Italy youth unemployment becomes major election issue

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Media captionThe BBC's Alan Johnston: "For most, happy endings are harder to find"

Up on a stage in Rome, a young male figure dances to a pounding beat and slowly strips off his shirt.

The spotlight blazes off his broad shoulders, and his hips gyrate in skin-tight trousers.

Soon they come off too.

He is down to the flimsiest G-string, and screeching women rush on to the stage to mob him.

But in some ways, the real drama in this show is the stripper's own story.

Just months ago, Simone Lagrasta, 24, was a carpenter in Turin facing another spell of unemployment - so he took a chance.

He auditioned for a role in this Italian musical version of The Full Monty, the tale of jobless British factory workers who decide the only thing they can do is start stripping for a living.

The show has just opened in Rome.

And given that youth unemployment is a core issue in Italy's ongoing general election campaign, the musical comes with a political charge.

The ex-carpenter is, in a sense, living the Full Monty dream.

Just like the characters in the story, a role as a stripper has spared him the misery of unemployment and transformed his life.

He remembers the moment he heard that he had got the part.

"I flung away the phone and started jumping!" he says.

"Now I'm here and it's wonderful! And if it's a dream, I hope I don't wake up. I'm scared of going back to being unemployed."

Jobless graduates

That fear he talks about haunts his generation in Italy. More than a third of the nation's young people have no job.

Gianluca Eusani, 27, is an example of just how well qualified you can be, and still not find work.

Image caption The youth unemployment rate in Italy stands at more than 36%.
Image caption Italy has the second highest proportion of over 65s in the EU.
Image caption The percentage of young Italians leaving home to marry has halved in 20 years.

He has a degree in languages. He has studied English and Chinese. And he also has a master's degree in marketing and event planning.

But a huge hunt for paid work has produced nothing.

"The bad thing about this is the way you feel personally," he says.

"You don't feel good enough. You feel that everything you've done is not enough."

He says he is lucky to have his family behind him, but he is desperate to start making his own way.

Image caption Gianluca Eusani is highly educated but cannot find a job

"I want to find a job that makes me grow up as a person and as a worker," he says.

Many of his friends from university are in exactly the same position.

And on the election campaign trail, every politician emphasises the need to lead this "lost generation" out of the wasteland of unemployment.

When Prime Minister Mario Monti took power, he put the issue at the centre of his programme.

But throughout his 13 months in office the number of jobless young people rose: from just over 30%, to more than 36%.

Now, as he fights for a second term at the head of a centrist coalition, Mr Monti argues that the reforms he introduced, aimed at stimulating growth and employment, need to be widened and deepened.

He says his economic austerity medicine needs time to take affect and he insists that "there's light at the end of the tunnel".

After listening to that argument, Gianluca Eusani says he accepts that the sick Italian economy will take time to recover. But how much time?

Political disillusionment

He says the trouble is that the moment when things are supposed to get better - that "light" which Mr Monti sees - just seems to keep receding.

The reason for that, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi would say, is that Mr Monti's medicine is doing more harm than good.

The leader of his People of Freedom party's youth wing, Annagrazia Calabria, talks of the need to create "a dynamic market", an Italy where hiring and firing workers would be easier.

"We would propose tax breaks for those companies that take on young unemployed people," she says.

But Mr Eusani is deeply suspicious of Mr Berlusconi's promises.

Image caption Simone Lagrasta had a lucky break

"I don't trust him," he says.

He argues that if young Italians are struggling now, it is because in the past politicians like Mr Berlusconi put their own interests first.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Fausto Raciti leads the youth movement within the Democratic Party, which is currently ahead in the polls.

Mr Raciti, only 28 years old himself, acknowledges that there is anger at Italy's "political class, which has found it difficult to find credible answers for young people".

But he maintains that his party has made the interests of the nation's youth a "central element, not only in times of campaigning but over the last years [in opposition]".

But in the end, Mr Eusani just has no faith that this kind of talk will lead to any real or rapid change for his jobless, luckless generation.

He says politicians always speak this way at election time but, after the votes are counted, the problems stay the same.

Back in the theatre, as the cast of The Full Monty rehearse, their director, Massimo Romeo Piparo, says he hopes that the show may serve as an inspiration.

But in the end, The Full Monty is show business, and for most unemployed people in real-life Italy, happy endings are harder to find.