So after defending his thesis this summer, he will be off.
“Anywhere, it could be,” he says. “If you’d told me three years ago I might apply for a job in Sweden, I’d have laughed. Or in Newcastle. I went there once, for a conference.”
Are they happy to leave? Three, four, maybe five years abroad, says Portillo: fine. Nice, even. Yet this feels more like exile.
“I don’t see there being a job for me in Spain in five years’ time,” he says. “Nor in 10. Maybe not ever. And that pisses me off. My dad’s not in great shape.”
This is not an adventure, Portillo says: “Sorry. It’s not like a gap year. If it was my choice, then OK. If I’d fallen in love, something like that. But I’m being forced to leave, to look for food. And I may never come back. That worries me.”
They have much to worry them, these young people. Now, true, it is summer: in Thessaloniki and Bologna and Malaga the days are long, the sun is shining, the beach beckons.
“We’re young, you know?” Melchiorre in Bologna says. “We must live for the day. We have friends. Cafes. It could be worse.”
Yet come September, and once a few years have passed, Vera Martinelli says, “you really don’t feel so good. I know. I’ve been there. I’m 33. September is the time of fresh starts, new beginnings. Except for me it won’t be.”
Martinelli lives with her husband in an apartment belonging to her grandad, a former professor. She has a degree in languages and literature, studied at the Sorbonne and in Oxford, did postgraduate work, trained as a teacher and worked for three years with chronically ill children. Her unemployment benefit ran out in 2011. The couple live on her husband’s (recently reduced) salary of 900 euros a month and occasional help — “bills, car insurance, that kind of thing” — from family. She wants to do “something useful, that’s all. For an NGO, ideally. But actually, at this stage, for anyone. I just want something to do every day.”
The worst, she says, is “when people ask, what are you? And I have no answer. Everything seems to have blurred. I’m not a teenager any more: I’m married. I grew up with feminism; I can’t say ‘I’m a wife.’ And I’m not a grown-up, because I don’t have a job. I don’t know what I am.”
What they all do know is that the world they live in has changed, completely. The kind of working lives their parents have enjoyed and are still enjoying, they understand, will not be open to these people: stable, full-time jobs, a pension.
“They could choose from lots of jobs,” Melchiorre says. “They could take time to decide. They knew they’d have work for 40 years. Now they know they’ll retire, in six or seven years’ time. I have no job, and no money, now. Maybe I’ll have none in 10 years. Maybe I’ll never be able to retire.”
For some, this looks quite exciting.
“Every generation has its challenges,” says a bullish Stefano Onofri, 21, embarking on a master’s in international management. “This is ours. This is the world we’re in. It’s what we’ve got now. Opportunities don’t die, they just change.”
His friend Alessandro Calzolari, 23, midway through a masters in theoretical physics and looking at a career in nanotechnology, sees clearly that “we will all have to be entrepreneurs, with ourselves. We will be constantly selling ourselves. It is quite exciting. Scary, but exciting.”