ROME (Reuters) - Once kept at home by love for mamma's home-cooked pasta, a growing number of young Italians are now forced to live with their parents because they can't get a steady job or afford a home of their own.
When estate agents showed a young couple a rental apartment in Rome this year, they got a shock: the would-be tenants arrived with a gang of friends with bottles of bubbly wine.
The "protest party" was a set-up concocted by the couple who made a date to view a flat they knew they could not afford.
The serious purpose was to highlight the fact that renting a home is beyond the reach of many young Italians, the segment of society hardest hit by the economic crisis.
"We wanted to talk about the fact that a lot of Italians just can't afford to leave their parents' home," said Chiara Bastianni, 25, of the "Fai la Valigia" (Pack your bags) group behind the unorthodox protest. "It's a type of provocation."
Landing a steady job has long been hard for the young but a shrinking economy has choked off the few jobs available to them. Connections are essential to nab the few positions available in the bloated public sector, while businesses often hire workers only on short-term contracts to dodge rigid labor laws.
After the steep recession in 2008-2009, nearly 60 percent of 18-34-year-olds now live with their parents, up from 49 percent in 1983, national statistics agency Istat says.
Nearly a third of people in their early 30s are still living with their parents -- a figure that has tripled since 1983.
Mocked as "bamboccioni" (big babies), who choose to live a pampered life with mamma, a growing number have no choice.
The desire to stay with the family came a distant third in the Istat survey among the reasons cited for living at home, after financial and educational grounds. The percentage of youth wanting to leave home in the next three years rose to 51.9 percent in 2009 from 45.1 percent in 2003.
Gabriele Gentile, 26, lives with his parents in Rome because taking on a monthly rent would be too risky. Without a permanent contract enjoyed by older, unionized workers, he can be fired at any time.
"If you lose your job, you risk staying at home for a long time. Even when you have a job, you have to keep looking for alternatives because you never know when you might be let go," he said. "If I could, if I had a job that gave me more stability, I'd leave my parents' house tomorrow."
Sociologist Chiara Saraceno says the trend is worrying for Italy's future, as the younger generation enters the labor market late, lives with job insecurity, gets fewer chances to develop skills and founds a family later.
"This is the generation which is bearing the brunt of an aging society, of a society which is investing very little in the young while putting the costs of the economic crisis and labor market changes on their shoulders," said Saraceno, adding that young Italians risk becoming a "lost generation."
While retirees -- who form a majority of members of Italy's largest union -- and public sector workers lead the outcry over a 25-billion-euro ($33.5 billion) government austerity package, young people quietly endure the sharpest hit from the crisis.
In 2009, Italians between the age of 18 and 29 accounted for 79 percent of overall job losses, Istat says. The employment rate in that age bracket shrank to 44 percent.
Worse, more than two million people -- over 21 percent of 15-29-year-olds -- did not work or study in 2009, making Italy the European country with the highest number of inactive youth.
Despite frequent laments about the plight of workers on short-term or "precarious" contracts and successive governments promising legislation, little change is expected.
Public Administration Minister Renato Brunetta drew outrage from the left and won little support on the right this year when he proposed taking money out of the pension system to give 500 euros a month to adults living with their parents.
The gerontocrats who dominate politics and business show little sign of making way for those in their 30s or 40s, considered "young" by Italian standards.
While the United States and Britain have leaders in their 40s, Italy's revolving-door politics revolves around the likes of 73-year-old Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and 69-year-old ally Umberto Bossi. Challengers such as Gianfranco Fini and leftist leader Pierluigi Bersani are both in their late 50s.
So much so that former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, 71, says the young must kick the older political class out.
"When does anyone ever leave younger people room?" Prodi said this month. "Career politicians must be pushed out."
Business can be equally geriatric -- Frenchman Antoine Bernheim was 85 when he was replaced at the helm of Italian insurer Generali this year by Cesare Geronzi, who at 75 remains among Italy's most influential businessmen.
Prominent sociologist Franco Ferrarotti says where all this leaves young Italians is simple: "They should learn foreign languages and move abroad."
The growing youth crisis, he says, is a blow to the core value that has made the country what it is -- family.
"What is really tragic in Italy is that the family is strong but having a new family is very expensive, so if it weren't for immigrants, we'd be below zero percent population growth rate," said Ferrarotti. "This is a slow suicide."
Writing by Deepa Babington, Editing by Philip Pullella and Paul Taylor