The Australian Dream: Lived, Loved And Lost By Yearning Italian Youth
Every year thousands of young Italians apply for a Working Holiday visa and escape to Australia. They have many reasons for leaving — but many seek a better work-life balance down under. And then, there are those who cut their adventure short to return home to the bel paese.
MILAN — “The last two days it was 35 degrees, but last week we got over 40.” It’s December. As he speaks to me, it is just past 10 p.m. for Alberto Bellini, while here, in cold, wintery Milan, the afternoon has just begun. Alberto is exactly 12,992 kilometers away from my phone: he called me from Karratha, a town of 23,000 inhabitants in Western Australia.
Alberto is one of the thousands young Italians who, every year, decide to leave everything and move to the other side of the world, taking advantage of the Working Holiday visa that, thanks to an international convention, allows them to live and work in Australia for up to three years.
Another land, another language, another life. The reasons for leaving are many and always different, as are those that convince so many to return to Italy after months or years spent abroad. In some cases, the desire to leave is dictated by the immobility of the Italian labor market, which benefits those who already have everything.
On the other hand, the desire for discovery may arise precisely from a monotonous life, with a permanent contract and an increasingly tight routine that makes the days indistinguishable.
Decades of migration
Despite its enormous distances, Australia has been a land that has attracted Italian migrants for centuries. As scholar Cinzia Campolo explains in an article published in the Italian magazine LinguaDue, from the University of Milan, the first flows were recorded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and intensified from 1928, partly in response to the restrictive migration policies imposed by the United States, which at the time was one of the main destinations for Italian emigration.
The arrival of Italians in Australia reached a peak in the years following World War II, both because Italy had faced years of destruction because of war and dictatorship and because of the particularly immigrant-friendly policies adopted by Australia, which was in search of workforce and threatened by the specter of depopulation. Migration flows slowed, though did not stop, in the 1970s, after the “Italian miracle” had created jobs and wealth.
According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2021 more than 163,000 people born in Italy resided in Australia, and more than 640,000 Australian residents had at least one parent born in Italy. More than 226,000 people in Australia speak Italian, at home and in daily life.
Migration flows bringing Italians to Australia have changed again, and substantially, since 2004, when the Working Holiday visa came into effect. This is a convention that allows people from 19 countries, including Italy, up to the age of 35 to live and work in Australia for up to three years.
There was a little flame that always stayed alive.
To renew it, it is necessary to do three months of work (which becomes six months in the case of a second renewal) in specific sectors such as agriculture, mining or construction. Since January 2020, occupations in the health sector have been added, to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, while in the north of the country or in territories considered “remote,” work in the tourism and hospitality sectors — the path chosen by Bellini in Karratha — is also allowed.
Between June 2021 and June 2022, nearly 5,800 applications were approved, more than twice as many as the previous year, which was greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions on domestic and international travel. The figures are thus on the upswing, but current flows still remain well below the levels recorded before the health emergency: in 2017-2018, for example, more than 10,000 applications had been approved.
Seeking a new adventure
“In Italy I had a very good job, a permanent contract with excellent prospects. I had a girlfriend, a car, lots of friends,” says Bellini, 27, who worked in industrial production management in Sassuolo, in central Italy. “All I had to do was wait to go to the funeral home to pick up the coffin: my life was set.”
“I felt lucky, but there was a little flame that always stayed alive, I was missing something that made me feel alive. When the pandemic came, staying at home, I started to think,” he notes, recalling the desire for change but also the fear, which is inevitable when you entertain the idea of turning your life upside down. “In Bulgaria I met a guy who told me about the Working Holiday visa. From there, I set my mind on Australia.”
The decision was immediate. The layoff, the breakup of a seemingly solid relationship, and within months Alberto found himself on a plane to Perth, where he landed on September 29, 2022. “So far I have never had second thoughts, although it is true that with a more nomadic lifestyle, I have more worries,” he says. In the future, after he finishes the period of hospitality work needed to renew his visa, Alberto plans to buy a van — a common practice among backpackers — to tour Australia.
Street scene, Sydney
Different job markets
At least, on the other side of the world, finding work is not a problem.
“One of the main motivations for people to go to Australia is the ease with which they can find work and change jobs,” explains Federica Corso, 26, from Milan, who has been living and working in Melbourne, Victoria, for eight months. “In Italy you become bound to what you have studied, even when with time you understand that the study path you chose is not for you. In Australia many people decide to change careers, easily reinvent themselves from a personal point of view, without prejudice,” she explains.
It was precisely the job opportunities that also convinced Silvia Sala to set out for the other hemisphere.
Shortly after her arrival, Corso found a part-time job at the Italian Chamber of Commerce in marketing and event planning, and the rest of the time she works in customer service at a luxury residence. “I found my dimension in Melbourne, since I arrived I cannot think about leaving. It is an international city, and in some respects more European. I’ve made a lot of relationships that won’t be easy to leave,” she explains, thinking about her return ticket to Milan.
