Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ageism in reverse

Italian TV commentators seem fascinated with the "youth" of Olympic contestants. It makes sense, in a country where most people are tied to their mothers' apron until their early 30s.

Silvio Berlusconi is the oldest prime minister in Europe. His contender at the last elections, Walter Veltroni, was 55 and was universally described as 'The rising star of Italian politics'. Bear in mind that Tony Blair retired when he was 53 and Spanish PM Zapatero is 48.

Watching the Olympic games over the past few weeks on Italian TV channel Rai2, I noticed how the commentators describe anyone between the ages of 20 and 30 as 'giovanissimo' (very young) and 'nuovissimo' (very new).

Having been lucky enough to have lived and worked in Italy and to have experienced everyday life there, I can safely say that this distorted view of ones age does not stop with sportsmen and politicians. It affects your job and the way people perceive you on a basic level.

One thing about Britain is the fact that, generally, the younger you are (within reason), the more opportunities you have, certainly career-wise. Also, although experience is admired in the UK, I have encountered countless employers who desire not experience or qualifications so much but personality and youth. The slightly irritating sentences 'bright young things', 'young talent' and 'exciting, fresh, college leavers with new ideas' are overused phrases in many an advert. However, in Italy, those mottos would read more like 'Slow, tired, ready-for-the-retirement home folk needed' or 'zimmer-reliant trainees wanted'.

My last employer in Milan gave me a pure example of 'The Italian Way'. In my early twenties I started working at his school but was refused a full-time contract purely on the basis of my age, despite having experience and the qualifications required to do my job properly. I was also deemed unsuitable to teach managers or anyone vaguely 'professional', basically because I was under the age of 30. I found this rather odd, but after talking to some colleagues, realised this was just the way things worked in Italy.

When I did teach a class of adults, and on the first day was asked how old I was and responded, I was met with the gaze of a group of people who had just seen a three headed snake start singing the Lambada. ''Really, you're so young! What are you doing here?" or, "You're so young to be a teacher, *chuckle chuckle* thats so strange!" with all the unintentionally patronising relish usually reserved for your nan on your 14th birthday. This also happened to my 29 and 30 year old co-teachers. The same slightly amused expression and O shaped mouths. I'm not saying being in your twenties means that you automatically have all the life experience of a 50 year old, or that you have a superior status to an older person, but one thing I find old-fashioned and mildly offensive is the fact that being young automatically means you are immature and incapable of doing anything.

All this may have something to do with the fact that most people in Italy still live at home with their parents enjoying home comforts and paying no rent, until the age of 30 or 31. Henceforth, the image of a person 8 years below that paying their own rent and bills and living independently, especially in a country thousands of miles away from their homeland, and not still stuck at uni (finding an Italian who graduates before the age of 25 is extremely rare), really must be like seeing Jesus Christ wearing a catsuit.

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