There are currently over 5 million Italian citizens living abroad, while the descendants of Italian migrants from past generations rank in the tens of millions. The stereotypical idea of the Italian immigrant of the late XIX and early XX century has been gradually overthrown by a whole new brand of citizens of the world, multilingual and highly educated, travelling the world to improve their working opportunities, start enterprises or simply out of millennial wanderlust. Over the past decade, the number of Italians living abroad has increased by an impressive 49%, with a slight majority of Italian expats living in Europe (Germany currently being the preferred destination) and about 40% in America. Contrary to past waves of emigration, this expanding phenomenon is not resulting in more Little Italies cropping up in major cities: integration and entrepreneurship seem to be the keywords nowadays. According to Expat Insider (2015) nearly half the Italian expats currently living abroad speaks at least four languages and nearly 60% are proficient in their host country’s language. It is nigh on impossible to get an accurate picture of the Italian community abroad and this is mostly due to the fact that there is no such thing as an “Italian community”, so much as a myriad of Italian communities constantly dissolving and reforming while assimilating elements of their hosting culture. What makes the phenomenon of Italian emigration so diverse and relevant? The answer might be too complex for a blog post and might require a full-scale essay, but we can try and venture a few guesses.
Born under a wandering star
It is a common saying in Italy that we are “saints, poets and sailors” and it’s not hard to see where we might have got that idea. After all there were “enterprising” Italian immigrants in America long before visas were required. Historically, Italy has been at the centre of worldwide trading routes, its many ports have been coveted and contended by practically every civilisation that ever passed through the Mediterranean area and eventually became an international hub of trade and culture. As a result, the current population of Italy boasts a multicultural and multi-coloured descent, with hardly anyone’s family tree going back further than a few generations without encountering immigrants and travellers of one description or another. Much to the annoyance of nationalists, this is a founding feature of what we might call the Italian character and has some bearing on our attitude to travel. Internal immigration from the southern to the northern regions, for instance, is an established fact for the younger generations, whereas the opposite route is usually taken by those looking for a nice retirement spot in their region of origin – or simply attracted by the undeniable beauty of regions such as Sicily an Apulia. Much in the same way, moving abroad is a relatively common occurrence in Italian families and it is not necessarily connected to emigration or poverty, so much as to curiosity, the desire to improve language skills or – of course – love.
Saints, poet, sailors… entrepreneurs and startuppers
Italy’s tech startup scene has been growing exponentially over the past few years, with some of our startups drawing international interest without relocating to the silicon valley. This doesn’t mean our entrepreneurs and startuppers are any less successful when they do move. The entrepreneurial spirit has always been part of the Italian character, as anyone who has ever sat in a pizzeria in Singapore or Sydney will confirm. However, there’s more to Italian entrepreneurship than opening restaurants. Among the Italian startups that have teamed up with international partners and made a name for themselves in recent years, you might have heard of Soundreef (which is set to be a game changer in the music industry) and of the ubiquitous Candy Crush, whose Italian inventor sold it for 9 billion dollars in 2015. Italian entrepreneurship has long since shed the stereotype of being connected exclusively to traditional crafts such as tailoring and cooking and broke ground successfully in the fields of technology, logistics and finance.
The academic diaspora: an Italian flaw that benefited the world
Is Italian emigration therefore mostly about perfectly happy and fulfilled professionals seeking the thrill of an international life? Of course not. In many cases expats are seeking better working conditions or higher salaries, and there is one category for which this is particularly true: scientists. The lack of investments in science and research has been one of the most vocally debated faults of the Italian system for the past decades. As a result, Italy’s top researchers have been leaving the Country in troves year after year, often going on to achieve outstanding results in foreign universities and institutes and furthering human progress in several fields. This, alas, translates into a permanent loss to the Country, which, after having invested in the training and education of outstanding scientists, then misses out on patent revenues by its best researchers, whose accomplishments inevitably benefit the Countries that have welcomed them. As a result, Italian scientists form an expat community of their own, and a highly valued one at that.