In addition to the vibrant job offerings, the salaries are also particularly inviting, “on average two or three times higher than in Italy,” according to Bellini. To give an example, on Christmas Day he was paid 55 Australian dollars (35 euros) per hour, and in the past he earned nearly 1,000 dollars in a week working 46 hours. “The cost of living is higher, but still there is much more margin left to spend.”
It was precisely the job opportunities that also convinced Silvia Sala to set out for the other hemisphere. Twenty-six years old, a bachelor’s degree in product design and a master’s degree, three poorly paid internships behind her, and then finally a job, also not very satisfying, with a salary cut to the bone and a fixed-term contract. On Jan. 1, she left for Melbourne with her boyfriend, who as a construction worker earned “five times” her expense reimbursement as an intern. Sala hopes to find a job in her field at a company on Australia’s east coast. “We don't know how long we would like to stay: if I find a good opportunity, even for a long time,” she said a few days before her departure.
Not all Italians who leave for Australia stay forever. Between June 2021 and June 2022, for example, of the nearly 5,800 Working Holiday visa applications approved, only 377 were for the second year of stay, and 473 for the third year. In many cases, cultural differences become more burdensome to deal with over time. “I don't see myself here for life, I miss the warmth of the people," Bellini explains, for example. “As immigrants, then, entering the circle of Australians is difficult, unless you stay for years.”
After deciding, within two weeks they quit their jobs, canceled rents, sold cars and bought airline tickets.
After about 10 months spent touring the east coast of Australia, Greta Barsotti, 22, will also return home to Pisa in February. She had left in April with a friend, Francesca, 25: “I don’t know if we would have done this experience alone, it would have been harder emotionally. When you are in company, you support each other,” she says.
After deciding, within two weeks they quit their jobs, canceled rents, sold cars and bought airline tickets. Arriving in Cairns, they traveled all over the eastern part of the country by van, until their last stop in Melbourne. In the meantime, they completed the three months of work in agriculture needed to later renew their visas.
“The lifestyle here is exciting, every day you can wake up in a different place,” Barsotti says. After months on the road, however, she “misses stability and family a bit.” Once she returns, she plans to study to get her real estate agent’s license and pursue the profession she has had in Italy for three years. “Then, we will see.”
Even according to Federica Corso, the Milanese girl who has been installed in Melbourne for almost a year, Italian and Australian cultures are hardly compatible: “From a cultural point of view, I miss Italy. The country is young compared to Europe and closed in on itself, culturally speaking I haven’t found many stimuli,” she says.
People sitting in front of the Opera House overlooking the bay in Sydney Australia
Seeking a new home
Not everyone thinks this way. Among the thousands of people who leave each year, a not insignificant portion choose to stay, and move to Australia indefinitely. According to the Italian Institute of Statistics, between 2002 and 2020, Italians who moved their residence to Australia increased by 750%, from 262 people per year to 2,228. Total relocations in the past 18 years were nearly 24,500.
On the other hand, the sore point is the lack of stability given by a nomadic life, and the difficulties of creating real and lasting relationships.
“I have been here since October 2019, just over three years. I arrived in Sydney like many Italians. Initially I was supposed to stay about six months, I already had a return ticket. Then, because of COVID-19, I stayed,” says Elena Caccia, 32, who would like to stay in Australia long-term. Living in the vast, sparsely populated areas of the outback, Caccia has essentially escaped the lockdowns and various restrictions imposed in most parts of the world to reduce infections. In Australia, the pandemic has actually had less disastrous effects than in other countries. As of Dec. 2022, there were 16,940 confirmed deaths from COVID-19, ten times fewer than in Italy (183,936), which has more than twice the population. In other words, in Australia 647 people died per million population, in Italy 3,116.
“I used to travel and stop to work only when I had no more money in the bank. I was spending 1,000 dollars a month, camping,” says Caccia, who has a degree in languages and in Italy was working as an executive assistant in an energy company in the northern Italian city of Bergamo. For the past few months she has decided to stay in Perth, in the west of the country, working in an iron mine. “If I think about going back to Italy, I feel bad, especially about work. The quality of life is different: here in first place is living, then comes the work. In Italy, or at least in my area, the opposite was true. My working hours ended at 5 p.m., but I never finished before 6 or 6:30 p.m.. That never happens here,” she says.
On the other hand, the sore point is the lack of stability given by a nomadic life, and the difficulties of creating real and lasting relationships. “Human relationships are a fragile point. I was always changing places, moving around, and it’s hard for anyone to have the same plans as me. I said a lot of goodbyes.”
In 2023, thousands more will leave Italy for a short- or long-term trip, alone or in company, to escape from dissatisfaction, chase up curiosity, and the desire for change. Direction: down under.