid for by the state.

But she doesn’t think it fair that elderly Italians should have to work an extra 5 years to finance all the pampering. “With the aches and pains that come in old age, why be forced to work more? It’s already a miracle to have lived to 60!”

Back at the Old Folks Club, Tripodi sums it up. “I’m not sure if I would work more even if I were asked. I think people usually don’t like working a lot, especially in Italy.”

Indeed, according to a recent report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, almost 60 percent of the middle-aged workforce in Italy — those between the ages of 50 and 64 — are inactive. Increasingly, the bill for the “dolce vita” will fall to Italy’s younger workers, aged 25 to 50. And that is the very reason why sociologists believe the country is heading for a crash landing.

“The real problem in Italy,” warns Ferrarotti, “isn’t pensions. The real problem is the number of younger people who have never held a steady job, who do not contribute to a pension scheme and who are not going to have a pension.”

WORRIES OF SOCIAL UPHEAVAL

With unemployment hovering around 10 percent nationwide — and double that among younger Italians — many experts talk of a massive social upheaval as an increasing number of jobless youth opt to stay at home and live off their parents’ meager pensions.

“Short of selling the Coliseum,” says Ferrarotti, “there is no rational solution that will end the crisis. We may have a huge gap between the generations. We may have young people jumping at the necks of old people. I don’t think Italy is quite ready for a return of fascism, but I am worried. We are very optimistic people but I’m afraid this optimism is dwindling away.”

And while the ailing, 83-year-old Pope John Paul II is likely to die on the job, many Italians believe that, even if they do work for an extra decade or more, there may still be no pension waiting for them, so little do they trust the politicians.

Still, the social storm that is gathering has five more years before it’s likely to break as Berlusconi’s reforms wouldn’t take effect until 2008. And that may explain why all those octogenarians at the Lazzaroni Old Folks Club are kicking up a storm with no cares about tomorrow.

(NBC News’ correspondent Jim Maceda is on assignment in Rome.)

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