Italian returnees seize on pandemic to stop Mezzogiorno brain drain

Italian returnees seize on pandemic to stop Mezzogiorno brain drain

Italian returnees seize on pandemic to stop Mezzogiorno brain drain

In 2014, like many young Italians from Italy’s impoverished Mezzogiorno, Mario Mirabile emigrated to the wealthier north with no intention of ever returning. But when the 26-year-old Sicilian had the opportunity to relocate his consulting job back to his hometown, he terminated his rental lease, packed his bags and bought a one-way ticket from Bologna to Palermo.

When he is not in a digital meeting with colleagues, family and life-long friends populate his daily life, he said. The Sicilian way of life is no longer restricted to holidays and he is saving a lot of money, he added.

“What was unthinkable a year ago is now reality,” Mirabile said. “I can see my little sister grow up, I can go down to the market, speak the dialect and come back to my desk and speak English and Spanish immediately after. Keeping an international focus at home is a dream come true.”

Mirabile is among a group of southern Italian professionals seizing on the pandemic and shifting working paradigms to try to reverse the brain drain that has affected the country’s poorest provinces for years. From the hilltop town of Castelbuono, a 90-minute drive east of Palermo, the consultant co-founded South Working, an association that promotes remote working in southern rural areas and which, he hopes, will help stop a damaging trend for his island.

Column chart of % change 2014-2020 showing Italy's southern population is shrinking

It is estimated that more than 1m people moved from the mezzogiorno to the north in the past decade. Foreign emigration is another drain: In the 10 years to 2019, about 900,000 Italians moved abroad, according to government data. That year, more than one-third of new expatriates originated from the southern regions. As a result, the population in southern Italy shrank by more than 3 per cent between 2014 and 2020, while it remained stable in the richer north-east. 

The economic impact is compounded by the fact that migrating southerners tend to be more educated: In 2019, more than 40 per cent of those aged over 25 and settling in the north held at least a university degree, while this was about one in three of Italians moving abroad.

The pandemic has put a brake on this decades-old trend: between March and December 2020, when most of the Covid-19 restrictions were in place, the net south-north migration nearly halved compared with the same period in the previous year. Over the same period, the number of southern Italians leaving the country fell by more than a third.

Column chart of Net internal migration, '000 people, Mar-Dec showing Italy's internal migration flows slowed with the pandemic
Line chart of '000 people moving aborad showing Italy's foreign emigration has slowed

Luca Giustiniano, professor of Organisation Studies at LUISS University in Rome, said while it was too early to draw longer term conclusions, the pandemic would lead to a profound reorganisation of work habits.

“The phenomenon that is increasingly spreading in the country is . . . a type of forced and somehow extreme teleworking which also brings with it some difficulties, such as feeling isolated or maintaining a work-life balance,” he said.

But he cautioned that public infrastructure needed to be improved in the south to really reverse the brain drain: “To really embrace working in the south, work has to be rethought in depth, with careful planning with business.”

The EU recovery funds and a governmental plan to boost southern Italy’s economy offer a unique opportunity to correct the country’s north-south divide, said Mara Carfagna, Italy’s minister for the South and territorial Cohesion. Southern Italy will absorb 48 per cent of ultra-broadband investments as part of the recovery plan.

Lucrezia Martufi
Lucrezia Martufi: ‘I went from being stuck in an apartment having a helicopter flying over my head and checking that no one was violating Covid restrictions to the silence and the peace of the mountains’ © Jacopo Bassoli

“It could become a more solid and widespread opportunity if companies confirm their propensity for smart working and if the south manages to quickly narrow the gap in digital infrastructure that weighs on many local realities,” she said.

Recent returnees include Alessandra Ripa, a 38-year-old mathematician who has worked for various multinationals developing services for online banking and customer analytics, and who recently joined a major tech company as a marketing manager. After 10 years in Milan she moved back to her native Lecce, a baroque town a few steps from the sea in the southern Italian region of Apulia.

“I had been feeling a bit dissatisfied with my life for a while and I was beginning to feel the need to be closer to the sea and nature,” she said. “The first few months of lockdown spent in 50 square metres without seeing anyone apart from my cat were the straw that broke the camel’s back. I packed up 10 years of life and came down here.”

Ripa moved into a house in Lecce’s historic centre, which she had bought a few years back as an investment, and had been used as an Airbnb until the beginning of 2020. “I feel rejuvenated,” she said. “The word claustrophobia has disappeared from my vocabulary.”

In the medieval town of Cagli, nestled in the rural region of Marche, 35-year-old Lucrezia Martufi is taking some time to think about her future. After 13 years between Germany and Spain, during the pandemic she decided to move into an old house in the historic centre of the village that she had inherited from her mother. She now works remotely as a project manager for a translation agency.

“I went from being stuck in an apartment having a helicopter flying over my head and checking that no one was violating Covid restrictions to the silence and the peace of the mountains,” she said.

“This is helping me realise what is important in life, and in spite of all that big cities have to offer when they function properly I have decided to stay here indefinitely, for a more peaceful and sustainable approach to life,” she said.