Same Old, Same Old

At 82, Giorgio Napolitano might be contemplating a quiet end to an eventful life. As a student, he fought against the Fascists. As an adult politician, he was a powerful figure in the Italian left for more than 40 years. Enough for one lifetime? Not for Napolitano, the president of the Italian republic. He still has six more years to serve, and he is just one of many Italian lawmakers who were teenagers when Mussolini ruled the land. In Italy, it seems the reward for longevity is high office, and as a result the political leadership is perennially far older than counterparts elsewhere. Prime Minister Romano Prodi is 68, and is currently squaring off against opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi, 71, at a time when high-office holders elsewhere in Europe seem to be getting younger. Consider Nicolas Sarkozy, who is 52; Angela Merkel, 53; Gordon Brown, 56, and Jos? Luis Rodr?guez Zapatero, 47.

The preponderance of gray-haired legislators mirrors Italy's own age profile. The country is now aging faster than any other in Europe. More than half the population is over 40 and almost one in five is over 65. By 2050, there is expected to be one pensioner for every two people of working age. The political culture has ossified at a similar pace, doing little to lift a sluggish economy, and while parties and titles may change, the faces remain the same. Prodi has been around for more than a decade. His Interior minister, Giuliano Amato, is now 69, and also served as prime minister. Yet another former prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, still contributes to political life at 88 as a senator for life. Earlier this year, he triggered a government crisis when he failed to support Prodi on a foreign-policy vote over Italian troops in Afghanistan. And like Andreotti, many of those blamed for Italy's economic woes back in the '80s remain active today. Much of the political thinking from the left is stuck in bygone eras as well, particularly when it comes to labor reform and economic policies. "Many of our politicians still apply an interpretation of reality that dates back to the 1970s," says Giovanni Canepa of the Rome think tank Glocus. "They are still talking in terms of the class struggle."

The policies that emerge from this calcified system are what one might expect: lawmakers are slow to tinker with a pension system that swallows 15 percent of GDP. And proposed legislation reflects an oldster's suspicion of the modern age. One policy, approved by the cabinet in October, would require bloggers to register with state authorities. Job-protection laws also favor the old. Unemployment among those under 25 is at 20 percent, five points above the European average. A typical Italian male still lives with his parents well into his 30s, partly because of a lack of cash and secure employment. Soon they'll be picking up the tab for the welfare of today's seniors, which means figuring out a way to come out from under a government debt burden at 100 percent of GDP, the second-highest rate in the OECD. One recent proposal would raise taxes on the legion of young temporary workers, partly to fund their parents' pension bills.

Such conditions breed little confidence in politicians. To voters the ruling class is oversize and pampered, with promotion depending more on long service and connections than merit. A recent study by Luiss University in Rome found that 73 percent of those identified as members of the country's political or business elite were 60 or above, while fewer than 2 percent were in their 40s. Economists warn that excluding the young and gifted from top posts in both government and business endangers the country's future. "In Italy you don't get to the top because you are young, ambitious and talented, but because you have waited in line long enough for your turn to come," says Gianluca Violante, a New York University economist and author of a study of Italy's aging leaders, "The Republic of the Third Age."

If change is coming, it's at a doddering pace. Finance Minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, 67, last month promised tax breaks to young adults seeking to set up home on their own—while undermining the gesture by disparaging the beneficiaries as "big babies." Some now hail the arrival of Walter Veltroni, a mere 52 and leader of a new center-left coalition. But he served as Culture minister back in the 1990s, suggesting he is also a product of a creaky political machine. Experience may be valuable in politics, but in a fast-changing world, so is fresh blood.