There are two things in which we Italians love to pride ourselves. One is food. The other thing we like to boast about is that every year tens of millions of foreign tourists flock to our country to admire the very same artistic and cultural riches that we seldom set eyes on. Indeed, although it has ups and downs, tourism is always thriving thanks to the uncountable Italian natural and human-made treasures.
Venice is the touristic city par excellence. It could not possibly sustain itself without the 25 million or so foresti (‘foreigners’) that every year pay a visit to its fewer than 55,000 resident citizens. The locals are not enough to keep the city alive and could never manage on their own to sustain it. Venice has become an expanding archipelago of hotels, hostels, B&Bs, restaurants, wine bars, pubs, pizzerias, kebab houses, money exchangers, souvenir shops, ice cream, and fruit salad stalls. Visitors are offered all sorts of services and entertainments, just as if the city were a theme park that only the Covid-19 pandemic managed to stop for about one year.
So, the job market revolves mainly around tourism and languishes in all other sectors. For people of all ages and levels of education finding an occupation has become an almost impossible quest. The best thing they can hope for is a public examination for a post as press officer or a white collar position in one of the private or public museums of the city, or maybe a post behind a desk in an institution with a vague connection to culture like Ca’ Foscari or IUAV (the city’s university and architecture school, respectively). But they know that the odds are 99% that the person who will be given the job has been chosen long before the notice is posted on the institution’s website.
Therefore, many of them divert their hopes toward the Venice Biennale, the contemporary art exhibition whose first edition was held in 1895. I, for instance, have been working there as an exhibition attendant for more than 10 years. Unable to find a regular employment, I am stuck in a job that does not offer any career opportunity but keeps on looking like a lifebuoy I have to hang onto if I do not want to drown in unemployment or to end up serving pizza or selling fake local artifacts to sloppy tourists who cannot tell the difference between Venice and Florence.
Certainly, I am not the only one in such a situation at the Biennale. There are many who hold a bachelor’s degree or even a Phd who make ends meet by wasting their days tending artworks while dreaming of finding another occupation, one that bears a relation to their course of studies, or, if that is dreaming too big, any job that would not make them look laughable should they dare enter a bank to apply for a mortgage to buy a house. They are trapped in an intermediate existential state in which the time they spent on books to get their degree is long gone yet they are far from being fully adult.
They perfectly embody the circumstance of generations of Italians stuck in precariato (‘precarious work’), unable to work year round, to start a family, to buy or even just to rent a flat on their own (often they have to share a shabby apartment with other people in their same situation, thus relinquishing one of the collective achievements of the 19th Century: privacy). Theirs is the condition of the post-student: They are more easily described by how they spent their youth than by what they do at present. They did study a lot when young — that is for sure — but at present they do not have any occupation which can help to clearly define their role in society. They live in a state of constant uncertainty, aware that unlike their parents they will have to settle for much less than what they struggled for. All their real achievements belong to the past and are very often contained within the sphere of their non-profitable higher education. So, they deplete their creativity, their knowledge, a significant part of their existence at the Biennale trying to figure out how to break free from it, but they do not manage to come up with any good ideas other than to wait and hope for a twist of fate. Meanwhile they grow tired of their own expectations and lose the enthusiasm they had when they started working there.
I know that well because I am one of them, one of those who see time slip through their fingers like sand day after day, year after year while moments, as Emil Cioran writes in A Short History of Decay:
follow each other; nothing lends them the illusion of a content or the appearance of a meaning; they pass; their course is not ours; we contemplate that passage, prisoners of a stupid perception. The heart’s void confronting time’s: two mirrors, reflecting each other’s absence, one and the same image of nullity.
There is no easy way out of this situation. It would take decades to tilt the financial axis of the city away from mass tourism, to weave a social fabric whose workforce can be employed in a variety of fields that are not dependent upon foreigners. Unfortunately, for the time being it does not look likely that such a change is going to happen, so a lousy job at the Biennale is the best one can hope for.